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The third man: Egyptian fears of the foreign plot

For decades, Egypt's rulers have blamed foreign elements for domestic strife. But how, in a country famous for its thriving tourism industry, is xenophobia so easily nurtured - and exploited?

Bel Trew, Friday 24 Feb 2012
Foreign plot
Unidentified 'third party' from an unknown foreign plot, the state says is set to destroy Egypt (Photo: cogdogblog/Alan Levine)

Foreigners are, apparently, at it again: threatening the stability of Egypt by implementing destructive foreign agendas. 

This February, 29 foreign aid workers face trial and an Australian journalist was threatened with deportation and now faces a travel ban while his American student friend has been detained, all for allegedly being involved in conspiracies to 'destabilise' the country.

Fears of a foreign-led plot against Egypt are not new, nor are they accidental.

"All successive Egyptian governments, since 1952 onwards, have used xenophobia to create a sense that there is a conspiracy in Egypt," explains Hossam Abdalla, an Egyptian political commentator and activist. "They rule in the name of defending the nation and condemn anybody who is anti-them as pro-foreigner or acting with a foreign agenda."

The "foreign hand" – in particular a financial one – remains one of the key weapons the state uses to shift blame, discredit a movement or justify heavy-handed security measures.

Mubarak honed this tactic during his 30 years in power and first used it against the revolution on 1 February, when he hinted at unknown spoilers who had "exploited" honest protesters. State media then broadcast bizarre phone-ins from people claiming to see Turkish-Iranian intelligence, Afghan spies and Israeli agents. 

As the telephone networks were shut down, the army sent text messages to the public urging “local men to… protect our precious Egypt." The revolution was portrayed as a foreign invasion.

On 2 February, Omar Suleiman spelt it out to a panicked nation. In a televised interview, he said that protesters had been manipulated by "outside forces" and that the revolution was a conspiracy.

“This was the turning point," explains Josh Leffler, an American TEFL teacher based in downtown Cairo. “After the Battle of the Camel, I was detained by our local people’s committee, who know me and lived next to me. I see them every day."

The BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera and ABC networks reported that their journalists had been attacked or detained. Groups tried to storm the Hilton hotel while "foreign-looking" people – including Egyptians – were being rounded up off the street.

"After my flatmate was chased through downtown by thugs with knives, I spent two days at home in my flat. My friends called to say don’t go outside," recalled Kristin Jankowski, a German writer for the Goethe-Institut in Cairo.

However, as soon as Mubarak stepped down, the atmosphere changed. "It went from this hostility to being welcoming again," Josh added.

Since the 18 days, suspicion of foreigners and "foreign looking" Egyptians continues to peak and trough in correlation with what is being peddled by the state media. One word from the military regime or state media and the xenophobia on the streets escalates with a bewildering ferocity.

But why, in a country where tourism is one of the most important industries – generating at its peak over $12 billion in revenue – can the state trigger xenophobia so easily?

"Our issue with foreigners is as long as Egyptian history," explains Abdalla, tracing the problem back to the Pharonic era. "There has always been an entrenched sense that everyone around Egypt is a threat – they want to take what is ours, the riches of the Nile. This fear is embedded in us."

This is not without reason. Egypt was subject to hundreds of years of foreign occupation, including Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, French and British – all of whom exploited Egypt's natural resources.

"In the early 1880s, there was a feeling that Egypt was becoming dominated by foreign influences," explained AbdelAziz EzzelArab, professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo. This, he says, was partly due to the international debt crisis of the 1870s.

During this time, Egypt was spending two thirds of its revenue on servicing its debt, allowing disastrous deals like the £4-million purchase of Egypt's share of the Suez Canal by the British.

When Egypt became a major player in the world market as a supplier of cotton, this feeling was intensified. Foreigners based in Egypt largely controlled its exports, contributing to a feeling of "encroachment" and financial jealousy from local landowners who called for "economic nationalism'', EzzelArab said.

This led to the creation of Bank Misr in 1920 (a bank run by Egyptians for Egyptians operated using Egyptian money) and the 1947 Egyptianisation laws, which attempted to impose limitations on foreign capital and foreign employees in companies operating in Egypt.

International influence on the Egyptian economy has had perceived – and very real – negative consequences for the country. One example was the 1991 injection of cash from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The implementation of the provisos to the loan, called the "structural adjustment programme," resulted in the percentage of people living under $2 a day doubling and levels of absolute poverty rising from 16.7 per cent to almost 20 per cent. Egypt is due to accept another LE3.2 billion IMF package this year, which many critics oppose.

"When Egypt was the richest of all the Arab nations, we always absorbed foreigners," said Abdalla, adding that economic insecurity only seems to encourage xenophobia.

