Egyptians in US already looking toward the future

Egyptians in US already looking toward the future
Friday, February 11, 2011 - 7:35pm

NEW YORK – Waves of celebration rippled out of Egypt and washed onto America's shores Friday, with Egyptian-Americans already looking to the future after the departure of President Hosni Mubarak and his three decades of authoritarian rule.

Three weeks after protests began in Cairo, members of the nation's largest community of Egyptian-Americans gathered at mosques, near the Egyptian mission to the United Nations in Manhattan and in their cultural "capital" in Queens to mark the protesters' success.

"I feel freer than I've ever felt in my life, although I'm 10,000 miles away from my homeland," said Ashraf Abdelhalim, 47, on Manhattan's Upper East Side near one of New York's largest mosques.

Even living in America, he said, he still felt "the oppression and the fear" from Mubarak's reign. "Now the dictator is gone," he said.

Sherine El-Abd found herself sobbing with joy at her home in Clifton, N.J. A board member of the Washington-based nonprofit Arab American Institute, she predicted that the military in Egypt will "oversee a clean, democratic election."

"Listen, if the person with the thickest skin and the densest brain in the world — Mubarak — got the message the military gave him, the message is loud and clear," El-Abd said.

Ayman El-Sawa, an activist from Highlands, N.J., who has helped organize protests including one in Times Square, fielded more than 50 celebratory phone calls in just the first half hour after Mubarak shocked his homeland by finally crumbling and resigning.

"But we should celebrate with one eye — and keep the other eye open for the next step: We have to be sure the army agrees with all the people's demands and does not repeat history," he said.

Among the calls El-Sawa took at home was one cancelling a no-longer-needed protest on Saturday at the White House.

Instead, people met up near the mission or waved flags Friday after noon prayers on Steinway Street in Queens' Astoria neighborhood. Gatherings were also planned Friday in Dearborn, Mich., in the heart of the nation's largest Arab-American community; in Los Angeles; and near the Egyptian embassy in Washington.

Close to 60,000 Egyptian-Americans live in the New York area, according to government figures. Community members say there are really twice as many. Nearly 200,000 U.S. residents identify themselves as Egyptian, according to a 2009 survey by the Census Bureau.

Omar Zaki, a 44-year-old insurance agency owner who lives in Riverside, Calif., said he couldn't believe his eyes when he read the caption under the television images of jubilant protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"I almost had to pinch myself," he said. He believes the movement will ripple throughout the Middle East, noting the old Arabic saying that Egypt is the "mother of the world."

"What happens there makes a significant difference," he said.

In Brooklyn, Khaled Lamada got news about Mubarak on his cell phone while walking to noon prayers.

"I feel great, I feel honored, I feel proud to be Egyptian," said the physical therapist, who is president of the Virginia-based Egyptian-Americans for Development.

Hisham Morgan, 34, director of the Muslim-American Society Youth Center in New York, said it was time to congratulate the Egyptian people — and the world.

"I am very hopeful for Egypt," he said. "I see a lot of love between the Egyptians — Christians, Muslims, the youth, everyone."

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