Gerasimos Tsourapas, The Politics of Migration in Modern Egypt: Strategies for Regime Survival in Autocracies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Gerasimos Tsourapas (GT): The book started as a radically different research project that aimed to examine the political trajectory of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an endeavor that was cut short by the 2013 coup d’état in the country. I was living in Cairo at the time, experiencing first-hand the military-imposed state of emergency and the strict nighttime curfew that accompanied it for months. The book emerged in this context of regime (re)consolidation and repression: how are ruling elites able to target citizens’ mobility as a way of maintaining control?
Even more fundamentally, this type of question spoke to me emotionally: the exodus of the Greek-Egyptian community before and during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power in the 1950s left deep scars across Greece’s social fabric. Another part of my family had been forced to leave Anchialos (what is now Pomorie) in the early 1900s, during the anti-Greek pogroms that followed the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, my great uncle fled Asia Minor during the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange that marked the emergence of modern Turkey.
For my family, as well as many others in the Eastern Mediterranean, cross-border population mobility has always been linked to the emergence and consolidation of new states; growing up, therefore, I always had a deep connection to the inherently political dimension of migration and diaspora.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
GT: As I started interviews and delved into archival material in Egypt, I would reshape the research project to reflect the layers of migration politics that I was uncovering. In the end, the book came to discuss the multiple ways that human mobility and labor migration have been central to the strategies conducted by autocracies that aim to cling to power. It focuses on the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak regimes and their cynical use of migration policy in order to further their own political ambitions. The book weaves together an intricate web of evolving policies, laws, political discourses, informal norms, and popular culture elements to demonstrate this.
The book is interdisciplinary by default, bringing work on authoritarianism in conversation with work on Middle East studies, labor migration, and demography in order to foster a new research agenda: how may regimes use migration to project political power abroad? How does migration work as a “safety valve” against pressures for democratization? To what extent does intra-Arab migration feature in relations of cooperation and coercion between Arab states? How can we understand the outbreak of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution via the lens of migration?
In my work, I examine how Egypt and other autocracies in the Middle East pay particular attention to migrants: they prevent them from leaving in order to repress political dissent; they use citizens as instruments of soft power; they employ them as bargaining chips against target states; or they employ a range of strategies to silence their voices abroad.
I also aim to add to the nascent literature on the politics of emigration and South-South migration, which contrasts starkly with voluminous work on European or North American immigration, diaspora, as well as refugee and asylum processes. I have just concluded a research project on the politics of emigration states with Maria Koinova, and I am keen to carry this conversation forward. I have always thought that we should strive to examine the importance of studying migration outside the Global North, both across the Middle East as well as the broader non-West. I hope the book is a very small contribution to this.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
GT: My previous work mainly consisted of research articles, op-eds, and shorter policy papers. In this sense, the book constitutes my first self-contained research project that departs from my previous work with regard to its scope and ambition. At the same time, while I have always been interested in the workings of autocratic regimes, I have moved away from earlier work that relied on Gramscian and Foucauldian understandings of political power.
The book also builds on a wider range of primary sources, from interviews with key Egyptian policymakers—including a former prime minister, as well as current and former ministers—to previously-inaccessible data drawn from Egyptian and British state archives. Given the work that has gone into this fieldwork, I am very proud that parts of this book were previously awarded the Middle East Studies Association’s Graduate Student Paper award (2015), as well as the American Political Science Association’s Best Dissertation Award on a topic of migration and/or citizenship (2016).
Importantly, I aim to use such primary sources in order to have key personalities come to life. For instance, I examine how Nasser’s insistence on Egypt-led Arab unity leads him down the costly path of dispatching thousands of Egyptians professionals abroad; I focus on Sadat’s penchant for opulence, detailing how unrestricted labor migration in the 1970s formed part and parcel of the Infitah policies; I also draw on Mubarak’s public speeches to show the anxiety of a regime that was, gradually, losing control over the country’s finances as emigration became a panacea for unemployed and under-employed Egyptians.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
GT: I wrote this book with a view towards making it accessible to a wide audience. It raises questions about how we may reconsider the historical evolution of Egypt, and the wider Middle East, from the 1950s onwards via the prism of labor migration. It discounts a number of myths, from the perception that Egyptians did not migrate before the 1970s, to that which understands labor migration as of economic rather than sociopolitical significance. It also constructs a new history of modern Egypt, in which the regime alternates between controlling and encouraging its citizens’ international mobility.
