Tue, Jun 26, 2012
By Jihii Jolly
Hany Youssef went with two friends to the Egyptian Consulate in New York City on June 10 to cast his ballot in the first democratic presidential election in Egypt’s history. He was supposed to choose between the two candidates who had made it to the runoff election round—Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood or Ahmed Shafik, former prime minister of the Mubarak regime, which had been toppled by protesters just a year earlier.
Youssef checked off both Morsi and Shafik’s names. He wrote no comment and submitted the ballot. By voting for both candidates, he was deliberately protesting, because he knew his ballot would not be counted. Some of his friends chose not to vote at all.
So when Morsi was officially declared the victor on June 24, following a controversial and delayed process of tallying votes, Youssef experienced mixed feelings. “Part of it is relief that the Mubarak regime is not coming back to power,” he said, “but there is also concern because the Muslim Brotherhood is full of turning tables around and an extensive history of lies.” Turning a bit more hopeful, he added, “If they manage to keep their promise of a real diverse government and newly elected parliament, there are high chances of going in the right direction.”
As Youssef’s reaction indicates, many voters in the large, Egyptian-immigrant community in the Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights sections of of Brooklyn, have ambiguous feelings about the election and its aftermath. Many Coptic Christians, whose sect has been persecuted by Egyptian Muslims for centuries, say they fear living in a nation with an Islamist president. Some in Brooklyn say that they do not trust the results or election process.
“We’re traumatized,” says Dalia Wassef, a 44-year-old partner in a health firm who, like Youssef, attends the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. George in Dyker Heights. “If this was an election that was administered by a true democratic staff, I would have really trusted the results. But I am very skeptical. The actions happening around the decision makes me suspicious that they are not truthful.”
Wassef and Youssef are referring to a week of doubt over election results fueled by a premature public count that claimed Morsi’s victory prior to results being announced, which gave him 51.7 percent of the vote. In addition to mixed reports on the possible death of imprisoned former president, Hosni Mubarak, the dissolution of the newly elected parliament with majority seats taken by the Muslim Brotherhood, and mass protests in Tahrir Square filled Egypt with chaos.
“It’s too messy,” Wassef added. “This is one of the most critical and dangerous situation in the history of modern Egypt.We don’t know what Egypt is going to look like. It’s pretty scary.”
Many Muslim-Americans rejoiced at Morsi’s victory. For some, who may not have fully support Morsi, his victory still signifies the end of the old Mubarak regime, which they hated. For others, having an Islamist win the presidential seat from a regime that had long persecuted Muslims, while Mubarak is imprisoned, is a monumental and unimaginable victory.
Still, both Muslim and Christian immigrants wonder how the government will be formed, and whether the Muslim Brotherhood will take over parliament or not.
Youssef addressed this point, saying, “If they appeal the dissolving of the parliament and the same parliament comes back with a total Muslim Brotherhood government, we are basically screwed.”
He fears an Islamic state that would control social and personal freedoms. “We have a few examples of a complete Islamic reign,” he explains. “Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The main thing is personal freedoms. What you choose to wear is controlled by the government. The freedom of media, of art, and creativity is also controlled. The freedom of tourism is controlled, of literature.”
Youssef has been living in Brooklyn for 12 years, like many another Egyptian expatriates who have immigrated to Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Astoria section of Queens. “Whoever is living abroad is an exact representation for people in Egypt,” said Youssef. “We have the same fears.”
Wassef was born and raised in Egypt until the age of 17, and though now living in Brooklyn, said that Egypt has a special place in her heart. “We are very patriotic people and attached to our roots,” she said. “I’ve seen Egypt suffer. We are here because of corruption, because we couldn’t have survived there. Not because we want to have fun here. That’s why my passion is there, for Egypt to be a better place.”
This was the first election in which Egypt’s some 10 million expatriates could vote. In total, about 48 percent of those registered voted. Dr. Khaled Lamada, president of the Society of Egyptian-Americans for Development, which works on development and relief projects in the United States and Egypt, said he believes the number was low due a very limited registration period. A number of Egyptian-Americans did not vote simply because they were not registered. “Everything was in a rush,” explained Lamada, who came to New York 17 years ago and is a physical therapist by profession.
In the U.S., Shafiq won a majority of votes in the runoff—67 percent of 13,440 votes cast at the Egyptian consulate and four embassies. Lamada ascribes this to the fact that in New York and New Jersey, there are more Christians Egyptians, who tended to vote for Shafik, than Muslims, who largely voted for Morsi.
On the East Coast, of about 5,000 voters registered for the runoff election, about 3,000 are Coptic Christians, and 2,000 are Muslim. “So that 3,000 went to Shafik,” said Lamada.
The disenchantment of Egyptian expatriates began with the first round of voting, which produced two candidates favored only by a minority of voters. In that round, Morsi finished first among 12 total candidates with 24.9 percent of the votes, and Shafik came in second with 25.5 percent.
“Shafik would be an exact replica of Mubarak’s regime, which we all revolted against,” said Youssef, explaining his decision to cast a worthless ballot in the second round. “So we could go back to where we were or be a Muslim country. It’s like choosing between taking poison or the electric chair. It shouldn’t be a choice.”
Dyker Heights, bordering Bay Ridge, is home to the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. George, which is a community hub for many Egyptian Christians in the New York area. Though some Copts, like Wassef and Youssef, boycotted or cast protest votes in the elections, other Copts, among them church elders, voted for Shafik because they fear the Muslim Brrotherhood.
Father Mina Yanni, one of three priests at St. George, has been in the United States since 1972. He explained that while Copts have faced persecution by Muslims in Egypt for centuries, the violence has escalated in recent years. In late 2010, the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was bombed. Just last year, a 100-year-old Coptic church in the province of Aswan was burned to the ground by Muslims, and the homes of Copts in the village of Soul were attacked by Muslims, who forcibly evacuated them.
In a televised victory speech, Morsi, Egypt’s new president, emphasized that “national unity is the only way to get Egypt out of this difficult crisis.”
“We as Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, are preachers of civilization and building; so we were, and so we will remain, God willing,” he stated.
His claims have been met with skepticism.
“What’s strange is that Morsi got so many more friends from the revolutionary side that he didn’t get before,” said Youssef. “He got Abdel Fotouh. He got a lot of the politicians who were contradicting the Muslim Brotherhood. He is supporting and going to have a presidential cabinet with Copts, women and youth. If Morsi really won a majority of votes, why would he change his mind now to have all these affiliations? What happened?”
Though also distrustful of the results and the Brotherhood, Wassef prefers they take over for a year. She said she believes that Shafik would have been a defeat to the revolution.
“The young Ikhwan members are much better than the leading ones,” she added, using the Arabic name for the Muslim Brotherhood. “Hopefully the younger generation of Egyptians will really change the pace of Egypt.”
At stake now for Egyptian-Americans is the possibility of having parliamentary representation. Last week, Egypt’s parliament was dissolved by the High Court. It had been filled with Mubarak-era appointees and many voters had been unhappy with their choices at the time.
At the same time, a registration committee from Egypt came to New York to issue ID’s for people to vote.
“We still have elections coming up,” said Lamada. “Maybe parliament. Maybe the president will have another round in about one year. It won’t stay like this.”