The brutal security cudgels that wasted tens of lives were not the most brutal thing that Sudanese refugees faced during the forceful break up of their peaceful sit-in strike in Mustafa Mahmoud square in downtown Cairo. Reactions of some intellectuals and hostile prejudiced comments by citizens were even more painful and brutal. They showed some kind of a superior tone that was not compatible with the widely known tolerance and acceptance of the other of the Egyptian people. Such grave repercussions gave rise to an important question: “Is Egypt suffering a racism syndrome or is it just individual attitudes?” Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) found it imperative to raise this itching question for discussion within the framework of Ibn Rushd Salon.
That was the message on the invitation card of CIHRS seminar organized within the framework of Ibn Rushd Salon entitled “On the Fringe of the Sudanese Refugees’ Tragedy :Egyptian Racism – Curable or Not? ” Moderated by CIHRS Director, Mr. Bahey-Eddin Hassan, the seminar witnessed dynamic debates and discussions .
In commencement of the Salon deliberations, Mr. Bahey-Eddin Hassan argued that following the unjustified attack and use of excessive violence to break up the peaceful sit-in strike of the Sudanese refugees in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mustafa Mahmoud square, many reactions renouncing this maltreatment came in sequence, spotting reactions of citizen who witnessed the incidents. Quoting an article by Shereen Abul-Naga, where she expressed her shock at young people’s applause to security forces and the rise of some racist discourse within their ranks manifested in branding these refugees as infidels, magi, and stinking.
Mr. Hassan also referred to a press interview by a Nubian man of letters, Hajjaj Adoul, published in Al-Dustoor daily newspaper, in which he argued that Nubians feel persecuted. “Blacks are being excluded from working in the Egyptian TV, and the Nubian history is totally neglected in all national education curricula; two flagrant evidences of persecution,” elaborated Hajjaj in the interview. According to Mr. Adoul, most of the Egyptians spurn their African origin; even worse, they have developed an egotistic attitude towards black nations of the continent.
Mr. Hassan then shed light on another issue, which is that of the Copts dossier, which has always been addressed in terms of its relation with the state, however the social behavior aspect in this regard is always overlooked. He argued that it is easy to discuss state accountability – which no one can justify by any means—but it is more important to address these issues in terms of the relevant social attitudes and orientation.
Mr. Nabil Abdul-Fattah, an expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies Center, expressed his apologies to the Sudanese nation for the previous shocking incidents, which prejudice the historical assets of the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples. Such deplorable acts are totally unjustifiable, whether politically or morally, and even if they are motivated by the state’s right to ensure domestic security, asserted Mr. Abdul-Fattah. These events impair a history of cultural and symbolic kinship that have always constituted a cornerstone of the Egyptian foreign policy and relations between both nations. On the other hand, Mr. Abdul-Fattah expressed categorical reservation on the histrionic writings, whether published by Egyptians or Sudanese. Enraged discourse, histrionics, overgeneralization, and exaggeration are now key features that signify the public debate in Egypt regarding many issues.
It is a problem of cultural and political elite undergoing a real crisis as it lacks in new skills on top of which is the lack of capability to use accurate terms and descriptions and to phrase questions, not only in this issue, but in many other issues, which indicates that it had turned into some serious symptom of a structural syndrome in the way Egyptian ruling and cultural elites think and act.
Mr. Abdul-Fattah explained that there are several social problems embedded in the Egyptian society, a major part of which ensues from cherishing elites that have developed malaise for over three decades, and that this political, cultural and media elite is facing deteriorating levels of renewal, as well as deteriorating skills and eroding capabilities, the matter which constitutes a crisis added to Egypt’s already existing ones.
Warning against linking the Sudanese refugees issue with other issues, such as the Nubian or Copts problem, Mr. Abdul-Fattah explained that some of the historical incidents that faced Nubians before and after the High Dam, have not been ethnic or racist but rather partly related to how former Egyptian governments dealt with some of the problems facing Egyptian Nubian citizens at that time. He further expounded that a considerable number of Nubians moved to work in Cairo following the construction of the High Dam, and a lot of tensions were dramatized and stereotyped in the Egyptian cinema.
Mr. Abdul-Fattah added that any attempt to make simple generalization or superimposing issues such as the Coptic or the Nubians will foil drafting strategies aimed at remedying some differences that afflict societal relations as well as relations between the state and the society.
