Egypt’s Fondness for Foreigners

“I love Egypt and cannot live anywhere else, but as long as Europeans live in the country without restraint or laws, I find it impossible to live here. I suffer, I feel alienated and the injustice pains me.”

That paragraph was written not by a modern Egyptian militant but by Nubar Pasha (1825-99), a Christian of Armenian descent, who was Egypt’s first prime minister. Nubar served under six Egyptian rulers, including Muhammad Ali, who ruled for 43 years (1805-48) and established a modern state.

At first, Nubar was devoted to defending the trammeled rights of Egyptians — abolishing an oppressive system under which peasants had to work for no pay on government land. In 1875, however, he instigated so-called mixed courts. Based on the French legal code and presided over by European judges, the courts were designed to encourage foreigners to do business and settle in Egypt.

They succeeded. By the early 20th century, Egypt was a remarkably cosmopolitan country, with large Italian, Armenian, English and French communities — at least until the 1950s and the political turmoil of the Suez affair. The Greek population once numbered 250,000; now, fewer than 4,000 Greeks remain in Cairo and Alexandria.

Egyptians refer to foreigners as “khawagas,” a term of Persian origin that means “mister” or “respected sir.” Khawagas played an important role in the development of Egyptian society.

Egypt’s first medical school was established by the French physician Antoine Clot in 1827. Egypt also became acquainted with cinema before many Western countries, thanks to an Italian associate of the Lumière brothers, Henri Dello Strologo. Shortly after the first demonstration of a motion picture in Paris in 1895, Alexandria followed suit with its first screening.

Although there was often tension about foreign ownership of so much of the economy, Egypt had a great capacity for turning the khawagas into real Egyptians. Perhaps the greatest of modern Greek poets, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), lived and died in Egypt, where he worked as a civil servant and stockbroker. One of the finest actors in Egyptian cinema was Stephan Rosti (1891-1964). Born to an Austrian father and an Italian mother, he worked in the Egyptian postal administration before turning to acting.

This Egyptian capacity for tolerance and assimilation is now in doubt. Last year, the bank HSBC named Egypt the least foreigner-friendly of 37 countries surveyed, and the Deutsche Welle broadcast service reported on “the wave of xenophobia” against foreigners in Egypt. Protests, whether organized by Islamists or their opponents, it was said, often end with demonstrators ripping up photographs of President Obama and chanting anti-American slogans.

Have Egyptians succumbed to xenophobia? To answer that, let’s clear up one or two misunderstandings. True, most Egyptians don’t trust the United States because it has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses when doing so has suited Washington, and it has consistently backed dictatorial regimes. Opposition to American policies, though, does not translate into hatred for Americans. Egyptians may protest against Mr. Obama, but individual Americans are not victimized because of his policies.

Another mistake is to interpret Egyptians’ struggle against certain forms of capitalist exploitation as a sort of xenophobia. In 1932, for example, the Egyptian author Muhammad Hussein Heikal praised the part played by the khawagas in the development of Egypt, even as he criticized excessive foreign ownership of Egypt’s resources.

The charge of xenophobia was also leveled at Gamal Abdel Nasser when he nationalized large enterprises in 1961. What was seen in the West as an anti-foreigner move was, in fact, a continuation of the socialist program he’d begun directly after he came to power in 1952 with land reforms favoring the peasants.

A third misconception confuses government policy with the attitudes of ordinary people toward foreigners. Albert Pardo, an Egyptian-born French Jew, illustrates this in his memoirs.

Pardo lived in Egypt until 1956, when the country came under attack by France, Britain and Israel. Pardo received a summons to the Ministry of the Interior, where he was told by a military officer that he and his family had eight days to leave Egypt. The officer added menacingly that the arrest warrant would not include his wife and children, so who knew what would befall them if he were in custody. The same treatment was meted out to thousands whom the regime deemed to be hostile aliens.

Pardo took the warning, and a few days later, he and his family were packed and ready to leave Egypt forever. They were surprised to find scores of Egyptians waiting in the street for them: storekeepers and their employees, and more neighbors than Pardo even recognized. They had all turned up at 6 in the morning to take their leave of the Pardo family and to reassure them that they would surely be back soon.

“The only thing I want to remember about Egypt is those good, dignified and tolerant people,” Pardo wrote. “A lifetime later, I still feel more Egyptian than French.”

For my part, I can only thank Monsieur Pardo. During the 18 days of the 2011 revolution, I used to invite foreign journalists to Tahrir Square, where they were well received by the protesters. It was generally when President Hosni Mubarak’s officers felt desperate that concerted attacks on international reporters occurred.

When Egypt has lapsed into xenophobia, it has always been because of the paranoia and aggression of dictators, not of the people. Many Egyptians feel that Western governments misunderstood their support for the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi, but they do not bear a grudge and they certainly have no hostility toward foreigners.

Alaa Al Aswany is the author of the novel The Yacoubian Building and other books. This article was translated by Russell Harris from the Arabic.

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