The focus this month in Future Challenges is on global citizens and migration, and how they are changing the faces of our cities every day. In today’s world travel is cheaper and modern communications enable anyone to learn about other cultures and languages without leaving their own countries. So in principle it should be for expats to come to my country, Egypt, live among its citizens, affect and be affected by its cultural and economic scene. However, the story is not that straightforward.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with an Italian friend a few months ago about the various Italian words we have in our language. We also have Greek, Persian and French expressions. Yunan Labib Rizk pointed out that the effect of Italians and Greeks on our everyday language may be more pronouced than that of the British and French, even though Egypt was occupied by these two countries. He also pointed out that whereas the British lived in upper-class neighbourhoods and their interactions with the people were limited to missionary schools and governmental bodies, Italian workers came to live and work in Egypt during the Ottoman era and continued to live and work in old urban quarters during the 19th and first half of the 20th century where they shared their everyday lives with Egyptians.
Yet in today’s Egypt things are not what they used to be. Xenophobia and its tones can easily be heard now. The preferred rhetoric of the totalitarian and military regime relies on claims that the whole world is conspiring against them, and foreigners are likely to be spies. Many religious scholars also fuel the fires of xenophobia by attacking “infidels”, and claiming that their only raison d’être is to pull down the pillars of the one God’s religion. Their choice of the word “infidels” covers a multitude of sins from atheists to members of other religions and even their fellow Muslims who happen to belong to a different sect. Apparently, the only thing that is about to put an end to the ongoing honeymoon between the Egyptian president Morsi and the other Salafy and Islamic groups, is that the former allowed tourists from Iran to visit Egypt, and the latter see it as a catastrophic move that endangers the country’s belief, since these tourists belong to a different Islamic sect and their presence in Egypt for few days may act like a poison spreading it in the country. It’s sad that even Morsi’s secular opponents fall prey to this Salafy propaganda, just for the sake of attacking the Islamic president.
Nevertheless, the picture is not total darkness. The new means of communication are making it easier for more people to know more about other cultures and challenge many of the misconceptions that drive xenophobia. Thanks to this, there is a growing number of people who are more tolerant to differences. They might still be a minority, yet they do dare to challenge the status quo. In the end, the revolution was never about bringing down a few rulers in the Arab world, it was about bringing down a whole mentality. A mentality that, among other things, is intolerant of others and their differences.