He added that an objective researcher can not help but standing aghast at some symbolically violent reactions triggered by a number of sources, first of which is the security violence against refugees, second is the history of Egyptian-Sudanese relations, whether during the Egyptian or the Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Sudan before independence. He indicated that this is the strategy used by the Northern Sudanese political elite in manipulating the domestic political game especially when internal crisis reinforces, as the Sudanese Egyptian relations are always tapped as part of the domestic political game.
The third of these sources, Mr. Abdul-Fattah contended, constitutes in the reductive trend of the Egyptian-Sudanese relations within the framework of water and security dossiers, excluding the common public and cultural heritage.
Mr. Abdul-Fattah wondered whether a study was, or is to be, conducted on the incident in focus on abusing refugees which triggered the anger of the prevalent trend among the Egyptian cultural elite, as manifested in the writings and demonstrations of some activists on the massacre. He stressed that nothing serious was done concerning that issue, and that the best done was depending on quick testimonies by some victims, witnesses or others who were affected some way or another by such incidents. He added that few testimonies cannot be enough to establish Egyptians as racists.
Criticizing the excessive use of violence is necessary for incriminating the perpetrators on a moral scale, yet, Mr. Abdul-Fattah added that, on the other hand, some Sudanese literature is to blame too, especially as nobody has given a pragmatic evidence that the incidents reflect racism within the ranks of the Egyptian people. Quoting some Sudanese literature supporting his argument, Mr. Abdul-Fattah explained that the official policy in both countries is fluctuating reflecting attitudes of the ruling elite and how far they change from time to time. He added that if we should go over the stereotypical discourse of anger, we will have to stick to objectivity in addressing negative incidents within the bilateral framework. Highlighting the negative role of the discourses and literature mixing up intergovernmental policies with community relations –being different at some aspects—Mr. Abdul-Fattah attributed the differences to a lack of democratic systems, the political legitimacy of which is established on the public will of the nation whether in Egypt or in the Sudan.
Further, ethnic and racist trends appeared in the thirties of the eighth century, holding the banner of racial supremacy, based particularly on the hypothesis of “Race determines culture” that had remained applicable in this sense till 1990s, when it gained a wider connotation. He expounded that currently, the world depends more on the collective use of public traditions about the nature of race than being based on science.
He then called for marking the difference between the racial supremacy myth and the emergence of some form of national protection in certain societies as would happen in Egypt during major social, economic or political crises. The Egyptian society is undergoing a profound crisis, Mr. Abdul-Fattah added, burdened with a heavy five-year odd legacy of political oppression, authoritarian regimes, absence of special initiatives and erosion of democracy. He further explained that some Egyptians are trying through political action operations – that are in crisis too – to open other doors for re-discussing problems of a society in crisis.
The Nubian novelist, Hajjaj Adoul, argued that there is severe racism within the Egyptian society at all brackets and classes, giving as evidence the nonexistence of a dark-skinned broadcaster in Egyptian media. Adoul accused the Egyptian society who vanished into the White West, showing hubris towards the black in a bid to offset this imbalance.
Adoul affirmed that within Egypt, dark-skinned people are treated as slaves, or predecessors of slaves, despite the fact that slaves belonged to all races not the black race alome. Egypt is suffering from an egotism based on color, he added, that is both inherited and imported, giving as evidence the wide circulation of ‘Antara’ and ‘Abu Zaid el-Hilali’ biographies (legendary black Arab poets and warriors) among Egyptians. Our countries, he added, occupied as they were by the Europeans feel inferior to them in terms of physical beauty: we always believe that typical beauty is measurable to Europeans. Mr. Adoul further argued that Egyptian minds totally reject to classify Egypt among the African nations, and that they keep cursing the West then, ironically enough, immigrate there.
The Egyptian society is really racist; Egyptian urban areas are egotistic over the rural areas; both Upper Egyptians and peasants are always depicted as laughing stock. Racism, thus, is deeply rooted in the Egyptian society, he affirmed. Mr. Adoul explained that some had acted in solidarity with the Sudanese refugees, while most of the Egyptians “spurned” them.
Mr. Adoul accused the Egyptian government of flooding the Nubian lands five times; and when it started to reclaim Nubian lands, the Egyptian government brought non-Nubians to settle there, which, according to Adoul, could be seen as an ethnic cleansing of the Nubians. He added that the successive Egyptian governments announced that the lands around Lake Nasser are designated for the Upper Egyptian poor, totally neglecting Nubians.
