4 - 10 July 2002
Issue No. 593
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (449)
I, the EgyptianThe idea of an Egyptian nationality, as distinct from Ottoman nationality, emerged in the context of the wars Egypt waged against the imperial state in the 1830s. With Egyptian forces virtually at the gates of Istanbul, European powers quickly intervened. The result was the conventions and treaties of 1840 and 1841, which conferred special status upon Egypt within the Ottoman Empire and, as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* writes, the seeds of a genuine Egyptian identity
A separate Egyptian nationality became an established principle in the closing year of the 19th century. It was then that it was declared, "As the decrees issued by the Supreme Porte have made Egypt an emirate, autonomous in its internal administration; and whereas the Supreme Porte retains only the right of sovereignty over Egypt and the right to exact the tribute tax; and whereas Egypt is a nation possessing an autonomous government, whose laws, system of rule and courts are at variance with those of the supreme government, which have no force in Egypt, it is hereby determined that the Egyptian nation shall have an exclusively distinct political and civil national identity. Henceforth, Ottoman Egyptian is a term that recognises the right of sovereignty of the Supreme Porte but carries no implication of joint nationality."
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The establishment of this principle was undoubtedly the product of a number of developments that affected Egypt in the late 19th century. Of greatest significance was the British occupation in 1882, after which most ties with Istanbul were severed with the active encouragement of the British. Of equal importance was the rise of the nationalist movement, which not only called for the evacuation of the British, but also advocated terminating all bonds of subordination to any external power, including the Ottoman Empire.
Between the establishment of the principle of a distinct Egyptian nationality and the promulgation of the Egyptian Nationality Law of 1929 profound changes took place. The declaration of a British protectorate over Egypt following the outbreak of World War I ended the remnants of the legal relationship between Egypt and Istanbul, a reality that Turkey officially recognised at the Lausanne Conference nine years later. Following the war came the 1919 Revolution, which eventually led to Egypt's formal independence, in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922 -- in spite of Britain's notorious "four reservations" in this document.
With independence, converting the principle of nationality into law would seem a logical and straightforward step. Clearly the issue was more complicated, for it took another seven years for such a law to come about.
The government of Mohamed Mahmoud, under which the nationality law was passed, attributed the delay to differences between the parliamentary committee, which had been entrusted with drafting the law three years earlier, and officials in the Ministry of Interior. Problems arose over the committee's tendency to rely too much on the French model. Under French law, nationality is conferred upon individuals born in France of parents of unknown nationality. The Ministry of Interior countered that this wording conflicted with a ruling that stated, "Every person residing on Egyptian land shall be deemed Egyptian and treated in that capacity until it is determined that his nationality is otherwise."
The committee's reliance on French law also provoked a difference over questions pertaining to naturalisation. Under French law children of naturalised French citizens may choose to adopt French nationality upon reaching legal age. The Ministry of Interior, on the other hand, felt that such a provision was prejudicial to the rights of minors of naturalised parents.
Another dispute arose over the parliamentary committee's determination to draw a line between naturalisation and the enjoyment of certain civil and political rights. It was the committee's opinion that the acquisition of Egyptian nationality should not automatically confer such rights. Rather, such rights should be withheld for a period of time, "during which an individual has demonstrated his faith and allegiance to his new nationality, and can be deemed trustworthy to hold the right to stand for elections to parliament or occupy a significant position of responsibility in government." The Interior Ministry contended that such a distinction could not hold in a country in which expatriates had been represented in government and in which it has become difficult to distinguish between foreigner and Egyptian. "In all events, authority in the matter of elections and government position resides in the government and the electorate, and confidence should be placed in their exercise of prudence in the selection process."
The committee felt that a similar distinction should be made in the application of the penal code. It held that naturalised citizens who violated the law should be subject to a separate set of punitive measures. The Ministry of Interior countered that naturalised citizens should be accorded the full range of civil and political rights in the courts, but it added that after five years the government would have the right to revoke Egyptian nationality from naturalised citizens whom it deemed committed acts to warrant such a measure.
