They came from every corner of Astoria, Queens: Egyptian taxi drivers, Tunisian shopkeepers and Lebanese doctors, all seeking news and commiseration through the thick and fragrant haze of hookah smoke at the Layali El Helmeya Café on Steinway Street, otherwise known as Little Egypt. But the moment President Hosni Mubarak appeared on the cafe’s television set on Friday, announcing that he was offering to replace his government ministers but refusing to cede power, their reaction was blunt and unified. “Leave! Leave! Leave! You have no shame!” they chanted.
As tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo on Sunday for the sixth day of open revolt, here in Astoria, the heart of New York City’s Egyptian community, people reacted with hope tinged with visceral anger for an Egyptian president who they said had suppressed freedom for too long and an American president whom they accused of abetting him. www.wdalaw.com In nearly every cafe, Middle Eastern restaurant and grocery store in Little Egypt, a frenetic neighborhood that would not look out of place in Cairo, onlookers were glued to Al Jazeera over the weekend. Bearded young men fingered prayer beads and attended Friday prayers at the Al Iman Mosque, where prayers were offered for the protesters. Many despaired that they had been unable to reach their families since Mr. Mubarak shut down Egypt’s Internet and wireless service last week, in an effort to silence his opponents.
Ahmed Diaa, 29, who came to New York to study Middle Eastern politics, said he was flying back to Cairo on Sunday to join the protests. “For the first time, we feel like Egypt can have a democratic future because people are willing to put their lives on the line,” said Mr. Diaa, a former student activist who recalled being jailed and beaten by the authorities. “The police are firing on the people, but the people are not going home.”
The Egyptian community has deep roots in Astoria, stretching back to the 1960s, when residents say the first Egyptians began to arrive to escape the repressiveness of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime, and in search of a better life.
Ali El Sayed, 60, a boisterous philosopher-chef from Alexandria and the owner of Kabab Café on Steinway Street, is known by some as the unofficial Egyptian mayor of the neighborhood, having opened the first Egyptian establishment here in 1987.
Mr. El Sayed recalled how Steinway Street, named for the famous German family that opened a piano factory in Astoria in the 1870s, had transformed over the past two decades into a mini-Arabia. When Mr. El Sayed first opened his restaurant, the neighborhood, between 28th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard, was still dominated by Greeks and Italians, he said. In the 1990s, however, Lebanese immigrants, Egyptians and Tunisians set up dozens of cafes, which have long played a central role in Arab culture, in which alcohol is prohibited.
Today, there are at least 10 mosques in Astoria, several Arabic newspapers and a flourishing cultural scene that is attracting young hipsters from Manhattan. The 2006-2008 American Community Survey found that roughly 14,000 Egyptians were living in New York City, though community leaders say the actual number is higher since some are undocumented.
For some of the Egyptian-Americans of Astoria, who have long prided themselves on their assimilation into American life, the events in Egypt have tapped into divided loyalties. Many expressed support for “Barack Hussein Obama,” revered by many in the Arab world for his outreach to Muslims. But they also chastised him for what they described as his tepid rebuke of Mr. Mubarak and for American hypocrisy in the Middle East in general.
Mr. El Sayed was emphatic that he identified with both the protesters on the streets of Cairo and the man in the White House. “The U.S. has always supported tyrants, look at the shah, look at Saudi Arabia, we even supported bin Laden. So in Egypt we are now playing the same game by supporting Mubarak,” Mr. El Sayed said as he prepared his mother’s recipe for baba ghanouj, a dish of mashed eggplant. “But I would give my life for this country. We Egyptians here are American, and proud of it.”
But others said their patience with Washington was being tested. “Why doesn’t Mubarak appoint Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden to his new Cabinet since they are the ones who are saving him?” asked Hani Abdulhamid, 30, a filmmaker originally from Aswan, in southern Egypt. “They say he isn’t a dictator because he works for them.”
The Obama administration has cautiously backpedaled from its previously more open support for Mr. Mubarak, America’s staunchest ally in the Arab world. The White House has cautioned Mr. Mubarak against any violence directed at the protesters and has said it would review $1.5 billion in American aid. But many Egyptian-Americans who came here to escape the repression of the Mubarak regime called on Mr. Obama to take a stronger stand.
For all the vitriol and anger, the overwhelming feeling in Astoria was one of optimism as several dozen protesters — a student draped in Egyptian flags, an Egyptian short-order cook, a Syrian woman with Gucci bags — congregated outside the Al Iman Mosque on Steinway Street on Friday to show solidarity with what they labeled, perhaps hopefully, a revolution sweeping across the Arab world.
Tanya Keilami, 25, a Palestinian studying anthropology at Columbia University, said the events in Egypt were stirring Arabs across the Middle East and had even emboldened Palestinians in New York. “This isn’t just a movement for Egypt, but for the whole Arab world,” she said, adding: “The regimes are afraid. We haven’t seen anything like this in our lifetimes.”
Back at the hookah cafe, a few lone voices whispered that they supported Mr. Mubarak, fearful that the country was tipping into civil war. But Muhammad Soliman, an engineer from Alexandria, was not one of them and had one last piece of advice for President Obama to avoid alienating Egyptians.
“Mr. Obama needs to ask himself if he wants to have 80 million people as friends instead of one friend,” he said.