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Trending xenophobia
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

Xenophobia, or the fear of strangers, has been a common trait in many societies for as long as history has been documented. It is not a novelty, and it has been one of the worst causes of civil strife in recorded history.
A Twitter hashtag was recently created to welcome Syrian residents to Egypt who had taken refuge in the country after the eruption of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The hashtag was a response to a wave of xenophobic tweets following claims by lawyer Samir Sabri, known for his showmanship and his stirring up of controversies, claiming that Syrians in Egypt now own and operate businesses worth in excess of $23 billion and are living in a luxury that does not befit their status as refugees.
Sabri filed a report with the attorney-general, saying that the subject should be investigated. A few days later and after stirring up a wave of controversy, he retracted his position, quoting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as saying that “Egypt welcomes Syrians with open arms and commends them for earning their living despite their hardships.” Another lawsuit was then filed against Sabri accusing him of creating civil strife without having any tangible evidence to prove his claims.
But despite this, the allegations were initially met with interest by some xenophobic people who seemed to have found in them an answer to their own problems. The Syrians were responsible for the latter, these people may have felt, and a wave of anti-Syrian tweets and posts then appeared on several social-media outlets. This was countered by a massive media campaign that included a social media hashtag saying that the “Syrians are more than welcome in Egypt.”
This counter-campaign was led by Egyptian celebrities including famous actors like Mohamed Heneidi, showing that they have a real sense of social responsibility and hospitality. The tweets countering the xenophobic campaign praised the success many Syrian immigrants have experienced over the past few years in Egypt. It also praised their dedication in establishing profitable businesses such as restaurants, patisseries, workshops, factories and real-estate agencies. Many of these have been successful and have developed a good reputation for quality and good manners towards their clients.
The real number of Syrians in Egypt, according to the Foreign Ministry, is around 550,000, and they live in several cities but are concentrated on the outskirts of Greater Cairo particularly in 6 October City. President Al-Sisi has issued an executive order saying that the Syrians should be treated as Egyptian citizens, and hence over 40,000 Syrian students have registered in Egyptian schools and another 20,000 have received medical treatment on the insurance system.
Even if the figure of $23 billion is true, and it is surely an exaggeration, this only shows that the Syrians are active within the Egyptian economy, which is a blessing and not a curse. Thousands of Egyptians are employed by these Syrian businesses either directly or indirectly. It is a fact that many wealthy Syrians left their country in the early days of the Civil War, and one of the countries they came to was Egypt.
Like in many other cases of xenophobia across the world today, the advocates of the anti-Syrian campaign are most likely the less successful in society who want to pin their own failures on hardworking, disciplined, and dedicated immigrants who have become successful as a result of their labour. It is also not a novelty that a negative campaign of this sort can lead to further problems if firm laws are not passed to criminalise it.
For millennia, Egypt was a melting pot in the Middle East and Mediterranean region. Long before the existence of London and New York, ancient Alexandria had become the world's first true metropolis in 331 BC, gathering people from Africa, Asia and Europe to live in a city that still stands tall today.
Before 1952, Egypt was one of the world's most multicultural societies. Cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Ismailia had a significant Greek, Italian, British, French and Austrian presence, along with people from other Middle Eastern and Arab origins, including Syrians and Lebanese who integrated into Egyptian society to eventually form one of the most cosmopolitan societies in the world.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Egypt was a haven for European, Middle Eastern and African people. This happened at a time when most of Europe was fighting a brutal war that left tens of millions of people dead and injured while witnessing two of the most horrific genocides in human history, the Holocaust in Germany and the Holodomor famine in Ukraine.
These atrocities were preceded by the Armenian Genocide (1915-1917) carried out under the former Ottoman Empire. They took place at a time when the United States was still applying racial segregation policies in a large number of states until 1964. A look at the credits of any Egyptian film from this period shows that they resemble those of a Hollywood film today, including names of Arab, Anglo-Saxon, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, and other origins.
There are some radicals in the country today who want to shift Egyptian policies and society towards xenophobia. Whether this is attempted by the xenophobic attitudes towards Christians and other minorities of the Islamists, or by foolish xenophobic nationalists who believe that immigrants and refugees are claiming what they believe is their birth right, fortunately such views are in the minority. However, even so such negative attitudes cannot be allowed to grow, as they could become a cancer eating away at society.
While the foolish call by lawyer Sabri was met by a commendable response from the majority of Egyptians, such playing with fire is extremely dangerous and a matter of national security. Absolute firmness and the full force of the law is necessary to nip such irresponsible calls in the bud. Egypt must remain a multicultural, multireligious, and multiracial hub in the Middle East that embraces people from across the world in its culturally rich society as it has done for the past seven millennia.
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The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt's Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.


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