Beyond the foregoing disputes mentioned in Al-Ahram, the highly complex legal and demographic situation in Egypt would have also accounted for the delay in the formulation of a nationality law. Egypt at the time still had two judiciary systems: the Mixed Courts to hear cases in which at least one of the litigating parties was foreign, and the National Courts for Egyptians. As resident foreigners enjoyed considerable privileges and immunities under the mixed court system, they would have been naturally reluctant to apply for Egyptian citizenship. In addition, those very privileges enticed many native Egyptians to seek a form of foreign status that would entitle them to the jurisdiction of the Mixed Courts. The situation was further complicated by ambiguities regarding many of the large foreign communities in Egypt. While the case was clear-cut for European expatriates, it was not so for large segments of the country's Syrian, Armenian and Jewish populations, which had obtained subject status, and hence enjoyed the consular protection of European powers. Not surprisingly, these communities displayed the greatest tendency to flout local laws and conventions.
Ultimately, however, lawmakers and officials were able to sort out their differences and overcome the ambiguities, bringing to fruition Egypt's first nationality law on 28 February 1929. That five of the law's 27 articles pertained to those Ottoman subjects that had the right to claim Egyptian nationality suggests that it was one of the more convoluted issues legislators had to deal with. Under the new law, members of the royal family were automatically considered Egyptian nationals. So, too, were Ottoman subjects declared to be Egyptian under the nationality edict of June 1900 and those for whom Egypt was their country of residence on 5 November 1914 -- the day the British declared the protectorate.
The law went on to stipulate that those Ottomans who had maintained their residence in the country since that date "must apply within a year of the promulgation of this law to be considered of Egyptian nationality. Should they fail to do so within the stipulated period they may be required to leave Egyptian territory". It added that the minister of interior had the right to turn down a request for Egyptian nationality by virtue of an edict approved by the cabinet.
Article six addressed the classes of infants that were to be accorded Egyptian nationality. Children born in Egypt or abroad of an Egyptian father, or an Egyptian mother in the event that paternal parentage could not be legally established, were Egyptian. So, too, were children born in Egypt of unknown parentage, with respect to which the article added, "Foundlings in Egypt are to be considered born in Egypt unless proven otherwise. Finally, children born in Egypt of a foreign father who was also Egyptian-born would be considered Egyptian, "if said foreigner's last nationality was that of the majority population of a country whose language is Arabic or religion is Islam".
Articles seven, eight and 11 addressed other aliens who wish to adopt Egyptian nationality. The first of these grants this right "to every person born in Egypt of a foreign parent, if Egypt is his country of permanent residence upon reaching adolescence, if he relinquishes his original nationality and if he declares his intent to adopt Egyptian nationality within a year after reaching adolescence". The second of these conferred the right to Egyptian nationality to foreigners for whom Egypt was their permanent country of residence for at least 10 years.
There were other conditions as well. The applicant had to be of good character, he had to have a means of income and he had to know Arabic. Article 11 dealt with exceptional instances. It stated, "Naturalisation may be granted in accordance with a special act of law, and with no further requirements, to a foreigner who has performed a noble service for Egypt. It can also be granted, again with no further conditions, by a decree issued by the heads of the religious denominations in Egypt."
The law upheld the government's right to revoke nationality under certain conditions. This article -- 10 -- applied in the event that it came to light that the applicant had knowingly furnished false information or falsified documents for the purpose of naturalisation. The government could reserve this right in the event of people sentenced by Egyptian courts on criminal charges or to a minimum of two years in jail, or people who had perpetrated an act "at home or abroad that jeopardises the security of the state, the system of government or the social order in Egypt". Finally, citizenship could be revoked if one "disseminates orally, in writing or via other methods of publication, revolutionary ideas subversive to the fundamental principles of the constitution".
As for Egyptians wishing to adopt another nationality, they had to apply in advance to the Egyptian government for a permit for that purpose. If a person failed to obtain such a permit "he will continue to be considered Egyptian in all respects, in all circumstances". In addition, the government had the power to revoke nationality if anyone joined the military service of a foreign country without having obtained permission from the government. The same applied to people who accepted employment abroad with a foreign government and retained such employment in contravention of an order issued by the Egyptian government.