Read today, the book sheds light on numerous contemporary issues: domestically, the arbitrary arrests or travel bans for Egyptian citizens under Sisi today mark a return to Nasserite-era strategies; the state’s discourse on overpopulation and the need for more space mirrors debates of the 1970s and 1980s; and, of course, the reliance on migration as a “safety valve” against political unrest remains true today.
In its external relations, the Egyptian regime has always aimed to benefit materially from cross-border mobility—either via closer cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the 1970s onwards or, nowadays, as a strategic partner of the European Union in tackling irregular migration across the Mediterranean.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
GT: I am working on two research projects. The first one builds on a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant to examine the political importance of forcibly displaced populations for host states of first asylum. I examine how Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have responded to the post-2011 influx of Syrian refugees, and I identify how all three states have leveraged their position as host states of displaced communities for material gain. I argue that this constitutes a novel type of state, a “refugee rentier state,” which seeks to extract revenue from other state or non-state actors for maintaining refugee groups within their borders. I demonstrate how “refugee rent-seeking behavior” affects both domestic and foreign-policy decision-making.
The second research project builds on generous funding awarded by the Council for British Research in the Levant, which has allowed me to examine how migration features in states’ bilateral and multilateral diplomatic strategies. Together with Fiona Adamson, we examine the workings of migration diplomacy in world politics. The interplay of migration and foreign policy-making is surprisingly under-researched, and we seek to theorize this emerging field in international relations.
Excerpt from the Book
Egypt’s permissive labour emigration policy under Sadat aimed to appease Arab host states’ concerns by demonstrating that Egypt was committed to a new role as a regional provider of de-politicised migrant labour. Sadat would repeatedly signal that the era of dispatching Egyptian professionals abroad to serve as political agitators was gone. This was linked to the process of de-Nasserisation discussed in Chapter 4, and was made obvious in the state’s newly implemented permissive emigration policy. Prominent journalist ‘Ali Amin underlined that ‘Egypt will [now] never think of interfering with the internal affairs of any Arab state. Neither will it impose an opinion, a certain person, policy, or form of government on them, be it Beirut, Amman, Damascus, Tripoli, Kuwait, or the Arabian Gulf’. While, in the past, ‘Arab states’ suspicion of Nasser’s political motives was reﬂected in a reluctance to encourage the emigration of Egyptians’, Arabs were now urged to abandon such scepticism. As Anis Mansur, the later editor-in-chief of the regime mouthpiece October, explained:
‘[An] Egyptian was looked upon as the man with the ‘ugly face’ throughout the Arab world. For twenty years, every Egyptian had seemed to turn into a spy or saboteur. Every Egyptian teacher was thought to have come to overthrow the standing rule and to distribute subversive literature. Every Egyptian doctor was considered a spy acting for Egyptian Intelligence Service to set one class against another . . . Now he is not interested in other peoples’ affairs. ‘Give and take’ is his motto … Egyptians abroad form a ‘working army’ for the sake of Egypt and all Arabism.’
What explains this shift in discourse on labour emigration, and the abandonment of a decades-long tradition of political activism outside Egyptian borders? For one, these statements, which were commonplace in Sadat-era Egypt, buttressed the new president’s internal legitimation strategy of distinguishing him from Nasser in the eyes of Egyptians. At the same time, they contributed to Sadat’s external legitimation tactics by signalling a shift in Egyptian foreign policy in the eyes of Arab elites. Former Minister of Migration and Manpower Nahed Ashry conﬁrmed this strategy: ‘Presidents Sadat and Mubarak did not wish [for] Egyptian workers’ involvement in politics abroad’. In a similar tone, al-Akhbar’s Mostafa Amin, in a column entitled ‘“Ugly Egyptian” Image Removed’, argued that the Egyptian regional migrant was formerly considered as ‘a hooligan holding a knife in his mouth and a heavy club in his hand. Unfortunately, the Egyptians helped maintain that ugly picture by their behaviour, and this explains to a great extent the pleasure that the world showed upon our 5 June 1967 defeat. Today the situation is totally different’. The use of regional migration as a signal that Egypt is ready to aid, rather than antagonise, its Arab neighbours is evident in Sadat’s introduction of the term ‘temporary migration’.
Law 111|1983, still valid today, explains the difference between ‘temporary’ and ‘permanent’ Egyptian migrants, ﬁrst highlighted in the 1971 Constitution: a ‘permanent’ emigrant is one who ‘stays abroad permanently by obtaining the nationality of a foreign country and/or a permanent residence permit, stays abroad for a period of at least ten years, or obtains an immigration permit from one of the countries of destination. A ‘temporary’ emigrant, on the other hand, is ‘someone (not a student or seconded worker) who works abroad for twelve consecutive months’. However, in practice, this differentiation has been based upon migrants’ country of destination: Egyptians living in Arab countries are invariably considered temporary emigrants, or temporary workers abroad, even when they have lived there for decades. All those emigrating to Australia, Europe, North America, or elsewhere, on the other hand, are considered permanent emigrants, even if they just arrived in their host countries.
