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Arab Americans say 'yalla' for pivotal US vote

As election day looms, voter-registration drives for Arab Americans are aimed at tilting swing states against Trump
Worshipers fill out voter registration forms after Friday prayers at New York mosque (MEE/James Reinl)

NEW YORK, United States –  Naji Almontaser, a Yemeni American, has lived in the United States for five decades, but his decision to vote for the first time on 8 November is indicative of how strongly Middle Eastern immigrants feel about the 2016 presidential poll.

Choosing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was a no-brainer, he told Middle East Eye. The former first lady is “not perfect”, but her Republican rival, Donald Trump, is a “wacko” whose authoritarian, anti-immigrant streak is “not far off Mussolini or Hitler”.

This is not just one more vote for Clinton. Almontaser, 57, has spent weeks at New York City schools, community centres and mosques to register hundreds of Arab immigrants and others to vote in an election that seems too unpredictable to call.

“It took an individual like Trump to get us moving,” said Almontaser, a hotel worker. 

“My wife has always voted, but I never have. Now, I have to take a stand. I don’t want to put up with hate and hostility. America was made for people to come and live in religious freedom. Why are people misusing what this country is all about?”

Almontaser and colleagues have enrolled some 6,000 voters – mostly Yemeni Americans but also Egyptians, Moroccans, Algerians, Palestinians and Bangladeshis together with African Americans and Latinos – before the state’s registration deadline last week.

Similar schemes are running across the US this month ahead of enrollment cut-off dates, which vary by state, and are expected to see tens of thousands of Arab Americans added to voter rolls this year. Many of them are fired up by Trump.

“He’s vile and poisonous. It seems like the only people who roar for him are white folks in the middle states who have never seen a Latino, an immigrant, or an Arab, or anything. This is his audience,” Almontaser told MEE.

Naji Almontaser delivers completed voter registration forms to New York City officials (courtesy of Naji Almontaser)

Yalla Vote is one such campaign. The initiative, now in its 18th year, is managed by the Arab American Institute (AAI), a lobby group for an estimated 3.7 million Arab Americans, which comprise Christians, Muslims and others.

AAI has spearheaded drives in such battlegrounds as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Arab Americans make up some 2 percent of the population and where votes carry more weight, thanks to America’s antiquated voting system.

US presidents are not selected by popular vote, but via an Electoral College that elevates the importance of several tossup states. While their numbers are small, Arab Americans are clustered in such battlegrounds.

“If you’re roughly two percent of voters in those individual states and this election is potentially going to be as close as we think it is, those voters can sway the outcome of that particular state,” AAI director Maya Berry told MEE.

On paper, the election is not so close. An average of polls by Real Clear Politics shows Clinton leads Trump by 6.4 percentage points. The venerated number cruncher Nate Silver gives Trump only a 13.3 percent chance of sitting in the Oval Office come January.

Trump’s campaign has derailed amid claims that he sexually molested women, while the billionaire fans the flames of controversy on many issues – including whether he will accept a Clinton win on 8 November.

But activists warn of the dangers implicit in a Trump presidency and that low approval ratings for both candidates may have unpredictable effects on polling day. US election polls could echo the flawed forecasts of Britain’s so-called Brexit vote in June.

“My job is to make sure they understand: It’s going to be closer than we think and you better vote,” added Berry.

Steven Romalewski, a City University of New York demographer, said Arab Americans could swing the outcome of the presidential vote when there is a “close race” in a battleground, but they will be “much more impactful” on down-the-ballot races for local lawmakers.

According to pollster John Zogby, Arab Americans feel caught up in Trump’s proposed ban on visitors from terrorism-racked countries – a policy that was likely aimed at Middle Eastern hotspots, but could just as easily apply to France and Germany. 

“There’s a unity that congeals among Arab Americans when they hear that being attacked simply by virtue of who they are,” Zogby, owner of research firm Zogby Analytics, told MEE. “In this election, the Arab American vote should tilt heavily Democrat.”

Lamia Elfar, 44, an Egyptian American lawyer, has helped enrol New Jersey voters while her son, Faris, 20, ran a Yalla Vote stall at Rutgers University. Trump has “alienated” many Arab Americans, but about a tenth of them still root for the coiffed tycoon, she said.

“People from my background who support Trump tend to view him as a successful businessman who’s going to improve the economy and will be better at growing business from a regulatory perspective,” Elfar told MEE.

During the third and final presidential debate on 19 November, Trump repeated warnings against Clinton’s “open borders” policy and her desire to welcome more Syrian refugees despite the risk of “radical Islamic terrorism in this country”.

He also blasted her “real record” in the Middle East, blaming her support for US-led military interventions in Iraq and Libya for destabilizing those countries and creating a “huge vacuum” that gave succour to the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Clinton’s policy on Syrian refugees is popular among Arab Americans, who may otherwise fear her hawkish tendencies and harken back to her vote, as a senator, to send US forces into Iraq in 2002 – a decision she now blames on bogus claims about weapons of mass destruction.

In the Democratic primaries, many preferred Bernie Sanders, a leftist who spoke of treating Palestinians more fairly. Sanders, now a Clinton surrogate, campaigned for her in Dearborn, Michigan, home to a large Arab American community, earlier this month.

Arab Americans are not yet counted in the US census, so the population figure of 3.7 million may be a flawed estimate that equates to about 1.1 percent of the population. Latinos (17.4 percent) and blacks (13.2 percent) are bigger chunks of the melting-pot nation.

They are typically well-educated small business owners and professionals who are swayed by similar bread-and-butter issues as other Americans – schools, jobs and taxes. Foreign policy is important, but not a deal-breaker, according to AAI research.

As social conservatives, they were evenly split between the main parties and backed George W Bush by 44.5 percent in the 2000 presidential vote, Zogby said. They have since edged left and now favour the Democrats (about 40 percent) over Republicans (20 percent).