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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The 1978 event that turned Egypt against Palestinian Arabs

Oroub al-Abed has spent her career documenting the endemic and systematic discrimination against Palestinian Arabs in Egypt, writing numerous articles and a book on that topic. Yet it is practically unknown.

A book review summarizes the main points of their history up until 1978:

El-Abed notes that prior to Israel’s independence in 1948 there were approximately 75,000 Palestinians living in Egypt. Most had settled in Cairo and Alexandria and lived close to other Palestinians, and were from the middle and upper classes, and some had acquired Egyptian citizenship. Their residency was considered temporary, and many believed, with the encouragement from Arab governments, that they would return to Israel. However, after the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948, Egypt became responsible for the welfare of two separate Palestinian communities; the Palestinians living in Egypt proper, which numbered approximately 87,000 and the 200,000 Palestinians living in the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip, a small, densely populated territory seized by Egypt during the war. Palestinian living conditions in the Gaza Strip were harsh. They remained stateless, their travel was restricted, and an Egyptian governor ruled the territory with an iron fist.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser attempted to improve the quality of life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by granting them free education in public schools and many worked as businessmen, merchants, mechanics, farmers, and fishermen. He also allocated subsidies for students to enter Egyptian universities and helped create the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, although the latter was more out of his desire to control Palestinian affairs than out of benevolence.

After the 1967 War, the Gaza Strip fell under Israeli control and approximately 13,000 additional Palestinians entered Egypt. Their stateless condition persisted after Nasser’s death in 1970, and new, harsh measures enacted by President Anwar Sadat sought to draw clearer distinctions between Palestinian and Egyptian identities. Sadat revoked some privileges Palestinians enjoyed under Nasser and in 1978, he enacted a law which banned Palestinian children from free public schools, forcing them to switch to costly private schools. He also imposed Law 48, which prohibited Palestinian workers from the public sector. Palestinians were also viewed with suspicion and persecuted, particularly after Egyptian Minister of Culture Yusuf al-Sibai’s assassination by the Palestinian terrorist group Abu Nidal in 1978.
That assassination is a hugely important event in Palestinian Arab history, as al-Abed writes in this fascinating section of her book. Essentially, in the course of only weeks after that assassination, Palestinian Arabs in Egypt turned into the Jews of the Arab world:

For the Palestinian population in Egypt, the turning point—repeatedly cited in our interviews—was the 18 February 1978 assassination in Nicosia, Cyprus, of Egyptian culture minister Yusif al-Siba‘i by the notorious Palestinian Abu Nidal faction. Though Abu Nidal had been expelled from Fatah and the PLO with much fanfare in the early 1970s and was widely known to be their sworn enemy, the Egyptian government and media did not hesitate to stigmatize the Palestinians in general for the assassination. At al-Siba‘i’s funeral, Egyptian prime minister Mustafa Riyad declared, “No more Palestine after today.” The fallout of the assassination was immediately felt within Egypt’s Palestinian community, with a flurry of arrests, surveillance, and detentions. Although the research for this book did not yield specific information on the number of Palestinians arrested after al-Siba‘i’s death, some interviewees reported that Palestinian houses were regularly searched for young men to bring in for questioning.

The police made intensive arrest campaigns against Palestinians after the death of al-Siba‘i. That day, the police came to the building where I live and asked about a Palestinian officer in the army, which was my rank then. My Egyptian neighbors spoke highly of me and I was lucky that they did not come again. (P1, Giza, Cairo, 10 May 2002)
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After the killing of al-Siba‘i, Egyptians considered Palestinians as Jews [an allusion to Palestinian perceived economic power], although we are Arabs like them. One day the front window of my shop was broken. Of course, it was an Egyptian who did it. Why? What have I done to them? Is it only because I am Palestinian, like those who killed al-Siba‘i? (P9, Wailey, 24 June 2002)

