The Egyptian Diaspora and El-Sisi’s Use of “Soft Power”

by June 2022
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Photo credit: REUTERS

Since the rise of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power, the Egyptian government has invested in strengthening its ties with the Egyptian diaspora around the world, as an important pillar of Egypt’s “soft power” strategy. It thus has high potential to contribute significantly to Egypt’s regional and international status. The Ministry of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs (MIEE), led by Nabila Makram, is a leading player in promoting educational programs and other activities for the Egyptian diaspora.

The Egyptian diaspora, however, is far from monolithic and indeed deeply divided in its attitude toward the present Egyptian government. Alongside el-Sisi’s supporters in the diaspora are those who question the legitimacy of his rule, focusing on the issue of human rights and highlighting Egypt’s social and economic ills. In particular, there are diaspora supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who decry its brutal suppression (specifically, the massacre at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013), and Christian Copts who were driven into exile by confessional tensions.

The Egyptian diaspora came to be perceived as an influential actor in Egypt’s national economy, and therefore the government began to monitor the flow of emigrants.

The Egyptian Diaspora

The Egyptian diaspora is one of the largest Arabic-speaking diasporas in the world. The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics estimates that the number of Egyptians living abroad is about 9 million people. However, Nabila Makram, the minister of MIEE, believes that the number is much higher at 14 million. A significant percentage of Egypt’s diaspora lives in the Gulf states, primarily in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, while some reside in Western countries, mainly the US, Canada, Italy, Australia, and Greece.

During the consecutive reigns of Gamal Abd al-Nasser and Anwar Sadat, the influx of Egyptian migrant workers abroad was minimal, and there was no regulation or coherent policy on the issue of Egyptian emigrants. There had been some increase in the number of Egyptian emigrants since 1973 due to Sadat’s infitah, the policy of economic openness policy (“opening of the door”); but it was only during Hosni Mubarak’s reign that the Egyptian regime’s attitude toward its diaspora changed. The Egyptian diaspora came to be perceived as an influential actor in Egypt’s national economy, and therefore the government began to formulate a legal framework that could monitor the flow of emigrants. In 1981 the MIEE was established with the aim of addressing the issue of emigrants; this ministry, however, did not maintain its independence continuously and was often attached to other ministries. Only with the rise of el-Sisi to power did the ministry gain independence following the Egyptian regime’s changing attitude toward the utility and importance of the Egyptian diaspora.

El-Sisi’s Vision of the Egyptian Diaspora

This new sense of importance that the Egyptian regime gives to ties with the Egyptian diaspora is enshrined in Article 88 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution. It states that, “the state shall protect the interests of Egyptians living abroad, protect them, guarantee their rights and freedoms, enable them to perform their public duties towards the state and society, and engage them in the nation’s development.”

In September 2015, President el-Sisi ordered the resumption of the MIEE’s activity as an independent ministry in charge of cultivating relations with the Egyptian diaspora. Its minister, Nabila Makram, noted that the issue of the diaspora had not received proper attention for 20 years as manifested by its being subordinate to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and by its limited budget. In April 2017, during a meeting with Egyptian immigrants in the US, el-Sisi emphasized that the diaspora was playing an important role in improving Egypt’s image, presenting a credible picture of changes in Egypt, and actively participating in the country’s development. In 2019, Makram offered a similar point of view, stating that, “We understand that Egyptians living abroad are [the soft power] [of Egypt], so we focus our efforts on uniting them, abandoning the controversies, examining how they can contribute to the interest of the Egyptian state and promote its interest over any other interest.”

El-Sisi emphasized that the diaspora was playing an important role in improving Egypt’s image.
Supporters of el-Sisi gather outside the White House prior to his arrival. Photo credit: REUTERS

With the reestablishment of the MIEE, Egypt has vigorously approached the formulation of a strategic plan for implementing Article 88 and integrating the Egyptian diaspora in “Egypt Vision 2030,” a long-term strategic plan launched in February 2016 to achieve the principles and goals of sustainable development in all fields. The program is built on three gradual stages of four years each (2018–2022, 2022–2026, and 2026–2030), comprised of several goals, including establishing an umbrella organization of all the associations of the Egyptian diaspora; creating an organization of Egyptian professionals in the diaspora to assist in Egypt’s development; drafting a law that will regulate the relationship between the diaspora and the Egyptian state; establishing a database that will centralize information about the diaspora, and more.

To achieve these goals, the MIEE formulated a number of educational programs for second- and third-generation Egyptians in the diaspora “to tie them to their homeland and acquaint them with Egyptian history, civilization and culture [….] and to acquaint them with the challenges that Egypt has been facing in recent years […], to dispel rumors and correct any misunderstandings,” as Makram noted. Alongside this, MIEE representatives hold meetings with Egyptian immigrants who have an impact on Egyptian public opinion in the diaspora and specifically with moderate Egyptian clerics. At the end of January 2021, Makram held a meeting with Sheikh Alaa al-Zukm, imam of the Egyptian Association in Melbourne. Australia, and a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, to explore ways to cooperate and strengthen ties with second and third generation Egyptians living in Australia.

The rise to power of el-Sisi in a military coup in 2013 led tens of thousands of Egyptians, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, to leave the country.

