Marie – Jeanne Berger: Racism in Egypt

Posted on July 5, 2012 by


Text: Marie – Jeanne Berger

On the fateful Saturday of Mubarak’s verdict, I spent a tortured morning at the Mugamma then went to meet a friend for an Arabic lesson at Cilantro on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Normally, we would sit in Borsa cafe, but the heat and the stress of the day dictated the sanctity of air conditioning and a mango granita.

When he came in, one of the waiters started shouting at him, afraid that he was going to harass me. My friend spoke calmly, told him that this kind of behaviour towards customers is unacceptable and inappropriate. The man was incredibly embarrassed and other staff members gathered. The waiter lied to explain himself out of the mess. Clearly he was embarrassed because I was offended, not because he offended somebody else.

My friend is Sudanese, and this wasn’t a one-off.

In the chilly expanses of CityStars this past weekend, stores inexplicably accused my friend of stealing merchandise and of not having enough money to afford being in the store to begin with. When the store clerk of a large chain forgot to remove a security tag on a purchase, alarms rang as we exited. Some bystanders began shouting, “The zingy is stealing something!” (Some would say that zingy is a loose translation for the ‘n’ word in Arabic; others would say that the race discourse in Egypt gives the word a less harsh meaning.)

Nobody ever talks about racism in Egypt. In terms of the pecking order of demands since the Jan. 25 uprising, it seems like racism is at the bottom of the pile, if anyone even sees it in the pile to begin with. Most Egyptians don’t think there’s any problem at all. Blackness is certainly present. Refugees and migrants come to Egypt from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, to say nothing of the Nubians, marginalized and pretty well swallowed whole by Lake Nasser and the High Dam. Former president Anwar Sadat himself was criticized for being too dark, Nasser’s “black poodle.”

Even Egypt’s antiquities cannot be white enough, apparently. When the Tutankhamun exhibition travelled to Philadelphia, a bust of the young pharaoh sparked a number of protests claiming that the curators had made him white. Egyptology kingpin Zahi Hawass came out in defence of the statue: “Don’t worry, ya gamaa’a,” says he, “Tutankhamun wasn’t black … Egyptians aren’t Arab or African.”

This is a commonly held perception. If you talk about Africans in Egypt (keeping in mind that most Egyptians would not consider Egypt as African), the average Egyptian will tell you about Sudan. “We used to be one hand [united]!” they would say. As usual, this “one hand” business is just a metonym for colonialism, hinting jovially at a shared imperial past with England and Egypt and Sudan. In that order, top to bottom, power percolating downwards. This kind of paternalistic commentary reflects nothing of the lived experience of visible black communities in Egypt, where discrimination varies between the odd comments on the street (Galaxy bar, zingy, the full gamut of vulgarities and smut) to the more systemic forms of discrimination, like what happened on Saturday: being discouraged from entering certain kinds of stores, clubs, restaurants.

Egypt is a hub for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing from Iraq, Libya and the Horn of Africa. It is a receiving country and a transit country — a place where refugees come to seek formal refugee status from the UNHCR to receive financial assistance, counselling and protection here in Cairo, or to attempt resettlement in Canada, the US, Australia or occasionally Finland. Of the thousands of applicants coming through the doors of the UNHCR every year, approximately 30 percent achieve the recognition that they need to immigrate. For the rest, there is Cairo.

The Sudanese population in this city and Alexandria alone is estimated at being between hundreds of thousands to four million. There are no clear estimates. Many of this constituency is made up of Southern Sudanese, some of whom repatriated after the independence of South Sudan last year. However, the continuing conflicts between the North, South and Darfur region indicate the likelihood of an increase, rather than a decrease of displaced peoples reaching Egypt’s borders in the coming period.

Although Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1969 Organization of African Unity convention, the UNHCR’s Egypt site page says that Egypt “has yet to develop domestic asylum procedures and institutions.” Not only has the Egyptian government failed procedurally, certain conditions bar this population from services imperative to human well-being: the ability to work, to access national health facilities, to attend government schools and receive subsidized housing. All prohibited.

Many Sudanese immigrants also came after the signing of the 1978 Wadi El Nil Treaty, giving Sudanese the right to live in Egypt without residence visas. The treaty was abrogated after Mubarak was nearly shot dead by Sudanese Islamists in Addis Ababa. Further amendments to the status of movement between Sudan and Egypt — like the 2004 Four Freedoms Agreement — are yet to be ratified. As a result, the Sudanese and refugee community are in a precarious position, buffeted by the political unrest, instability and a serious recession, all compounding already high unemployment rates, poverty and racial discrimination.

Most of the jobs available for Africans in Cairo are in the service industry, catering to Egyptians. A noticeably Sudanese, uniformed workforce waits on the upper-crust clientele at one prominent club in Garden City. Throughout the wealthiest suburbs of Cairo, families employ Africans as maids and caretakers to raise their children and pour their whiskeys (not necessarily in that order).

Is it a mark of status to buy a piece of darkest Africa, or charming to invoke notions of a colonial past? Does having a black servant suggest luxury, wealth and class? Or ownership? What it reveals is just another example of a human rights discourse that has been perilously neglected within a city that is ethnically diverse — unmistakeably — and requires a much more nuanced and empathetic discussion about prejudice and discrimination facing the communities that reside in Egypt, all of them, Egyptian or not.