Two days after the Emmys, the Arab diaspora is still abuzz about Egyptian-American Rami Malek’s groundbreaking win for best actor in a drama series for his role as a hacker on the USA Network’s Mr. Robot.
Malek was the first nonwhite actor to win in that category since 1998. Arabs and North Africans around the world took notice.
Jubilant news outlets across the Middle East covered the milestone, and the Washington-based Arab American Institute issued a congratulatory statement. There’s skepticism, with some questioning whether Malek’s portrayal of a white character diminishes the win. And there’s anger, in some quarters, over an interview last year in which Malek praised Egypt’s authoritarian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi.
For the most part, however, Malek’s big Emmys night felt like a balm for a community that is either absent from Hollywood or present only in stereotype. Malek’s early roles included playing an Arab terrorist in the series 24, making his win for Mr. Robot all the sweeter. Mr. Robot’s creator, Sam Esmail, also is Egyptian American.
“For me to stand here as not the typical leading man, and to have come home with this, I think speaks a lot about where we’re headed, and I think we can just keep going further in that direction,” Malek said in a backstage speech.
He also made impassioned remarks about the American immigrant experience, drawing on his own parents’ journey. His late father was a tour guide in Cairo before moving to California and working door-to-door to sell insurance, while his mom took three buses to make it to work so that they could “give their children an opportunity to be special,” he said.
“My sister’s an ER doctor, my brother’s a teacher, and I’m standing here today,” Malek said. “I think a lot of people can relate to wanting an opportunity, and I’ve wanted an opportunity. And now I have it.”
Malek, 35, was born in Los Angeles and, according to reports, got his first break playing Pharoah in the 2006 comedy Night at the Museum alongside the late Robin Williams. He reprised the role in two sequels. He also played an Egyptian vampire in the Twilight saga.
In an interview last year with an Egyptian newspaper, Malek was asked about “the situation” in Egypt, which has been in turmoil since the 2011 revolt that overthrew longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak and paved the way for the current strongman, Sisi. Malek purportedly told the paper that Sisi saved Egypt from a civil war and that he “deals with Egyptians as equal citizens, regardless of their religion, which is the right thing to do.”
Malek’s family belongs to Egypt’s ancient Coptic Christian minority, which generally has supported Sisi out of fears of repression. On social media, reactions to Malek’s pro-Sisi stance were mixed, with some Egyptians expressing disappointment in the star for supporting a regime that cracks down on human rights activists and civil society groups.
More more, though, echoed a tweet Tuesday from the Arab American Institute, which lobbies for the rights of Americans of Arab descent: “Still beaming over #ArabAmerican Rami Malek’s Emmy win!”