The last section of the law covered nationality issues emanating from mixed marriages. Article 14 stated, "A foreign woman who marries an Egyptian becomes Egyptian and does not lose Egyptian nationality upon the termination of the marriage unless she makes her permanent residence abroad and reclaims her original nationality." For Egyptian women married to foreigners the reverse held true -- they lost their Egyptian nationality. "Upon the termination of the marriage they may reclaim Egyptian nationality if they so wish and if their permanent residence is in Egypt or they return to reside in Egypt."
Under Article 15 the wives of foreigners who adopted Egyptian nationality and of Egyptians who adopted a foreign nationality were automatically considered to assume the nationality of their husbands. In both cases, the women had the right to retain their original nationality on the condition they declared this desire following a year of their marriage.
The following article dealt with the children of naturalised citizens. Minors of a naturalised foreigner obtained Egyptian citizenship automatically "unless their permanent resident is abroad and they retain their foreign nationality". Similarly, the nationality of children of an Egyptian father who took on a foreign nationality automatically followed that of their father. However, "children whose nationality was thus changed may choose to revert to their original nationality within a year of attaining adolescence."
Promulgating the law was one thing; putting it into effect was another, as is clear from the numerous reports in Al-Ahram on the measures the Ministry of Interior undertook towards this end. As Alexandria had the largest numbers of foreign residents, it merited special attention. For this reason, the Ministry of Interior instructed the governor of Alexandria to ensure the broadest possible publication of what was described as "one of the nation's most important laws". The ministry included in its dispatch to the governor a copy of the law printed in book form and concluded: "The ministry will issue the necessary instructions regarding the application procedures."
To the other governorates and directorates, the ministry sent instructions stating that it had created a comprehensive application form necessary for the naturalisation process. Applicants were to fill out the forms in full in Arabic. As for the application fees, they came to LE2, plus an additional 30 millimes (approximately a third of a piastre) for stamps.
In spite of the flurry of inter-departmental communiqués, naturalisation procedures did not go as smoothly as applicants hoped. If hitches are the rule rather than the exception for the application of new laws, this still did not prevent complaints, some of which Al-Ahram published in its issue of 24 August 1929. From George Hamsi we read that although six months had passed since the new law came into effect the Ministry of Interior had yet to announce the procedures to be followed "to resolve the issue of our nationality". The ministry responded that it had allocated seven officials to this task, a response that signalled the germination of a separate Department of Nationality in the Ministry of Interior.
Nor would the passage of a law of this significance pass without widespread reaction among the public, especially among the foreigners in Egypt who would be most effected by its provisions. One of the most significant reactions was that of Emil Zeidan, one of the owning partners of the Dar Al-Hilal publishing house. The headline of his lengthy article to Al-Ahram reveals its substance: "Naturalised by law versus naturalised in practice: The quality of being Egyptian is not acquired by law alone." Whereas one can become Egyptian from one moment to the next on paper, being truly Egyptian required "a congruence in tastes, disposition and morals that require a modicum of time to develop". He, therefore, urged those seeking to adopt Egyptian nationality under the new law to take pains to pursue a process of moral and social Egyptianisation commensurate with their new legal status.
Zeidan then proceeded to offer some advice to non-Egyptians who would benefit from the new law. They should seek to be worthy of Egypt's kindness to them. Just as paternal bonds impose filial duties, "so, too, does nationality, which is but a broader and deeper realm of paternity, imposing duties upon naturalised citizens... and one who flouts such duties is equivalent to a wayward son".
He further cautioned those seeking Egyptian nationality over any conflict in allegiance between their new and old nationalities. "It must be clear in their minds that they are now Egyptians in word and deed, in their loyalty to the throne of Egypt and its occupant, in their dedication to serving the nation and promoting its welfare." Particularly reprehensible in his opinion were those individuals who claimed to be Egyptian but belonged to political "committees" working on behalf of foreign countries. But he also censured those people who "come to Egypt and spend year after year without associating with its people, without attending their gatherings, participating in their weddings and funerals, or taking part in their development enterprises". By isolating themselves in this manner, those individuals create a foreign colony entirely cut off from their surrounding environment.
