Activating Egyptian Diaspora’s Role in Enhancing Egypt’s Democratization and Civil Peace

Framework for a Diaspora Platform

August 2020


This brief paper summarizes the outputs of a study on Egyptian diaspora’s potential influence on Egypt’s political developments, and tries to draw a pathway towards a diaspora platform that would help diaspora activists find entry points for re-opening Egypt’s public sphere. In doing so, this framework paper provides a brief assessment of past diaspora mobilization and engagement with Egypt’s politics, including past intra-diaspora dialogues and why they lacked the necessary effectiveness to make a true impact. Egyptian Diaspora, in this context, refers specifically to Egyptians living abroad, whether temporarily or permanently, who have been or continue to be mobilized and actively engaged in transnational politics related to social and political change in Egypt.

The research work done in preparation for this framework paper built on the rich literature of diaspora studies; comparative experiences of other diaspora communities; 15 interviews with members of the politically-active Egyptian Diaspora across the key four destinations of Turkey, Qatar, Europe and North America; and further consultations with other diaspora activists; as well as multiple thematic webinars with around 40 members of the professional Egyptian Diaspora, both academics and activists, on topics ranging from Egypt’s response to the Covid-19, and the Egyptian Media scene in the time of pandemic, to Egypt’s public sphere situation, and assessment of the Egyptian political opposition both inside Egypt and in diaspora.

This framework paper tries to identify the constitutive elements of the potential diaspora platform that can hopefully play several roles in identifying entry points for diaspora activists to engage in the reopening of the public sphere in Egypt over the medium term of 3 to 5 years. Although mobilizing the scattered, non-organized, and polarized sub-groups of the Egyptian diaspora around homeland politics is a challenging task, it is our belief that identifying the right ‘transnational entrepreneurs’, using the language of social movement theory, is the first step in that endeavor. Providing them with an acceptable and trusted dialogue platform would maximize their influence and coordinate their efforts. 

Transnational entrepreneurs in this context means those who can mobilize different sub-groups of a diaspora around homeland political and social issues; they are the spearhead of diasporas’ struggle for recognition and influence on politics of their home countries; and they form coalitions, mobilize for rallies, organize events, community and backroom meetings serving that end.

Why does Diaspora matter?

The complete shutdown of the public sphere in Egypt nowadays invites interested parties to look outside the country where tens of thousands of Egyptians found themselves in voluntary or forceful exile. The large numbers that fled the country since 2011 over intersecting waves included a diversity of intellectuals, writers, artists, scholars, academics, human rights defenders, political activists and civil society professionals, and others. Some of these migrants and exiles are high-calibers in their respective fields and have extended affiliations with universities, research tanks, INGO and international media. Interested and engaged members of the Egyptian diaspora can contribute to mitigating the damaging effects of confiscating the Egyptian public sphere on universities and academic research; the civil society; and media…etc. Should their efforts be coordinated, they might reverse the effects of the brain drain that resulted from both the current politically-motivated migration wave as well as the shut-down of the public sphere.

Utilizing these cadres and their networks in the endeavor to re-open the public sphere inside the country through various initiatives in different fields might offer an approach towards enhancing Egypt’s democracy and civil peace, especially in light of the closure of the public sphere inside the Egypt. Additionally, the literature of diaspora studies reveals the various roles that other diasporas have played in their countries’ democratization processes and development efforts. Reflecting on these experiences can result in guidelines for activating the role of Egyptian diaspora in reopening the foreclosed public sphere in Egypt, through the dialogue platform that we propose in this context.

Challenges and opportunities of the Egyptian Diaspora

Lack of mobilization of Egyptian diaspora, or absence thereof, can be ascribed to a number of impediments that thwart all efforts of broad mobilization around homeland political and social issues, which is the core of transnational activism of any diaspora community in homeland affairs. Diaspora activism, albeit on the rise, is crippled by: (1) scatteredness of efforts; (2) lack of coordination, with the exception of human rights field; (3) ideological and political polarizations; (4) weakness of organizational structures; (5) lack of funds; (6) security concerns; and (7) psychological defeats of activists. 