Fear of invasion has also been a contributing factor, particularly as Egypt has been invaded several times within living memory, including Israeli troops getting within 120 kilometres of the capital in 1973.

The creation of the self-proclaimed Jewish state in 1948 was a major turning point. "As long as you have two great world powers, the European Union and the USA, whose primary foreign policy objective is to protect Israel," Abdalla explained, "Egyptians will remain suspicious of foreign motives." 

When you combine a real threat with decades of Egyptian rulers returning to these historical events in order to cultivate imagined threats for their own purposes, the result is explosive.

Nationalism plays a part in xenophobia. In the creation of an "us," there must be a "you": globally, national identity is never separated from the fear of the other.

A specifically Egyptian sense of national identity, EzzelArab says, was trail-blazed by late president Anwar Sadat, who "wanted to reclaim the name of Egypt and relieve the Arab burden," a holdover from Gamal Abdel-Nasser's unification with Syria.

During the 1970s, the fledging state media peddled Sadat's party line, which emphasised the sacrifices Egypt had made for other Arab countries.

National Egyptian pride was defined alongside mistrust of outsiders who had exploited and deceived her.  

Fast forward to the January 25 Revolution, when there is another major shift in national identity.

The "nation" becomes a fully functioning informal community living together in reclaimed public spaces in which Egyptian cultural norms were rethought and reworked.

Tahrir Square in the early days was "a million people… in one city square who were together trying to imagine a different country… entering it was like crossing a border," late journalist Anthony Shadid said in April 2011. Egyptian identity, he said, became "broader."

Rather than focusing on a selfhood determined by geographical borders, the people in Tahrir Square were united by universal human values. National pride was redefined as a humiliated people fighting for their rights, against those who spent decades advertising themselves as the true Egypt.

It's no coincidence then that protesters wave the Egyptian flag, the ultimate emblem of nationalism, despite the fact that the original design is a military one instated by Nasser in 1953 and updated by Mubarak in 1984 (Egypt did not adopt a revolutionary flag like Syria and Libya).

The ongoing revolution became, and continues to be, a battle for the Egyptian identity: the regime versus the revolutionary collective.

This was complicated, after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, by the state's co-option of the inevitable outpouring of national pride. State radio stations played nationalistic songs ad nauseum. Official billboards cashed in on the heroic revolutionaries.  

The ruling military council also used Mubarak's tactic of denouncing the street protests as foreign plots.

In mid-2011, foreign funding became the main excuse to target other revolutionary frontlines. The current crackdown on NGOs started in August 2011, when the government threatened to charge foreign-funded groups with high treason, conspiracy against the state and compromising national security. 

Following comments made by International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul-Naga that US funding of civil-society groups represented a desire to "abort any chance for Egypt to emerge as a modern democratic state,"  state-run media ran front page pieces entitled "American funding aims to spread anarchy in Egypt." The Arabic word for anarchy also means "chaos." 

The irony that the Egyptian Armed Forces receive $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the US was apparently lost on them.  

Protesters, who continued to face a torrent of state media accusations that they were "thugs," "spies," or not the same revolutionaries as those of the 18 days, had to prove that they were Egyptian to avoid being discredited. The fear non-Egyptians often feel is that their presence in protests, as a foreigner, could undermine this. 

How to show solidarity with the ongoing revolution without becoming that distraction, is a painful dilemma outsiders face, particularly when friends or family are in the frontlines.

"A march is a very important visual sign that a real movement is out there. If onlookers are already confused by the revolution, it's not helpful to see a foreigner participating," explained Sophie Fahmy, 29, a British filmmaker who is married to an Egyptian. "Even though my children will have Egyptian citizenship, so this fight over the future of Egypt is of personal importance to me, if people might misinterpret what I'm doing, I won't chant."

Some foreigners do take part in the clashes. One British activist based in Cairo, who wished to remain anonymous, explained how he clears tear gas canisters and picks up the wounded. "International solidarity has a role in defending the revolution," the activist said. "Insular struggles are more likely to be defeated or co-opted, while internationalised struggles can be more transformative."

However, getting too involved can backfire. In November, three American students were paraded in front of Molotov cocktails on state television, after one of them tweeted about joining the clashes with Egypt's security forces on the flashpoint Mohamed Mahmoud Street. 

On Wednesday, former minister of interior Habib El-Adly, in the midst of the ongoing Hosni Mubarak trial, said that "foreigners," not the security forces, had clambered onto buildings and shot at protesters during the 18 days. Hamas and Hezbollah, he insisted, were to blame.

Last week, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim claimed that unknown "third parties" were responsible for the excessive birdshot injuries in February clashes between protesters and security forces, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

For the moment, it seems, the Egyptian government will keep blaming the "third man" and imagining ever more creative conspiracies.  

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