Warning of the continued persecution against Nubians, Mr. Adoul argued that this can render them a “negative element” to the Egyptian national security. Hajjaj affirmed, in the same time, that Nubia is part of Egypt contrary to the accusations against Nubians of being separatists. He explained that the South is the most significant to Egypt especially as “water warfare” has already started, the matter which necessitates further communication with peoples of the south both economically and culturally so that flow of the Nile water would be guaranteed.
Crisis of Tolerance
Mr. Nijad El-Borai, Director of Group for Developing Democracy, commenced with stressing that the incidents that took place against refugees in Mustafa Mahmoud Square have nothing to do with racism. He argued that this violent security practices have been exercised before with demonstrators –of both gender indiscriminately—against the amendment of the constitution, later known as the Referendum Day events. El-Borai held that the aforementioned events reflect that security forces are getting out of control; a fact that is quite serious to Egyptians rather than to Sudanese.
The Egyptian society has indeed grown more intolerant, a matter which has nothing to do with skin color, Mr. El-Borai argued, and that Arab societies in general, including the Egyptian and the Sudanese societies, are not so tolerant themselves, but not to the extent of racism. Racism itself, he added, does not still have the same classic definition that a certain race feels more superior over another; other forms of racism are based now on the fact that the other may be inferior or “posing a threat” to one’s interests, thus they should be viewed as enemies but not necessarily in superior-inferior terms.
Mr. El-Borai argued that the Egyptian society, due to the numerous crises it went through, grew more intolerant and more apprehensive towards the other, and against the background of high unemployment, most Egyptians are on the guard for Sudanese, among other nationals, who might share the narrow job opportunities available, particularly as the Sudanese are skillful while demanding less wages. Mr. El-Borai argued that the reactions within the Egyptian society represent symptoms of racism in its new definition reflected in hatred of aliens as a result of the several crises, including economic ones, that Egyptians are facing. Egyptians are going to grow more hostile and more religiously intolerant, he added, unless their problems are considered.
Mr. El-Borai stressed that this problem can be solved only if the authoritarian totalitarian regimes are replaced with democratic governments, together with poised consideration of things and acknowledging a responsibility that all should bear in a bid to come to the solution. He stressed that things should be put in perspective, explaining that this can only be achieved through certain factors, first of which is to recognize that mutual interests should have the top priority in relations between nations and countries, and that nothing is called “brotherly” or the “one people”, in addition to discussing all matters truthfully and transparently.
As an ending note, Mr. El-Borai called for discouraging racist attitudes that develop through encouraging irresponsible acts, and the necessity to stress “interests” rather than emotions, along with more attention on the part of the Egyptian government to the Southern interests; the real national security starts in the south rather than in Palestine or the north, as echoed by late president Jamal Abdul Nasser.
Heritage of Class Discrimination
Amira Bahey-Eddin, attorney-at-law and Human Rights activist, affirmed rejection of the “racism” notion, arguing that security forces beat women journalists and demonstrators, and is still abusing detainees, however, assaulting refugees was not because these forces are racist or representing a racist nation, rather because they are –security forces— schooled to torture people. Amira further denounced the young people’s applause of the forces while attacking refugees, explaining that Egyptian people’s traditions should not permit them to applaud security forces beating others.
Ms. Bahey-Eddin referred to existent heritage of class discrimination within the Egyptian society that renders some of the classes mock, for example, the “odorous” peasants, which is not racist per se. She explained, however, that the residents of al-Mohandeseen, the prospect of the events, are mainly “nouveau riche” who feel nauseated at the Egyptian poor and peasants, arguing that if their lowly mockery touched other brackets, it would not be interpreted as racist. Ignorance among Egyptian public drove them, some way, to mock Japanese art, Italian opera as well as African art, and went as far as to mock “Antara Ibn Shaddad” as an Arab, non-Egyptian, figure.
Explaining that the Coptic problems are related to sectarian tensions within the society, Ms. Bahey-Eddin argued that certain parties stoke fire of tension giving as evidence the fact that the National Democratic Party nominated two Copts only on its slate for the latest parliamentary elections, along with the slogans made by the Muslim Brotherhoods and their advocates against Copts, deeming this as a state of irrational and immoral “mobilization” rooted in the minds of the Egyptian public and ticking to bomb.
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