Due to these challenges and impediments, much of the impact generated by members of the Egyptian diaspora is usually the result of work carried out by individuals, stand-alone organizations, and smaller-scale initiatives. Diaspora human rights (HR) activism is an exception though, where a considerable number of diaspora HR organizations and defenders coordinate together to fill the gaps and maximize the impact.

One can say that part of explaining the ineffectiveness of the political mobilization, led by diaspora opposition over the past 7 years, is the high ceiling it aims at, that is, ‘toppling down the military regime’. May be after seven years from July 2013, this strategic objective needs to be revised! 

Why past diaspora dialogues ended in vain?

Polarizations and lack of trust among sub-groups of the Egyptian diaspora are key reasons for the failure of past dialogue initiatives among different political currents of the Egyptian opposition abroad. Over the past 7 years since mid-2013, several layers of non-coordinated, and sometimes untruthful, initiatives added fuel to the fire of that polarization.

Additionally, on the individual level, security concerns about global surveillance practices that include intimidation and coercion by both the Egyptian regime and its allies abroad further deter most activists from joining most dialogue initiatives. When you add to this the psychological defeats and the survivor’s guilt, that hunts most political migrants and refugees, then you understand the hesitation of many diaspora activists to take any active role in the multiple initiatives that appear every now and then. 

From a project management perspective, the lack of sustainable neutral funds for dialogue and coordination initiatives is also a key stumbling block to their development and thriving. Dialogue and coordination require considerable money-consuming preparations, including research, agenda development, consultations, venues, topics, participants…etc. In fact, due to the absence of neutral financial coverage, a few promising coordination and dialogue initiatives failed to see the light over the past 7 years.

In addition, a common response with regards to the failure of past dialogue initiatives was the ‘rashness of participants to publicize the dialogue’ which jeopardizes the entire process, and the high expectations in the possibility of joint work that ultimately crash on the hard rock of reality. In fact, the reluctance of most past dialogue initiatives to engage with the key dilemmas of the past, including unhealthy polarization and unethical political competition…etc., was also identified as part of the reasons for the short interruption of dialogues among different components of the Egyptian diaspora.

This large stock of challenges that hinders broad social and political mobilization of the Egyptian diaspora doesn’t mean there is no room for enhancement. First, interviewees of the study and attendees of the webinars showed extensive interest in and desire for dialogue and coordination. Second, the short existence of politically-motivated diaspora resulted in an abundance of initiatives in various fields, including academic and research production, media, civil society and human rights. Should some sort of coordination tie these scattered efforts together, the impact would undoubtedly be much bigger.

Thirdly, changes that happened to the Egyptian diaspora since 2013 promises more hope in the possibility of broader mobilization, or at least coordination and joint initiatives. Interviews and consultations of this study reveals greater awareness of the devastating effect of polarization, and a larger desire to end it. The assessment also spotted the modest expectations of the politically-active diaspora figures who currently believe in the need to work according to a shared vision that aims, at the long-run, at affecting a change. These modest expectations that believe in the long mission ahead help rationalize any dialogue initiative. 

Additionally, careful mapping of diaspora figures reveals the existence of independent ‘transnational entrepreneurs’, who are well established and have connections and access to all political powers. Identifying these figures might serve as the base for the proposed diaspora platform. Last but not least, we must, however, realize that broad mobilization of different components in the Egyptian diaspora is an extended job that takes several years to reach a breakthrough, and that demands practical, applicable recommendations.

The Route Towards a Diaspora Platform

Acknowledging the divisiveness of different sub-groups of the Egyptian diaspora is the first step towards developing a platform that can undertake the task of political mobilization of these sub-groups around homeland political issues with the aim of empowering diaspora role in re-opening the public sphere in Egypt. This platform can provide the venue for the Egyptian transnational entrepreneurs to instigate discursive and framing processes that will eventually build the ‘transnational imagined community’ upon which all diaspora activism is based.