As I have shown elsewhere, by emphasising the “temporary” aspect of regional migration, Egyptian elites wished to increase the ﬂow of migration towards oil-exporting countries of the Arab world. The invention of Egyptian migrants’ non-permanence was aimed at mollifying Arab countries’ misapprehensions about opening their borders to potentially millions of Egyptian immigrants. This is best understood through, ﬁrstly, the politicised nature of Egyptian regional migrants in the pre-1970 period, and, secondly, the regional political climate of the 1970–71 period. In terms of the former, Sadat did not hesitate to signal the transience and depoliticisation of Egyptian regional migration as another distinctive feature that differentiated Egypt under his rule from the Nasserite era. Post-1970 migration was depoliticised, driven by economic rather than ideological reasons, and, above all, “temporary”. This coincided perfectly with host states’ wishes. ‘The intent of Saudi Arabia’s policies are as straightforward as those of Kuwait’, writes Sell. ‘The Saudis wish to keep migrants temporary and have them return home when their labour is no longer wanted’ […] By the early 1980s, Hosni Mubarak would emphatically declare that ‘[t]he days when a citizen [of Egypt] residing abroad was viewed with suspicion, as if he had not fulﬁlled his national duties, are over . . . we must all guarantee, in actions and not in words, that an Egyptian working abroad is a good citizen, who has not renounced his identity’.
Beyond its utility in distancing Sadat from Nasser, the choice of emigration as an instrument for signalling Sadat’s wish for rapprochement was not incidental, for it caught the attention of labour-poor, oil-rich Arab states. In essence, Sadat ensured that Egypt would provide continuing trained and untrained labour for Arab states’ rising labour needs. To drive this point home, the Egyptian regime employed the October 1973 War. As a result of the 1973 War, according to the Egyptian regime’s rationale, ‘Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf emirates were awash in surplus earnings from oil exports. Sadat was not at all reticent in claiming his share’. Securing increased ﬁnancial aid from Saudi Arabia was a chief goal of Sadat, and promoting Egyptian migration became an intrinsic part of this strategy. This was justiﬁed in two ways: ﬁrst, Egyptian efforts during the Arab–Israeli Wars carried a moral implication that Arab states contribute to its economic well-being; second, the heightened need for migrant workers in the oil-producing Arab countries, combined with Egypt’s labour surplus, suggested a mutually beneﬁcial, honourable solution that allowed Sadat to save face – bypassing a main problem that had dissuaded Nasser from espousing labour emigration. The conﬂation of these two elements occurred through a strategy that linked Egypt’s “extraordinary” sacriﬁces during the various conﬂicts with Israel to continued Arab aid, albeit in an indirect form, through the absorption of its excess labour force.
Egyptian labour, in its perceived importance for the Arab–Israeli Wars and its potential utility to labour-poor Arab countries, gradually dominated the Egyptian elite’s discourse in the post-1973 period. ‘Egypt is the Arabs’ fortress’, prominent journalist Musa Sabry wrote, referring to the Arab–Israeli Wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. ‘She has sacriﬁced 100,000 martyrs over 4 wars’. Implied here was an economic quid pro quo: according to Sadat’s rationale, Egypt’s sacriﬁce in labour necessitated not only closer cooperation between the Arab states, but also concrete aid. ‘We believe that Egypt should call for an immediate Arab meeting, and that the Arab countries should be frankly told that Egypt has shouldered the burden of the Arab cause for 30 years and, as a result, has suffered hunger, become impoverished and made sacriﬁces’. Sadat, according to journalist and conﬁdant Anis Mansur, ‘considered his preoccupation with Egyptian affairs too onerous for him to add any Arab problems to them, and [felt] that to manage the affairs of the 37 million Egyptians is too heavy to be made heavier by the misery of 70 million more Arabs. Egyptians abroad’, Mansur claimed, ‘form a “working army” for the sake of Egypt and of all Arabs’. ‘We do not want gratuities’, Hegazy declared; ‘we do not state our needs and ask for aid. Egypt has huge trained manpower potential…Egyptian manpower is the most precious capital we possess’. It is in this light that Egypt’s decision to have the ‘export of labor become an ofﬁcially recognized policy objective’ should be understood. As Saddam Hussein graciously acknowledged, Egyptian wartime sacriