Source: GLOBALCIT, European University Institute
By Dalia Malek
The concept of nationality in Egypt has undergone transformations throughout the history of the country, coinciding with colonial rule, independence, trends of emigration and migration, and the political climate. The circumstances of acquisition and loss of Egyptian citizenship are codified in the country’s nationality laws and bolstered by the Constitution, with some special circumstances of ministerial and presidential decrees. However, implementation of these laws can be inconsistent and at times contrary to other laws and norms to which Egypt is bound, including those governing discrimination, religious rights, political rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.
Throughout the colonial period, the nascent notion of Egyptian identity evolved until its first codification and enactment in 1900 under Ottoman rule as a legal definition, albeit undetailed, resembling the modern understanding of nationality. Through the First World War, the characterisation of who constituted an ‘Egyptian’ became increasingly precise under British and French rule, mostly based on periods of residence and pointing to the watershed date of 5 November 1914 when Ottoman rule ended, and experienced additional revisions through the 1920s. It was not until the 1950s that Egypt began seriously modifying its nationality laws to encompass more nuanced issues of citizenship such as addressing statelessness and articulating reactions to the political climate at the time. The idea of ‘Zionism’ was denounced, precluding Zionists from Egyptian nationality. Emigration, a once discouraged practice, became gradually embraced throughout the 1970s and 1980s by Egypt’s changing governments, which eventually took advantage of its workforce based on perceived economic need, unemployment rates, overpopulation, profession quotas, and international relations with receiving countries. The enactment of Law No. 26 of 1975 Concerning Egyptian Nationality that is in current use today presented a codification of the circumstances surrounding acquisition and withdrawal of citizenship. It details acquisition of citizenship through marriage, birth, and naturalisation and loss of citizenship through crime, treason, forgery, or endangering national security.
Strong movements of human rights groups, progressive lawyers, and community-based organisations made their imprints on Egypt’s citizenship laws, particularly Law 26/1975. Their influence helped remove gender discrimination from the citizenship law in 2004, allowing Egyptian women married to non-Egyptian men to confer citizenship to their offspring. Emigrants and dual citizens continued to experience differential treatment from the government and courts when it came to rights enjoyed by single nationality Egyptians, particularly in the realms of land ownership and the exercising of political rights. The so-called Arab Spring that was ignited in January 2011 in Egypt acted as a catalyst that paved the way for continued activism and popular demands for individual rights beyond the ouster of the late former President Hosni Mubarak. These movements led to changes in legislation affecting citizenship rights, such as gaining voting rights for Egyptians abroad, as well as the right for dual citizens to run for Parliament. Public protest also led to extending naturalisation to the children of Palestinian fathers married to Egyptian mothers who were previously an exception to the benefits of the 2004 amendment.
Beyond the piecemeal realisation of citizenship rights for various groups in Egypt, a regime of social and political repression has ultimately continued to deny minority groups access to citizenship rights including the right to citizenship itself. Religious minorities such as Egypt’s Baha’i population have encountered obstacles in the way of citizenship rights and a continued risk of statelessness, those who have exercised their rights to free speech and assembly have been punished with the revocation of citizenship, sometimes also resulting in statelessness. Loose associations with Israel through unpolitical actions such as obtaining dual citizenship, travel, or marriage to individuals possessing Israeli nationality have beckoned the stigmatisation of being associated with political ‘Zionism’, being condemned with labels such as political opponent, spy, or enemy of the state. Other minority groups such as persons with disabilities are excluded from acquisition of citizenship by discriminatory language in Egyptian law, which requires reconciliation with their existing rights to non-discrimination found in other national and international legal instruments. Egyptians who have been censured for political or human rights activism are vilified with the label of ‘terrorism’, with the repercussion of prosecution under an internationally condemned set of anti-terrorism laws that grant the State broadly sweeping powers to extinguish opposition with this politically charged designation. Diasporic Egyptians who have been castigated for activism or opposition experience transnational repression while living in exile abroad, also risking the loss of citizenship and potential statelessness for their divergent views. Advancements in the citizenship laws have led to some improvements for individual rights, but ultimately have been inadequate and require reform.
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