When Sheref Sabawy first landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport, like all arriving immigrants, he had to complete his paperwork before collecting his luggage. It was at that moment when the reality of the situation dawned upon him: he had no idea where he was headed to, let alone where to spend his first night in Canada. But 19 years on, Sabawy, now an IT professional, has a clear vision and destination: Parliament Hill.
Sabawy is one of at least three Egyptian immigrants, all Copts, running in local elections in the hopes of entering the Canadian political arena.
The 49-year-old wants to become a member of the Canadian parliament. Ghada Melek, an R&D Tax consultant, and Medhat Oweida, a lawyer-turned-journalist-activist, on the other hand, are competing for a city council seat.
All three are running in Mississauga, Canada’s sixth most populous city, and each candidate is counting on the city’s 60 percent immigrant population.
“The increasing numbers of Egyptians here, as well as recent events in Egypt – the revolution, [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi – have all prompted Egyptian immigrants to further increase their participation in Canadian politics,” says Sabawy.
“Some community members are asking: We have many doctors [...] and businessmen, why don’t we have politicians as well.”
Copts at home and abroad seem to be excited about Egypt and the new government that emerged there in the wake of the massive June 30 protests that culminated in the toppling of Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohammad Mursi, and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government by the secularist-controlled army.
Canadian-Copts now feel their political participation might make a difference for post-June 2013 Egypt. They might anticipate support from the current president, Sisi, who, unlike his secularist predecessors is not expected to utilize extremists as a scarecrow against Christians.
Sabawy is running in the Liberal Party’s nomination race in the Mississauga-Erin Mills electoral district. The party wants to regain the popularity it lost a decade ago to the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives. Having tried his luck once before, Sabawy hopes to win the Liberal nomination this time and represent the party in the October 2015 federal elections to become a member of the 338-seat parliament.
Other Arab immigrants are submitting their candidacies as well: Omar Alghabra, an immigrant of Syrian descent and former MP, is seeking to win the Liberal Party’s nomination in the Mississauga Center constituency; Vicken Aharonian, a newcomer of Lebanese descent, is running for the federal Liberal nomination for the Mississauga Lakeshore riding.
Sabawy’s road to Ottawa
Sabawy’s road to Ottawa is not a bed of roses. Although Sabawy says he is backed by a strong Coptic, Arab and Middle Eastern community in his riding, which has a 40 percent immigrant population, he is expected to face fierce competition from at least three Pakistani nominees who are backed by an equally powerful South Asian community.
“The west-end of Mississauga has seen an increasing number of Middle Eastern immigrants over the past 10 years, which is definitely a plus,” he says, noting that 700 Egyptian-Christian families, 200 Egyptian-Muslim families and more than 100 Iraqi families live in his constituency.
Starting out as a donut baker at a Tim Horton’s restaurant, Sabawy says he is a sincere believer in the principles of the Liberal Party.
“The Liberals accept immigrants,” he says. “The Conservatives, as well, accept immigrants, but they want us to work at coffee shops and gas stations, not to become doctors or engineers.”
Sabawy is vowing to oppose a recent amendment to the immigration law that he says will create classes of citizens by giving priority to those born in Canada over naturalized citizens. Under the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, a permanent resident must live in Canada for four out of six years to be eligible for citizenship. Previously, three out of four years of residency had been required.
Currently an IT professor at George Brown College, Toronto, and an IT-engineering consultant, Sabawy has been a human rights activist, a community leader and a volunteer for community initiatives in Mississauga for the past 15 years.
Had he still been living in Egypt, Sabawy believes he would not have run in the general elections there.
“Here [in Canada] you can really be of value,” he says. “I can make a difference with my experience and skill set; in Egypt, Christian political participation has never been desirable by the regime at any time over the past 50 years.”
In Mississauga’s Ward 6, Melek and Oweida, the other two Egyptian immigrants, are running to grab the sole councillor seat from incumbent Ron Star.
“Ron Starr has been on the job for four years,” says Melek, “but he has not been providing the leadership that was expected of him.” Starr won the Ward 6 elections in October 2010 by getting 8,361 votes (51.8 percent of the vote).
“Ron is a contractor and people are fed up with that because contractors almost own the city,” she says. “People are waiting for something different – a new face, a new direction.”
Melek believes she stands a good chance at winning the elections because she speaks two languages, is a Canadian university graduate, has been a professional consultant for 10 years, and, most of all, because of her determination.
“I strongly believe that I have something to offer,” she says.
Melek acknowledges that she is considering the Coptic vote as a “good starting point,” but she understands that the Coptic vote itself will not secure her victory on Oct. 27. Melek says she will be reaching out to the different communities in Ward 6.
Mississauga has a population of 713,443 as of the 2011 census, with Arabs representing 3.5 percent (24,870). The city is a base for many corporate headquarters, including Second Cup Ltd. The Council of Mississauga consists of the mayor and 11 councillors who are elected to serve a four-year term. Each councillor represents one ward.
Melek proudly mentions that when she landed in Canada in 1990 at the age of 19 with her parents, she didn’t know a word of English, lacked a college degree nor could she afford to go to university.
“I had to build myself from scratch,” she says.
In 1997, Melek was awarded a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Windsor, before working in a number of areas in manufacturing and research. Most of her career, however, has been in the professional services industry and she worked for more than 10 years with Deloitte’s research and development service line.
Melek, a wife and mother of two daughters – Erin, 12 and Erika, 14 – says she is concerned about her children’s future, hinting at the unemployment and the aging population that Canada is suffering from.
“Mississauga’s revenue has come down; expenses have come up. Mississauga has started to be in debt for the first time,” she says.
Melek had to resign from her highly paid Deloitte position to pursue the councilor career, which is a low-paid, full-time job. “As a consultant, I understand project management and I do understand the importance of efficiently operating your business.”
Running against four other low-profile candidates, Melek will organize a fundraising event on Aug. 31.
Melek, who grew up in Cairo’s posh Heliopolis district, downplays concerns that her Egyptian running mate, Oweida, poses any threat to her victory.
“I don’t think he has a big chance,” she says, and, with a smile, adds: “He does not speak the language very well. ” However, this could not be independently ascertained by Al Arabiya News.
Oweida is the managing editor of Al Ahram Elgdid, an Arabic-language biweekly newspaper. He graduated in 1994 with a college diploma in social works before earning a bachelor’s law degree from Egypt’s Tanta University in 2000. He participated in the launch of Al Ahram Elgdid in 2008 after moving to Canada.
“I have loved politics since childhood and I have been raised in a political family,” he wrote in a June 18, 2014, article on his newspaper’s website, pointing to the fact that his father’s uncle, Atallah Oweida, had long been the mayor of the village he lived in.
Oweida has not yet responded to emailed questions sent by Al Arabiya News.
“[Oweida] needs 10,000 votes to win; Arabs in Ward 6 would probably count for 1,500 to 2,000; so, where is he going to find 8,500 votes?" Melek asks.
“I'm confident that he will not impact my chances of winning.”
To Sabawy, Melek is a lucrative person who has a fair chance at winning Ward 6. “Although,” he says, “Ron Starr, as an incumbent councilor, has the upper hand.”
Sabawy, however, declined to comment on Oweida’s chances.