Egyptian Americans holding Egyptian citizenship started voting at Egypt’s diplomatic missions around the United States this week to help choose a president for their ancestral homeland 10,000 kilometers away. The polling in the U.S. is part of a run-off vote that will culminate in Egypt proper June 16-17.
The presidential election – the first after strongman Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in a popular uprising early last year and widely considered the country’s first free one – pits Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi against former air force pilot and short-term Mubarak era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. Candidates favored by many Egyptians who rose up for change nearly 18 months ago did not make it into the second round.
No good choices
For many voters, both in the U.S and Egypt, the choice they now face is one that forces them to identify, as they put it, the lesser of two evils - a choice between recreating the old regime they see represented by Shafiq, and building an Islamist state with limited civil liberties, as many expect Egypt would look like under Morsi.
“We are between the devil and the deep blue sea; neither choice is a good choice at the moment. However, one has to make a choice, non-voting is not an option,” said Millad Bessada who drove two hours from his home in the state of Maryland to the polling station at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Bessada added that he decided to vote for the “devil he knows” rather than selecting the one he doesn’t. His choice, Shafiq, is seen by many as the “quick fix” candidate capable of restoring law and order in country that has been in turmoil, both political and economic, since the uprising began.
Another voter, Maha Atoot, visibly disappointed over her preferred candidate not having made it into the runoff, strongly hinted that she, too, cast her vote for Shafiq.
“I voted for the one who I believe will be able to bring stability and already has had experience in ruling,” she said.
Others, however, voiced unease about Shafiq’s connections to the previous regime and his military background, associated by many in Egypt with Mubarak era repressions.
Voter Tarek Alhabashy, disillusioned over his favorite not making it into the second round, indicated that, rather than not voting at all, he cast his ballot against the old regime.
“I cannot sit at home and complain; I came to vote for one of the two that may put to an end to the military ruling of Egypt.”
Aida Mady joined a growing number of Egyptian expat voters who decided to either boycott the runoff election or void their votes in protest.
“Because I felt discouraged to [choose] between the least favored candidates to me, I voted for both and wrote a note on the ballot [saying] the revolution is still on.”
First 100 days – what voters expect
Regardless of who might emerge the winner, Egyptian Americans have largely made up their minds about what they would expect from the new president of Egypt in his first 100 days in office.
For Milad Bessada security is the top priority. “He has to give people confidence that the revolution’s objectives will be maintained; once they feel their sacrifices were not for nothing, then you will get security.”
Bessada added that the new president should establish a presidential council with vice presidents, including liberals and revolutionary activists, who might help him further the objectives of last year’s uprising.
Egyptian American businessman Ali Gamay, too, insisted that security is the number one priority. “Without stability and security, Egypt would not be able to revive its economy or bring back tourists,” said he.
Gamay added that social justice should be another high priority, especially addressing the grievances of the poor.
For Maha Atoot security is a top priority, too, but she is also concerned about the future make-up of the Egyptian state. “The new president has to make sure Egypt will have a civil constitution, not a religious code; he also needs to reassure young revolutionaries that he will achieve the goals of the revolution,” said she.
High expat vote turnout
Despite the choices, participation in the expat vote seemed strong. According to Sameh Shukry, Egypt’s ambassador in Washington, 27,300 Egyptians registered to vote at the five polling stations set up in the U.S.
“The turnout was higher in the first day of voting in the runoff compared to the first day in the first round of the presidential elections.”
Shukry said that voters were more familiar in the second round with the ground rules, whether they voted by mail or in person.
Representatives of the two presidential candidates have been allowed to monitor the expat vote. Shukry said vote counting will start immediately after polling stations close at 8 pm June 9 and that results will be announced that same night.
Last year, an Egyptian court gave Egyptian expatriates in more than 140 countries around the world the right to vote for the first time.
But both in the U.S. and Egypt questions remain about who will succeed Hosni Mubarak, just sentenced by an Egyptian court to life in prison for his role in the deaths of hundreds of protesters killed last year during the government's crackdown against the uprising. Some also brace for possible last-minute surprises which may include a postponement of the vote scheduled for mid-June. The country’s Constitutional Court may still disqualify Shafiq on the grounds of a law, passed by Egypt’s new parliament, which would bar ex-Mubarak officials from running for office.