In an analogy to activists/entrepreneurs of social movements, transnational entrepreneurs are supposed to utilize the transnational opportunity structures, and seek to form some sort of collective identity for the diaspora community. These two variables can be among the agenda components for the intended diaspora platform, that is, it can work on analyzing transnational opportunity structures, that is opportunities and challenges stemming from the homeland and the key host countries. For example, are the Egyptian diaspora ready for a new Democratic administration in the US under Biden, should that happen in the next American presidential elections in November? 

Questions of mobilizing resources, galvanizing existing networks of migrants and refugees are also among the questions that such platform would address. How to organize efforts and resources in response to the shifting transnational opportunity structures can only be answered by regular consultations among all concerned parties in different fields, also another role the platform can play.

As for the agenda of the intended Diaspora platform, it can include items as diverse as coordinating human rights activism; engagement with international media; academic publishing about Egypt’s socio-economic and political dilemmas; establishing Egyptian thinktanks in western capitals to engage with decision makers and international media; discussing the nature of civil-military relations in Egypt and the possibility of a safe-exit deal for the military leadership; and contemplating the transnational opportunity structure and what opportunities it can offer to the transnational activism of Egyptian diaspora, for example the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council…etc.

In fact, a largely influential, yet underutilized, category of Egyptian activists abroad is the independents, those who don’t identify with any political current, yet have established relations with most. Those are the perfect material for transnational entrepreneurs, that is they can mobilize different sub-groups of the Egyptian diaspora from different political currents on carefully-chosen issues that will ultimately re-extend bridges of trust among various sub-groups of the Egyptian diaspora. Therefore, identifying accepted and non-polarizing independents among the activism circles in diaspora would be an important step in the formation of such platform.

To strengthen the diaspora platform, it should aim to include transnational activists with distinctive profiles, established professional records, as well as affiliations and relations with universities, thinktanks, foreign governments, regional and/or international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental. This way it can play a coordinating role among various circles of the Egyptian diaspora in order to rationalize diaspora activism via the logic of collective impact, that is based on the conviction that large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination that overcomes the tendency of the social sector to remain limited to the isolated intervention of individual organizations.

A very vital component for the success of the platform is to fulfil the credibility/neutrality check, so as to be able to host dialogue among rival components of the Egyptian diaspora. Therefore, looking for funds from neutral third-parties would be an important step in the establishment of such platform, a western non-governmental source of fund for example?!

To raise the ownership of the platform participants of the entire process, the agenda should be built in consultation with them. Engaging potential participants in all phases, or a steering committee from them, would increase their sense of ownership and consequently their commitment to the platform initiatives.

Rationalizing the expectations of the platform is also an important requisite for its sustainability. It should be clear by now that this is a medium- to long-term intervention over at least three to five years. Having this understanding among the platform participants would help sustain the process for a long enough time to fulfil some of its suggested roles.

Last but not least in order for any platform for dialogue among Egyptian diaspora to succeed in coordinating efforts of diaspora to re-open the confiscated public sphere in Egypt, it should start with accepted personalities who are on good terms with all diaspora opposition groups. In time, and with repeated meetings and coordination on many fronts, bridges of trust can reappear among the competing sub-groups of Egyptian diaspora, and this can definitely yield a positive impact on Egyptian political developments within the homeland.

To sum up, potential roles of a diaspora platform could include:

  1. Operationalizing the research and knowledge production to include it in guiding the dialogues.
  2. Renovating dialogue among diaspora key powers, with all that it takes starting from renewing the agenda, enlarging participants circles, and transforming the dialogue outputs into multiple products (policy papers, statements, documents, reports…etc).
  3. Hosting various initiatives and providing coordinating role amongst them to create the collective impact desired in each sector. 
  4. Learning, exchanging experiences and capacity building for diaspora activists.

The above represents suggested roles for such diaspora platform; there are other roles that can be added in the process of consultations with larger stakeholders. This paper is an invitation to think about possible entry points for reaching such platform, what counts as agenda item in such platform? what kind of participants should it target? And what roles can it play in fulfilling the task of empowering diaspora activist in reopening public sphere in Egypt.


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