A lot of unnecessary energy has already been expended on Egyptian television arguing over the planned reforms ofresidency and naturalisation procedures, with accusations of treason flying both ways. The idea is that you get a five-year long residency if you stash a lot money in the bank that the government will then spend and invest as it sees fit, with an IOU certificate promising to hand it all back when the residency permit expires.
Knowing the government’s record, such as old-age pensioners’ funds of workers’ syndicates, maybe this isn’t the best way of going about things. But that’s a concern for those depositing the money, not the self-righteous brigade here thatisafraid that the country will somehow be swamped by necessarily ‘evil’ foreigners who want to change the ethnic-sectarian composition of the country or spy on behalf of a foreign country. (If a Russian or a Chinaman wanted to come here to ‘invest’ in the country, say in the Suez Canal industrial zone, would anybody be up in arms against them?) This, in turn, is seen as a stepping stone towards naturalisation, since after ten years you can apply for the passport. This just goes to show how paranoid, and how ungrateful, some people are,given that places like Syria and Lebanon have always housed Egyptians in exile. Mohammad Abdu in Lebanon is the most famous case on display—somebody who was welcomed with open arms by everybody in Lebanon, Muslims and Christians alike, whohelped him and Gamal Al-Din al-Afghani set up newspapers calling for unity between Christians and Muslims and among Arabs in general.
Let’s not forget that Gamal Al-Din al-Afghani himself was the tutor of the first generation of nationalist leaders—SaadZaghloul and Qasim Amin. And Mr.al-Afghani was neither an Egyptian nor an Arab to begin with. How far we have fallen behind since then. But it just goes to show how you can create problems for yourself, intractable problems, if you don’t factor history into the equation. There are lots of solutions out there that can defuse the situation, not least in the Arab world.
In one particular Gulf Arab state—without givingnames—you have different gradesof nationality. Just having a passport doesn’t mean you’re a full citizen, with the bare minimum being a glorified travel document,which does not mean you are entitled to join the army or run for public office. Buying and selling land are allowed, but not muchmore. There’s all sorts of other restrictions too over dual citizenship, over being a member of a political party or in the armed forces of another country or having a criminal record, even somewhere else. And then there are the Bedouins who are Bedoon, ‘without’ nationality. They can come and go as they please—through designated border points—but they don’t have any social entitlements or rights to political participation.
Even in the US, a naturalised US citizen can’t run for the presidency, and there are constant ‘reviews’ of someone’s activities in the country of origin. This was true in the McCarthyism era of anti-Communist paranoia and is just as true now in the war on terror mania era. With the United Kingdom, you have special allowances made for citizens of Northern Ireland and Scotland and you have the category of British dependent state and ofCommonwealth states too.
What is more is that such arrangements have always existed from time immemorial and to great effect. In the glory days of the Roman republic, you had a layer cake of citizenship with full citizenship at the top—including running for the senate and leading the army—to a lesser state where you who could vote but not run for office, then those who could live there, buy and sell, and at the bottom those who could just live and work there but nothing more. Rome itself presided over a federation of Latin city-states that allowed it to stock up on cavalry and shipping crews, making up for key weaknesses in their otherwise impeccable army. Their allies, likewise, were organised in a senate with elected representatives. This way the Romans got the best of both worlds, earning the loyalty and the human capital of a far-flung landmass—Italy—without incurring too much in terms of costs, whether social entitlements or political risks. Can’t something like this exist in Egypt?
It can and it did. Dr. Hazem El-Biblawi, before he became prime minister, gave a talk at a conference held at the American University in Cairo back in 2012, which was organised by the Council on Foreign Relations from the US. His idea for enlivening the Arab economic situation was a kind of pan-regional citizenship, like the old Islamic caliphate, where an Arab could travel wherever he liked, take residence, own property, work, and invest, but not have political entitlements. What is more, Dr. Biblawionce pitched this idea to former president Hosni Mubarak, saying this would solve key manpower shortage problems Egypt was suffering from, mainly white collar professionals and other skilled workers. President Mubarak was willing to go along with the idea, provided that it was mutually binding—Arab countries had to open up their borders if Egypt was going to open its borders to them.
Dr. Biblawi said that was unnecessary, because Arab countries were being faced with their own shortages—people leaving for Egypt—and would be forced to open their borders in likewise fashion. Sadly, his arguments fell on deaf ears, and we’ve been stuck in the same rut ever since. Nobody denies that Egypt is an overpopulated country suffering from unemployment, but foreigners are not the cause of this unemployment.
People who want cushy desk jobs and permanent civil service posts are the problem, in addition to degree holders who don’t have any practical work skills or lack the necessary connectionseven if they do have the requisite skills. And it’s not like we don’t already have lots and lots of foreigners here, and I’m pretty sure most of them don’t have the kind of cash needed to deposit it in the trustedhands of the government. The real problem afflicting the Egyptian economy is, needless to say, bureaucracy: a six month residency is hardly long enough for proper investment planning. Butalmost as importantis the atrophied marketplace. Egypt is a ‘big’ country butit’snot that big, especially when it comes to sustaining the economies of scale demanded by the manufacturing sector—I was checking out the book market today and even the illicit books, printed on cheap photocopied paper, weren’t selling. Why? Every single bookshop had the same items in the same numbers, so people had stocked up already, leaving individual shopkeepers none the wiser. I can add an extra historical dimension here.
I once met a historian from New Zealand who specialised in Arab nationalism prior to Gamal Abdel Nasser and he told me that Saad Zaghloul and his whole generation of nationalist leaders wanted to transform the Ottoman caliphatefrom a political empire into a giant free trade zone.They even wanted to build a navy—a merchant marine, not a military armada—to connect Egypt through commerce to such far-flung places as Indonesia, a kind of prequel to the Chinese “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a new silk road.
In the process, you have the best of both worlds: political independence without economic isolation. Ah, how far we have fallen behind since then!