At the end of 2021, the ministry published a summary report on the scope of its activities with the Egyptian diaspora for 2021:

  1. The “Decent Life” initiative. The program was launched under the direction of el-Sisi in 2019 with the aim of developing impoverished villages in Egypt’s reef (countryside) by establishing infrastructure and housing units, creating new jobs, and more. This project was widely supported, due to the information provided by the MIEE to the Egyptian diaspora about the importance of being involved in this project. In October 2021, the Egyptian diaspora in the US donated about $350,000, and in November 2021, Egyptians in Canada donated about $100,000 to the venture.
  2. “I Speak Arabic,” an educational program designed to preserve Arab identity and Egyptian culture among the Egyptian younger generation in the diaspora. To date, a dedicated app on the subject has been installed on 20,000 mobile phones.
  3. Incorporating Egyptians living in the diaspora into developing the Egyptian economy, inter alia, by investing in the Egyptian stock exchange.
  4. Formulation of a treaty that will guarantee the rights of Egyptians working abroad starting in January 2022.
  5. Egypt’s “Voice in Africa” initiative seeks to restore Egypt’s status in Africa and Asia. It aims to strengthen ties with the Egyptian diaspora in Africa to benefit from Egypt’s “soft power” in the African continent. The official Egyptian media aims to portray an image of worldwide support by Egyptian immigrant communities for el-Sisi’s regime. For example, the leader of the Egyptian diaspora in Hungary, Hani Badawi, stated in an interview from October 2021 that President el-Sisi was gaining popularity among Egyptian communities, who were fascinated by the series of national projects launched by el-Sisi on behalf of Egypt. The Egyptian media also covers protests and demonstrations of solidarity of the Egyptian diaspora with political issues and national interests of the Egyptian regime, such as the Great Renaissance Dam crisis with Ethiopia. Egyptian immigrants in Italy have demanded that the Italian government exert diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia on the issue, while Egyptian immigrants in the US, Canada, and Australia signed an electronic petition sent to the governments of the countries stressing that Egypt has a historic right to the Nile. The MIEE encourages this trend and emphasizes that this support expresses the loyalty of the Egyptians abroad for the Egyptian homeland even though they have lived abroad for several years. However, the Egyptian diaspora is not monolithic: It includes secular Egyptians and Islamists who consider el-Sisi’s regime illegitimate and even actively work to undermine its stability.

The Egyptian Dissident Diaspora

The rise to power of el-Sisi in a military coup in 2013 led tens of thousands of Egyptians, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, to leave the country for Turkey and Qatar, as well as for Western countries, such as Germany and the US. Some lead a strong line against el-Sisi’s regime, characterized by campaigns calling for the release of political prisoners and ending the state of emergency (on this issue, el-Sisi has already conceded), the protection of human rights, and the conduct of democratic elections in Egypt. However, the Egyptian dissident diaspora has not been able to unite under one umbrella and instead operates as separate cells or organizations; hence, its weakness.

El-Sisi’s regime seems to successfully build ties with the Egyptian diaspora in an effort to increase growth in the GDP.

The Muslim Brotherhood stands out as the main opposition to el-Sisi’s regime, with its activity today being located in Turkey, despite the process of rapprochement between it and Egypt over the past year and a half. Of the 30,000 Egyptians living in Turkey, about 10,000 are currently active members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thanks to Turkish funding, many of them have joined research institutes on security issues related to the Middle East. Some have published “studies” on social and economic ills in Egypt to undermine the popular support base for the Egyptian regime.

The Egyptian dissident diaspora, in collaboration with some human rights and left-wing organizations, exerts pressure on Western governments to impose sanctions on Egypt, alleging that el-Sisi is unwilling to take sufficient measures to improve human rights and has even tried to silence Egyptian opposition members in the diaspora. In January 2022, Egyptian exiles and left-wing activists launched a campaign calling for harsh sanctions on Egypt, following the announcement by the US Department of Justice of the arrest of a foreign agent who had worked for Egypt on US soil since 2018 to gather intelligence on Egyptian dissident members. The Democracy for the Arabs of the World Now (DAWN) human-rights organization, founded in Washington in 2018 at the initiative of Muslim Brotherhood journalist Jamal Khashoggi, stated in January 2022 that, “What a slap in the face of the American people for General Sisi to be taking handouts from the U.S. government while it secretly spies on people in our country . . . What more will it take for our government to act responsibly and end its support to brutal, cheating dictators who stab our own government in the back and undermine the security of our people?”


El-Sisi’s regime seems to successfully build ties with the Egyptian diaspora in an effort to increase growth in the GDP, to create knowledge networks that can contribute their rich professional experience to the development of Egypt, and to form an Egyptian lobby abroad that can promote the national interests of Egypt and the image of the regime, and engage with public opinion and decision makers. It is also meant as a powerful counterweight to the Egyptian dissidents in the diaspora, especially given their cooperation with human rights organizations and left-wing organizations in Europe.

To deal with this challenge, the MIEE is organizing delegations of young people from the Egyptian diaspora to visit Egypt and meet with military personnel, academia, and other sectors of Egyptian society to form a positive impression of the Egyptian authorities and the development momentum of Egypt. The results have yet to be determined. It is not for nothing that in July 2021 Minister Makram warned the Egyptian diaspora against listening to a narrow sector of Egyptian exiles who had been exposed to a radical ideology and therefore expressed a hostile attitude toward Egypt. In any case, the period of el-Sisi’s rule is characterized by a clear and coherent strategy that seeks to integrate the Egyptian diaspora as part of the “Soft Power” projection of Egypt.

Michael Barak
Dr. Michael Barak is a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University, and a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. Dr. Barak is the co-author of ISIS and the Vision of the Islamic State (in Hebrew).
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