Turning to the Egyptian side of the equation, Zeidan lauded Egypt's miraculous capacity to embrace foreigners coming to live in the country. He did, however, criticise some Egyptians for the suspicion and circumspection with which they regarded naturalised citizens. He also criticised the authorities for discriminating against naturalised citizens. He writes, "Frequently, they view them as intruders and do not treat them equally with regard to the rights they share with all other Egyptians. Such discrimination prevents naturalised Egyptians from feeling that they have become truly Egyptian in practice." Only by assuming the good intentions of naturalised Egyptians and by treating them the same as other Egyptians in all respects, he concludes, "will it be possible to realise the desired concord and effective assimilation". He adds, "Nor should we forget that the elements that Egypt embraces are generally active, productive and law abiding." One cannot help but suspect that Emil Zeidan had himself in mind, along with his fellow Levantines in Dar Al-Hilal and in the press establishment in general.
Naturally, new legislation covering such a large swathe of society must inevitably rebound in other areas of life. An examination of Al-Ahram over the several months following the passage of the new nationality law reveals many side effects. One involved military service, which would now be expected of naturalised Egyptians. Al-Ahram reports that the Ministry of Interior distributed a circular to all governorates and directorates notifying those authorities that since naturalised citizens enjoyed all the rights accorded to Egyptians, they must also share the duties. In application of this principle, every governorate and directorate was to inform the Ministry of War of every naturalised male Egyptian in order to ensure that they were subject to the provisions of the military conscription law.
The relationship between Egypt and Turkey was greatly affected by the new law. Until then, Egyptians and Turks had equal property rights in the other country. However, as soon as the law passed Ankara announced that Egyptians would be deprived of their old possessions in Turkey "and those properties that devolved or devolve to them through inheritance from their parents or relatives".
At the same time, a group of Turks living in Egypt filed suit to claim their right to litigate before the Mixed Courts. Their plea was based on Article 9 of the organic law of that branch of the judiciary which stated that the Egyptian government defined foreigner to include subjects of nations who were not parties to the capitulations system. "On this basis, [these Turkish residents in Egypt] must be considered foreigners and must be granted the right to resort to the Mixed Courts in their legal affairs."
On 3 May 1929, the Mixed Court of Appeals pronounced its judgement on this issue. It ruled, firstly, that the Mixed Courts did not have jurisdiction over disputes that arose between Egyptians and foreigners who were not citizens of those nations that were party to the capitulations system in Egypt. Secondly, it ruled that the Mixed Courts did not have the jurisdiction to arbitrate in cases between the subjects of the Republic of Turkey and the subjects of the Egyptian government.
A third, though decidedly less unpleasant, problem arose with the approximately 300 Syrians and Lebanese who declared their desire to retain their original nationality. Fortunately, the French consulate in Egypt -- France at the time was the mandate power over Syria and Lebanon -- and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were able to reach a quick agreement. According to this agreement, the latter party would write to each of the individuals in question, notifying them of their right to leave the country should they so choose, while reminding them that the Egyptian government retained the right to expel anyone it deemed "undesirable". Commenting on this reservation, Al-Ahram observed, "As is well-known, the Egyptian government has the right to expel anyone of any nationality it deems 'undesirable'. Indeed, hardly a week goes by without news of the expulsion of subjects from nations large and small for perpetrating reprehensible acts or acts that jeopardise public security."
A fourth issue, clearly related to the foregoing, rebounded on the nationality law itself. Under the headline, "The anti-communist law and the amendment of the law of nationality," Al-Ahram announced that Egyptians would lose their nationality for "receiving instruction in communist schools". The newspaper went on to report that five Egyptian youths were currently studying in Russia and that the authorities had decided to refuse them re-admission into Egypt. Certainly, this provision must have fell by the wayside, otherwise the thousands of Egyptians sent to study in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s would no longer be Egyptian.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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