CAIRO: Amid vague and conflicting statements by the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Electoral Commission, Egyptian expats say they are adamant on voting in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The controversy dates back to last April, when the Cabinet of Ministers announced that Egyptians living overseas would be allowed to vote in presidential elections and public referendums at embassies and consulates as part of amendments to the political participation law.
Last month, an administrative court ruled that Egyptians living abroad, deprived of the vote under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, will have the right to cast their ballots in the upcoming polls.
The case was raised by the Hisham Mubarak Law Center which pushed for Egyptians living abroad to vote in the upcoming elections, whether presidential or legislative or on the referendum on the yet-to-be drafted constitution.
On his Facebook page, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf wrote, “Respecting the constitutional rights of all citizens is not open for discussion," promising that the government will be able to overcome all the legislative and executive obstacles hindering the participation of Egyptians abroad in the elections.
The Supreme Electoral Commission, headed by Councilor Abdel-Moez Ibrahim, also announced that it discussed with the Cabinet’s legislative committee Tuesday the mechanisms of execution of the court ruling.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Al-Akhbar newspaper, Interior Minister Mansour El-Essawy said that the process will be very complicated and “almost impossible.”
“It will need legislative amendments and it would require a long time to register the estimated 10 million Egyptians living abroad and to allow them to vote using their passports," he said.
Tarek Saadawi, board member of the Alliance of Egyptian Americans, said, "Why is it semi-impossible? Are they short of time? Shouldn’t governmental institutions have planed ahead in case the court ordered them to do it?"
Essawy said that there is no inventory of the whereabouts or the real number of Egyptians living abroad which makes it difficult to identify the constituencies that they follow adding that those who have the national ID card, which is a prerequisite for participation in the vote according to the law of political rights, are only 3,000.
He added that the court ruling is difficult to implement unless expats are allowed to vote using their passports, which would need further legislative amendments.
The government, Saadawi said, should have a clear plan on how to implement the court ruling and a clear timetable. "If the government faces any difficulties it should state them clearly and the expats are willing to provide many solutions," he said.
"Such reluctance by Essawy or other officials is not of much value," Mahmoud Omara, an Egyptian expat living in France said.
Omara was delegated by Sharaf to handle the file of Egyptian expats voting abroad in the Cabinet.
The Ministry of Interior, he said, is used to control whoever is ruling the country. "They felt that the carpet is being pulled from underneath them and they fear that they won’t be able to control the to-be-elected rulers," he added.
Omara said the most important thing is to implement the verdict and allow Egyptian expats to cast their votes even if the process is hindered by a few obstacles.
"We will learn how to overcome that next time," he said, stressing that Egypt is no less than Tunisia which allowed its expats to vote on the Constituent Assembly.
"Let’s overlook the fact that Egypt should not be a copycat of other countries’ experiences and let’s at least imitate them," he said.
Egyptian expats have been calling for their right to vote since before the 18-day uprising that toppled the former regime.
"Egyptian expats, and specifically the Alliance of Egyptian Americans, went to the court before the Jan. 25 Revolution to call for their voting rights and many of us have been vocal in the media to pressure the government. We also held workshops with government officials in Egypt to present our case," Saadawi said.
According to Omara, a rift between the expats and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was created when one of the major generals said that expatriates are a large voting bloc that "can be influenced and directed."
"It’s unfortunate for someone to say this. It’s a direct accusation and insult to all Egyptians and specifically to those living abroad," Saadawi said, pointing out that such statements show a lack of understanding and communication with Egyptians living abroad.
Expats say they want to vote to challenge such claims.
"[Voting] is important for three main reasons. First, it keeps them attached to their homeland. Second, they form a lobby that would be a tool of pressure on the governments of their country of residence. Third, they have respectful expertise as well as technical and financial resources," Omara said.
"Many of us, especially those living in the US and Europe, have practiced and valued very much voting rights whether in local, state, or national elections in our country of residence. Many polls in these countries have shown that immigrant Arabs, and as a result also Egyptians, have been active participants in all elections and that they valued their voting rights very much to the extent that now the Arab-American vote is becoming a swing vote in US politics," Saadawi stated.
Expats are using their expertise to offer basic and simple suggestions for the government to facilitate the voting process.
"We provided both logistic and technical solutions. There are many ways to implement them, from a simple manual way to advanced technological-based solutions. It’s known everywhere and it has been implemented in many other countries. We are not going to reinvent the wheel. It’s very basic and simple," Saadawi said.
Mohamed Gamal, general coordinator of the Coalition of Egyptians abroad and president of Egypt of Hope NGO, told the press that the Supreme Electoral Commission rejected an offer made by the coalition to develop a database for the numbers of Egyptians abroad, as well as assisting in the electronic voting process through providing computers and designing of ad hoc networks without charge.
Saadawi attributes that to “the lack of the political will.”
On the other hand, members of the SEC said it is not their specialization to accept or reject such offers.
Saadawi said that his coalition is "very much skeptical" about voting in the parliamentary elections.
"The lack of the political will dragged that issue for months and years, now they are faced with the court decision and the rush to implement it," he said.
Ahmed Ragheb, directing manager of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and lawyer on the case, said that activists and expats are awaiting an announcement for serious steps to be taken towards resolving the issue or else, he said, they will pursue legal action.
"We are keen on going to the polls and voting, but we still have no information on how it’ll happen or what kind of regulations are imposed,” Adel Bulos, Egyptian businessman living in Toronto, Canada, said.
Judicial supervision and registration
Meanwhile, Councilor Ibrahim affirmed that the SEC will begin during the coming few days to prepare data for Egyptians living abroad to list their names at Egyptian embassies, provided that they have a national ID card or valid passport.
Ibrahim said in a statement that he had submitted a proposal to the Cabinet’s legislative committee to alter the wording of Article 39, which stipulates that elections will be held under full judicial supervision.
Egyptians abroad, he announced, should be excluded from the process of judicial supervision for judicial shortage, so that their voting is supervised by members of the diplomatic corps abroad using their passports instead of the ID cards.
However, Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judicial and Legal Profession, said that a legislative amendment is unnecessary.
"It is known that a consul has judicial capacity in some circumstances, and supervising elections abroad can easily be considered one of them," he said.
For the cities that don’t have an embassy, Amin said, a delegation from the consulate can establish an electoral committee similar to those in Egypt.
Bulos said he is willing to go all the way to Ottawa to vote at the embassy if necessary. "Although we heard that they might facilitate it to include the major metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver," he told DNE.
Amin also said that there is no legal need for expats to be registered in a database. "They will only need a valid passport," he said.
Omara, Saadawi, Ragheb and Amin, all call upon the interim government and the SEC to abandon the traditional way of thinking and to make use of the methods used to allow expats to cast their votes in the first parliamentary elections to be held post-Mubarak.