CAIRO — Egyptian Minister of Immigration Nabilah Makram created quite a stir recently when she said she has no information concerning the size of the Egyptian community in Israel.
Immediately following Makram's June 13 remarks to the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, parliamentarians declared that the growth of the Egyptian community in Israel constitutes a danger to Egyptian national security — although it wasn’t clear how, exactly, since no information on the size of the community was presented.
Speaking to Al-Monitor on this issue, Makram stressed that the Egyptian community in Israel is a unique diaspora as a result of security and political reasons. She said she has been working with others in the government and labor unions to develop a database of expatriate Egyptians that will include all relevant details.
Meanwhile, Nancy Nasir, a parliament member and representative for Egyptian expatriates, told Al-Monitor, “The concerns of Egypt’s expatriates overall have been dealt with extremely ineffectively, and not only the Egyptian community in Israel.” This is despite parliament’s numerous committees relating to expatriates, including the Arab Affairs, African Affairs and Foreign Relations committees, she said.
“I suggested combining these to form a single committee in parliament, to prevent the various jurisdictions from getting mixed up, but the [members of parliament] rejected it,” she said.
“Egyptian embassies should release an organized, periodic report that clarifies the duties of the embassies and delineates the problems they face, so they can be brought forward to the Foreign Ministry, and so the latter can remain up to date on the latest developments.”
Nasir stressed that Egypt is committed to all the provisions of the peace agreement with Israel, but these do not provide for Israelis studying in Egyptian universities or address them entering government buildings however they like, without any consideration for Egyptian national security.
“The minister of immigration has spent more than nine months in the office and should have information, even [if only] approximate information, so that she can remain abreast of the latest developments,” Nasir said. “The notion that she had no information at all is a clear failure on the part of the ministry on a matter that represents a time bomb to Egyptian national security.”
That sentiment was echoed by Anwar al-Sadat, head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee.
“There is no excuse for the immigration minister’s lack of information, and the Foreign Ministry could call upon our embassy in Tel Aviv to count the number of Egyptians living abroad,” he told Al-Monitor.
Sadat added that the public does not know any details of the Egyptian community in Israel, such as whether they hold Israeli passports or are simply there to work. This adds a new layer of complexity in dealing with them. In the event that they are married to Israeli women or obtain Israeli citizenship, they might return and demand their property and participate in political life. This would constitute a threat to Egyptian national security, in his view.
On the other hand, he noted, “If they are simply working there, there is a peace agreement between us and them and it is their right to come to visit their family or for tourism without the slightest hindrance. We permit Israelis themselves to enter Egypt; how could we bar Egyptians whose working conditions pushed them to this?”
Hashim Farid, an Egyptian journalist residing in Israel, told Al-Monitor that what has been said about the large Egyptian community in Israel is completely baseless.
First, he noted the Egyptian diaspora’s real presence in Israel began taking shape around 1992 in the era of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The size of the Egyptian community was estimated at the time to number 33,000, when travel to Israel took place through the Rafah crossing, without any restrictions on the part of the Egyptian authorities. He noted that when the right wing, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took power in Israel in 1996, tension began to creep into the relationship between Egypt and Israel. This drove many Egyptians to return home. Farid said that only about 3,000 Egyptians remained in Israel, and they were known as the first generation of the Egyptian diaspora in Israel.
Egyptians in Israel fall into three categories, according to Farid:
- Egyptians without Israeli residency, whose goal is to save as much money as possible and who take the jobs Israelis won’t
- Egyptians with Israeli residency but without Israeli citizenship, who hold almost all the same rights and obligations of residents, have national insurance, health insurance and pay taxes, but don’t have the right to vote in elections or participate in political life
- Egyptians with Israeli citizenship, who account for about 3% of the total Egyptian community in Israel
Israeli citizenship, he added, is a two-edged sword. An Israeli passport allows a person to enter many countries in the world without a visa, but Egyptian authorities can negate those people’s Egyptian citizenship, meaning they would lose the ability to visit their families and all their property in Egypt would be forfeited.
Farid challenged parliament members “to explain how, exactly, the Egyptian community in Israel represents a threat to Egyptian national security.”
“Will we, for example, be informants for Israel, sharing what we know about Egyptian planes and tanks? Israel knows all of that, without having any need for us. Egypt imports its weapons from Israel’s allies. Can we inform for Israel about the economic and social situation? It’s enough for Israeli officials to watch Egyptian talk shows to learn all about that,” he added.
“Loyalty to the nation isn't just a piece of paper represented by a passport,” he added.
Farid said one of the greatest problems confronting Egyptians in Israel is the difficulty they face getting back into Israel after visiting their families. The person traveling to Israel must first obtain a travel permit from an Egyptian communications officer. The permit can take two or three months to receive, causing many Egyptians to lose their jobs in Israel for exceeding their defined vacation period.
Col. Ashraf Gamal, a member of parliament’s National Security Committee, said Egyptians see that when problems befall citizens of many other countries, their embassies demonstrate concern and care, and support their citizens when it’s necessary to escalate an issue. But Egypt’s Foreign Ministry fails to deal adequately with the issues of Egyptians living abroad, and this has created a crisis of confidence, according to Gamal. Therefore, the Egyptian government must have information about the communities of Egyptians everywhere in the world, for their protection.
He also said Egypt should interact with Israel the same way it does with other countries.
“Egypt is a sovereign state with international standing, and nothing prevents it from dealing with any issue according to changing international situations and from disclosing these new developments,” he told Al-Monitor.
“We cannot have a problem with Egyptians working in any place as long as we plant the national heritage in our children,” he said. “Israelis invest their money in many countries, but their sense of belonging to Israel remains. This is what we want to stress with Egyptian youth.”
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