Egypt Independent

The khawaga’s lament



As Al-Masry Al-Youm’s only non-Egyptian regular columnist, I have the painful but necessary task to highlight how foreigners residing in Egypt have lived through this revolution. This is, admittedly, a matter of tertiary importance: Egyptians are in the process of deciding their fate, and, hopefully, taking a leap towards building a real democracy. Nonetheless, one of the indicators of democracy is how governments and the societies they represent treat not only their citizens, but also the aliens among them.

I am part of that sliver of the foreign community that was both materially and politically comfortable in Mubarak’s Egypt. As a journalist and the bearer of an American passport, I received both formal and informal protection in a country where the arbitrary often ruled, particularly in interactions with the authorities. Provided I remained within (or reasonably close to) the bounds of the law, I encountered few difficulties in interacting with officialdom, securing a residence permit, and carrying out my journalistic work. I've lived (and continue to live) in a central and clean neighborhood of Cairo. I've interacted with other foreigners and perhaps a wider cross-section of Egyptian society than I normally would have in another profession, which has enabled me to meet and befriend many of those who played a role in the events of the last few months. Although I was outspoken in my view that the fallen regime was fundamentally flawed, I never suffered serious consequences for it.

In other words, despite my Arab (but non-Gulf) background, I am a garden variety khawaga — that word of Persian origin that originally meant “master” but is mostly deployed with derision and a twinkle in the eye. (Incidentally, did you know that khawaga was once used mostly to refer to white slave traders? But I digress.)

As the columnist Salama Ahmed Salama noted several years ago in al-Ahram,  Egyptians’ relationship with foreigners is a complicated affair. He called it “the khawaga complex,” which stems from both a sense of superiority and inferiority. The former is manifested in condescension and resentment towards foreigners, the latter in envy and thoughtless emulation. The two emotions are paradoxically often expressed at the same time. It is partly understandable, since khawagas are after all a privileged and often clueless group, but more unpleasant when applies it to the bulk of foreigners in Egypt who are neither (relatively) rich nor bear the passports of a strategic patron. Just ask any Sudanese refugee.

Likewise, much as I have experienced few countries as welcoming of foreigners, I have found that a virulent strain of anti-cosmopolitanism  surfaces from time to time in Egypt. This strain was manipulated by the Free Officers’ regime to confiscate private property of both foreigners and Egyptians, and later to cast aspersions on political dissidents — just look at how the attacks on Mohammed ElBaradei last year focused on his foreign experience and alleged ties.

This anti-cosmopolitanism also surfaced during the revolution, notably when state television began to spread heinous messages against foreign infiltrators and journalists at the pay of Qatar, Iran, Israel and America. These resulted in real attacks, either by regime thugs or confused and gullible citizens, which were — for those of us who have known Egypt as an incredibly warm and welcoming place — terrifying. It was the antithesis of the universalist spirit of freedom and dignity seen in Tahrir Square, and revealed what many of us already knew: that the "Western-friendly", "moderate" regime of Hosni Mubarak was fundamentally neither friendly nor particularly moderate.

Sometimes, though, you even saw the anti-cosmopolitanism amidst the revolutionaries. I was struck by an attack launched by an old man against my Egyptian friend K and her daughter (whose father is foreign). She was carrying a sign calling on Mubarak to leave when the attacker accused them of being foreign. K and her daughter might be said not to look typically Egyptian, but then again I’m not sure what that look is.

Another half-Egyptian friend, S, a staunch supporter and participant in this revolution, finds herself excluded from political activity by the recently approved constitutional amendments, which, as much as she loves Egypt, consider her too suspiciously khawaga to be eligible for the presidency. Likewise, the new regulations for political parties ban any contributions not only from foreigners — a completely understandable provision — but also those Egyptians who hold a second nationality, effectively considering them guilty by association.

The Free Officers' regime and its descendants used this anti-cosmopolitanism to build a nationalist consensus in the country and protect it from the experience of foreign intervention in the country's affairs. Yet, by neglecting public education and often adopting the same haughty attitude the foreign elites of yesteryear once had towards the poorest in the country, successive Egyptian governments have recreated the kind of extreme class divisions that existed under the monarchy — including a linguistic gap that favors those elite children who invariably were educated in foreign schools. No wonder the resentment against things foreign has continued: it is intricately linked to issues of class, cultural divisions and privilege.

It will take time to remove these suspicions, no doubt. But considering that so many Egyptians abroad are now enthusiastic about contributing to their country's revival, it seems like a shame to already exclude them. Emigration is a part of this country's history, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. To deny a man as accomplished as Ahmed Zewail, the Nobel prize-winning Egyptian-American scientist, a role in his country’s future seems perverse.

This particular khawaga must admit that he is somewhat jealous to only be an observer in these historic times, but this is the khawaga’s existential condition.  A consolation would be if, just as a khawaga is a type of foreigner who is a little bit Egyptian, Egyptians include something of the foreign in how they define themselves and their country’s new politics. Cosmopolitanism need not only be the khawaga's refuge.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net.