The imbalanced power relations between Egypt and the Gulf is mirrored by the treatment Egyptians have been receiving in the region.
Despite coming to power with the stated mission of ‘restoring dignity to Egypt’ and reaffirming its alleged status as regional superpower, Abdel Fattah El Sisi has sunk Egypt to a new low of regional and geopolitical weakness.
But of all Egypt’s geopolitical frailties under Sisi, the worst, and most ironic, is the ceding of Egyptian autonomy and even sovereignty to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The irony is in the lies pointed against the government of the late Mohamed Morsi – the first and probably last democratically elected president in Egyptian history – who was accused by coupists of surrendering Egyptian sovereignty to Qatar and formally charged with doing so. The rumour was even put around that Morsi planned to sell the Giza Necropolis to Qatar.
Of course this was an absurdity, but fast forward a few years after Morsi’s arrest and imprisonment and you have Sisi literally giving the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, both of which were uncontestably Egyptian (Sanafir is an Egyptian Coptic name), to Saudi Arabia.
Given the amount of financial aid the Sisi regime has received from Saudi and the UAE, it’s of no surprise that the latter boasts about ruling Egypt. As ever with Egypt, it’s not the rulers in their palaces and fortified mansions in gated communities that feel the rough end of this diminished regional role for Egypt.
In the past few years, there has been a major rise in the number of violent and exploitative incidents against Egyptians in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf. Though Egyptian workers have long faced discrimination in the Gulf, it has never matched the kind of ruthless exploitation of South Asians in the region.
But this could be changing.
Of the estimated 1-3 million Egyptian nationals living in the Kingdom, most are there as temporary workers in ‘menial’ jobs in the tourism and hospitality sector. Under Nasser, Egypt provided doctors and engineers to veritably establish healthcare systems and modernise the infrastructure of the nascent Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Now, however, given the desperate increase in poverty in Egypt, you’ll find law graduates and even medical students working as waiters and labourers in the Kingdom.
Discrimination and poor working conditions for Egyptians has always been rife, but now Egyptians in Saudi are simply no longer safe. In July last year, in a case well publicised in Egypt, two Egyptian labourers were shot dead by a Saudi national over a dispute regarding work being done at his home. Despite a full confession by the perpetrator, his fate remains unclear with silence from the Kingdom over his punishment.
In another well publicised incident in December last year, an Egyptian teacher, again in Riyadh, was fatally shot by one of his students after an altercation in the class room.
This wave of violence against Egyptians isn’t just limited to Saudi. In 2018, an Egyptian woman was beaten to the ground by four Kuwaiti women who proceeded to stomp on her face. In an even more disturbing incident in Kuwait in October last year, a female Egyptian doctor was viciously assaulted by a Kuwaiti man. After verbally abusing and beating her, the man proceeded to cut out part of her tongue.
Less brutally, last July video emerged of a Kuwaiti man slapping a young Egyptian cashier, which was followed by an incident in September when two Kuwaitis viciously beat an Egyptian shopkeeper for no apparent reason.
Home and away
These incidents have been taking place within a wider backdrop of the dehumanisation of Egyptians in the Gulf, one that mirrors the imbalanced power relations that exist between Sisi’s Egypt and the Arab petrostates.
Since the January 25 revolution and the internal demonisation of Egyptians by the Sisi regime as a result of counterrevolution, Egyptian expatriates are viewed with suspicion in the Gulf – as potential rabble rousers and insurrectionists.
Sisi’s propaganda against his own people, constantly charging the mildest critics with ‘terrorism’ and with collaborating with the hated Muslim Brotherhood, travels across the Arabic-speaking world. This too leads to both specific persecution of Egyptians abroad, but also a general atmosphere of unease towards Egyptians.
Moreover, within the Gulf, racial discrimination in general is widespread and deep rooted, particularly against South Asians – in other words, discrimination against Egyptians arises out of a general internal culture of chauvinism by the majority.
In Kuwait, highly influential ‘celebrities’ like Reem al-Shammari have engaged in racial incitement against Egyptians, saying that they weren’t ‘equal’ to Kuwaitis and were ‘the worst and dirtiest community in Kuwait’, who were only good enough to ‘serve’ Kuwaitis.
This rhetoric is quite literally true for many Egyptian workers in the Gulf, but particularly in Saudi.
Egyptians, like their South Asian counterparts, are subject to the kafala system of bondage. This system forces Egyptian workers to be ‘sponsored’ by Gulf employers, but it gives the employers the power to stop Egyptians leaving the country or, if things don’t work out, cancel residency permits, forcing Egyptians to leave the country without the opportunity to look for another job.
Employers can even demand that the employees ask permission for things like marriage.
Most disturbingly, kafala engenders unsafe and brutal working conditions, with domestic workers being subject to beatings and humiliations at the hands of their employers.
So how has the Sisi regime reacted to all of this? The reality is that far from being the saviour of Egypt from foreign menaces, Sisi is the fundamental reason why Egyptians can be treated this way. It’s the kleptocracy and system of patronage that he presides over that forces Egypt into the hands of the racist systems of violent subordination found in Gulf Arab states.
One could almost look at it as a racket – third world Egypt, ravaged by kleptocrats, keeping wages devastatingly low and unemployment high, provides cheap, expendable labour for rich Gulf states.
And, of course, Sisi, ever the lackey of his rich senior partners in the Gulf, sides with the Gulf over his own people.
Take, for example, the words of Maha Salem, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education when asked about the systematic abuse of Egyptians in Saudi: “The way the media reports such attacks is blown out of proportion at times”, she told Al-Monitor, “[t]he positive news that happens between the Egyptians and their Saudi brothers, however, is never being reported by the media.”
Why would anyone expect a regime that treats Egyptians at home with such savage contempt to stand up for Egyptians abroad?
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