Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Protestors in London rally against the Mubarak regime. (Photo: Wheelzwheeller/Flickr)
As much as I would have liked to, I haven’t been able to go back to Egypt since the revolution, but I have been following developments there like mad, right from the beginning. I have always been very attached to my country and emotionally involved with whatever is going on there. Yet it is true that I became more active after I left. Strangely enough it was on moving to London in 2006, and interacting with more politically active Egyptians here, that I really became part of an opposition movement.
While in Egypt, there were multiple reasons for one not to get involved in politics. One was sheer lack of awareness. You grow up thinking that this is the norm and although you are educated and all, the surrounding environment and culture does not promote or encourage change or challenging the status quo. There is no denial that another factor was fear. Fear of getting too involved; fear of what could happen to you if your name appears on the black list of the police and national security. But being outside the country allowed me first to experience a different political culture; to human rights; to real freedom of speech; and to proper democracy in action. I also felt more inclined to speak out openly, as I was in a safer environment and with like-minded people who were voicing their protest against what was happening in Egypt.
Before the revolution, I was part of the National Association for Change, a campaigning group led by Dr Mohamed ElBaradei. Getting involved with this group in itself changed my views and gave me hope for the future. Before then, it seemed to me like there were only two choices for Egypt: Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, neither of which I was in favour of. With ElBaradei appearing on the scene, I found out that there is a real alternative, and that indeed it is possible to take a different direction based on a real civil democratic society.
And with the revolution, things changed even more. Most importantly, the revolution managed to mobilise a lot of previously passive Egyptians and more and more people have become involved in politics. In a way, it has given back Egyptians their lost confidence. Now, we all tell stories of how this has affected us personally. One friend tells of how he went to New York while the revolution was ongoing and when he presented his passport on arrival, the passport control guy saluted him and people clapped. This is one of many examples that helped restore our sense of national identity and made us Egyptians hold our heads high again.
People are definitely talking about going back – in fact some have already done so. There is an overwhelming sense of wanting to be part of this change and contribute to building up the country again. On a very small scale, I myself know six people who have already gone back or are in the process of doing so. These are highly-skilled people – academics, engineers, doctors - all can help out with both expertise and money.
There are between six and eight million Egyptians abroad. This is a significant number and the remittances they send back are one of the major sources of the country’s income. Also, the average Egyptian in, for instance, the United Kingdom, compared to many back home, is wealthier and better-educated. Their contribution could be substantial - not only financially, but more importantly in terms of human capital, expertise, and knowledge exchange. The beauty of it all is that they are extremely motivated and keen to help out.
We, Egyptians abroad, want to vote in the coming elections. It is true that if we are physically in the country, we can vote. However, it is not possible for millions of Egyptians living abroad to go back at the time of the elections, so on our part we are talking to the embassy here to provide us with the facilities to cast our votes in absentia.
At the same time, there are lots of things we can do while outside the country. One of the major roles we have is in lobbying the West. We want to build bridges between the UK and Egypt, and keep the pressure on both governments here and in Egypt to listen to the people and support democracy in the Middle East. There is not yet a formal diaspora Egyptian group, but we are active. Our work includes inviting speakers from Egypt to give public talks, and engage in debates and discussions. This work increases awareness amongst the general public, politicians, and the Egyptian community here, as well as helps maintain and strengthen the dialogue with Egypt to ensure we support the progress of the country and lend a hand in any way we can.
It’s important and mutually beneficial to build links between Egypt and the diaspora. We believe we too are part of the country’s future.
Dina Soliman is an Egyptian-born marketing manager based in the UK.
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