Concern develops over growth of xenophobia in Egypt

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On the streets of Cairo, xenophobia is growing. Critics say the government's efforts to undermine protests against it are to blame. (Photo by Flickr user Southtopia, cc-by-sa.)

The relationship between Egypt and Washington isn’t the only thing that is uncertain in Egypt. The political situation has lead to a growing distrust of foreigners.

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Josh Leffler, 26, sits in a Cairo cafe smoking a water pipe while men play dominoes and watch TV nearby. The American teacher doesn’t look stereotypically Egyptian, but after four years of living in downtown Cairo, he does blend in. And he loves it.

“I can go to my regular café anytime of the day and I will always sit with people,” Leffler said. “If I go to a coffee shop in Los Angeles and do this it doesn’t quite work like that, and so this aspect of community, it’s really nice.”

Yet even for Leffler who has a community here, the past year has been tense. During the revolution he got detained a few times. And lately, with the protests downtown, he’s felt like some Egyptians look at him differently as a foreigner.

“After I was detained a couple of times I began to act much more careful,” he said.

That includes keeping his camera hidden when walking on the streets.

Khaled Fahmy, the chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo, said the anti-foreigner sentiment that Leffler is experiencing doesn’t come out of nowhere. There have been foreign plots in Egypt before, like the notorious Lavon Affair in 1954, when Israel was accused of recruiting Egyptians to plant bombs inside Egypt. And Fahmy said Egyptians don’t forget.

“Egyptians are very aware, in their recent history, of outside interventions. So this is a sensitive point, more so than elsewhere,” he said. “But that’s not the issue. The issue now is that there is a deliberate use of this xenophobic language, of this suspicion of foreigners.”

Fahmy and other critics say the current government – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces– is taking this very real sense of outside threat and whipping it up into fullblown xenophobia through state TV and radio.

“There is a deliberate use of this xenophobic language, of this suspicion of foreigners by SCAF and by the Minister of International Cooperation,” he said.

Hossam Baghat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said there’s always been racism in Egypt. But these days his organization gets lots of complaints from people who have never been targeted before.

“In the past most of the complaints we received were by migrants, or refugees or asylum seekers with black skin that were subject to racially motivated harassment in Egypt,” Baghat said. “But since January of 2011, most of the complaints have been received by people who were targeted because of their fair skin or because they come from the West.”

There have been verbal and physical attacks, as well as citizen arrests. Baghat said foreigners are caught in the crossfire as the Egyptian government tries to undermine the continued protests.

“It presents the political protest movement in Egypt as being primarily pushed by the famous foreign agendas. And the foreign agendas are normally understood to mean western agendas,” he said.

Rasha Azaizy, spokesperson for the Egyptian Tourism Ministry, said there may seem to be a lack of security on the streets. But she didn’t see any hostility towards tourists or foreigners.

“It is not aimed at foreigners, it is just random,” she said. “And because of the language barrier, or the randomness of the whole thing. Stop and search is something that can happen in any city in the world. Egyptians are extremely warm and welcoming people. Very friendly.”

Azaizy said even with the unrest this year, 10 million tourists came to Egypt. But that’s a drop of 30 percent. Even so, Fahmy said it’s clear there is a concerted campaign against foreigners. And he said the Egyptian government shouldn’t worry only about the safety of tourists, but about the very foundation of Egyptian society.

“Egypt throughout its long history thrived not by being shunned off and shut out and inward looking, but rather by being open and engaged, and by interacting," Fahmy said.

As for American teacher Josh Leffler, he still considers Egypt his second home, and hopes to stay. But he added, “I’ll see how it goes.”