Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Yvonne Khamati

The recent incident of alleged  and denied  improper speech by an Egyptian against Africans raises questions, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

I write this from the Cameroon capital of Yaoundé where I have encountered no negative repercussions from the crisis fabricated last week by the head of the African Diplomatic Corps (ADC) Technical Committee, Yvonne Khamati, who alleged that a member of the Egyptian delegation uttered offensive remarks against Africans during a meeting of that committee in Nairobi. As I landed in Yaoundé, I had feared that I would be confronted by reporters on the trail of sensationalist news, or that everyone I met would question me on the subject of the Kenyan ADC Technical Committee chairperson’s allegations against the Egyptian delegate. That was not the case.

I am in Cameroon at the invitation of Minister of Arts and Culture Pr Narcisse Mouelle Kombi, as a guest of honour at the Yaoundé International Book Fair. I had learned that the organisers of the event had requested from France some of my French-language publications. Although Cameroon has two official languages, French and English, the former prevails in eight out of the country’s 10 regions. Also, in Cameroon they distinguish between official languages and “national languages”. While there are two official languages, there are some 250 national languages, which is not of great help when it comes to mutual understanding between citizens belonging to diverse ethnic and tribal communities.

My novel, Butterfly Wings, which appeared in French translation last year, was the focus of a roundtable discussion on “Literature and Revolution”. At the end of that session, one of the participants  a Chadian  came up to me and asked, in Arabic, about “what happened in Nairobi”. In response to my question as to how he had learned about the subject, he said that he had read about it on some Egyptian news websites that he follows because of his fondness for Egypt. I said that the epithets that the Kenyan delegate claimed to have been uttered by the Egyptian delegate were not commonplace in the Egyptian vernacular or usage. I have never heard anyone in Egypt speak of Africans as “slaves”, I said. I suggested that he refer to the official statement issued by the Egyptian embassy in Nairobi, which categorically denied the incident and described the allegations as “baseless and false”.

The Egyptian statement, which was sent to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry and all diplomatic missions and international organisations in Nairobi, was quite adequate. It was released quickly, reflecting an ability for rapid response, which is lacking among most of our official agencies, and it stressed a number of important points (in spite of some needless repetition):

- It denied that such an incident could have taken place from the outset since Egypt is a country that is proud of its African identity and one of the founding states of the African Union.

- It stressed that, in spite of this reputation, an investigation into the incident had been set into motion and that the results would be announced once it was completed. This indicates that Egypt is treating the matter with the required seriousness.

- It noted that such offences committed by individuals, if they occurred, should not be generalised and applied to an entire country, especially when the official policies of that country are totally opposed to such acts.

- It also noted that the Kenyan delegate, in circulating her anti-Egyptian memorandum, had overstepped the bounds of her authority as chairperson of the ADC Technical Committee.

The second time that subject was brought up in front of me was at a dinner party that the Egyptian ambassador to Cameroon hosted in my honour. Among the other guests was an ambassador from a neighbouring African country who voiced his scepticism and disapproval. He had served in Egypt for a short period and felt that the Kenyan delegate’s allegations were inconsistent with his personal knowledge of the Egyptian people. I said that it seemed as though there had been a deliberate intent to manufacture this crisis at this particular time. Talks were in progress regarding preparations for a trip, yet unannounced, that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi hopes to make to a few African countries, including Kenya. I suggested that the crisis was manufactured precisely in order to undermine those talks. The ambassador replied, “In that case, we need to consider who stands to gain from this crisis … I know Kenya well and I am familiar with the Israeli influence there. Kenya, as you know, is one of the countries in which Israel has been very active in recent years in trying to fill the vacuum that Egypt left behind when it turned its attention away from Africa.”

The African ambassador’s remarks led me to acquire further information related to this issue and the Israeli factor. Israel has established a tangible presence in many African countries. The volume of trade between it and Kenya, alone, comes to several billions of dollars while cooperation with Cameroon is largely limited to security: Israel trains Cameroon’s rapid intervention forces and the republican guard is totally dependent on Israeli training.

In addition, I have learned that Turkey has been manoeuvering for some years now to take over the Egyptian legacy in Africa, even in the field of education. To my surprise I discovered that, here in Cameroon, there are four very popular Turkish schools that teach English, French and Turkish.

Apart from the two occasions above, no one has approached me on that subject of the alleged offensive remarks. Moreover, nothing about it has appeared in the Cameroon press, up to now. Egypt still has assets in Africa. They may have suffered from years of neglect, but they can be revived and perhaps boosted to their previous levels of vitality. At the book fair I met the Cameroon poet and writer Jean Claude Awono who also owns the publishing house Afrikia and who told me that he wanted to introduce me to his six-year-old daughter before I left Cameroon. He had named her “Egypte” out of his love for our country. To me, this stood as living proof that Egypt, which had championed the liberation and independence struggles of all peoples in Africa, has people in Africa who remember it, even if it sometimes appears to have forgotten them. I also met a historian, Wilfred Mueni, who is infatuated with ancient Egyptian history and who named his one-year-old son Horus.

Judging from the ages of the two children mentioned above, Egypt’s stock in the African conscience is still alive. The years of neglect have not destroyed that, although Egypt’s absence has facilitated attempts on the part of its enemies to undermine affirmations of the organic bond between Egypt and other African countries, using towards this end individuals who are willing to serve as tools for our enemies.

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