The al-Siba‘i assassination triggered a spate of anti-Palestinian editorializing, which further inflamed popular opinion. “Disloyalty” became a trait frequently attributed to Palestinians. Another endlessly repeated charge—mentioned by a great number of our interviewees as a standard and deeply ingrained idea about Palestinians—is that they “sold their land to the Zionists” of their own accord and therefore got what they deserved. Not atypical is the following passage from the popular Egyptian daily al-Akhbar:

Each one of the thousands of people who participated in the funeral asked himself: Is this what we get for having waged four wars for those who killed him? For having deprived ourselves of bread in order to recover their lost land? . . . for having deprived our children of the places in the university that were their due so they [Palestinians] could have them? . . . for having tasted death so they could live? Are those the words we sacrificed ourselves for so that Gaza and the West Bank would be liberated before Sinai? Our people do not deserve such ingratitude. (Mustafa Amin, al-Akhbar, 20 February 1978)

It was also during the period following the assassination that reports of Palestinian wealth increased, which sharpened resentments among poor Egyptians and fueled the Palestinians’ reputation for having “taken over” the Egyptian economy. As an example of the kind of journalistic writing that encouraged such notions, a 13 May 1979 article headlined “All These Fortunes for Palestinians Living in Egypt!!!” appeared in Egyptian Weekly Magazine. Among the article’s claims were that 60 percent of the shops in Central Cairo and Port Said were Palestinian-owned and that 12,000 private import-export offices and 40 farms were run by Palestinians. Exaggerating Palestinian economic power in this way suggested to the local population that the Palestinians in their midst were vampires sucking the blood of the Egyptian people.

Of far more lasting practical consequence, however, were the legal changes that followed al-Siba‘i’s killing. On 28 February 1978, a mere ten days after the assassination, the authoritative al-Ahram reported the prime minister’s announcement that the government would “reconsider all procedures that treated Palestinians as nationals. The purpose [was] to rank Palestinians with other Arab nationals and to safeguard national rights for Egyptians.” Indeed, the threat was soon carried out, with President Sadat issuing administrative regulations 47 and 48 of 1978 decreeing that all regulations treating Palestinians as nationals were to be annulled. Ministries hastened to apply the regulations: “The Ministry of Labor warned against issuing foreigners, including Palestinians, permits for business or for creating offices for export/import. Exceptions [were] made for those who had been married to Egyptian women for the past five years” (al-Ahram, 7 August 1978). More specifically, Law 48 concerned work in the public sector. Section 1 of Article 16 of the law stipulated that employment of Arab nationals should be on a “reciprocal basis.” This meant that the government of Egypt would hire citizens only of countries that hired Egyptian nationals. Needless to say, the stateless Palestinians were excluded under this law.

The dismantling of Nasser’s legislation favoring the Palestinians continued for the remainder of Sadat’s regime, further tightening restrictions on employment and extending the restrictions to other spheres, especially education, where Palestinians saw themselves progressively deprived of their access to free education and to university study.

An often overlooked aspect of the cancellation of the regulations treating Palestinians as nationals is that it did not concern solely the Palestinians in Egypt. The measures had far-reaching consequences for Palestinians across the Arab world, at least with regard to education. For more than twenty years, Palestinians could be educated in Egyptian universities free of charge, and tens of thousands took advantage of the offer: From the mid-1960s until 1978, an average of 20,000 Palestinian students per year were enrolled in Egyptian universities. 
In this sense, then, what ended with the legislation following the al-Siba‘i assassination was the lingering legacy of Nasser’s “sponsorship” of the Palestinian people. By enacting these measures, Sadat was signalling that Egypt was no longer the patron of the Palestinians nor the primary Arab defender of their cause.
Here we have explicit "anti-Palestinianism" that was enshrined as Egyptian policy - and most of it remains to this day, as can be seen in this shorter article on the same topic.

Palestinian Arabs in Egypt are discriminated against in terms of jobs, education, land ownership and (of course) citizenship. Yet this topic is essentially unknown.

Because, really, who cares about Palestinian Arabs when their troubles cannot be blamed on Israel?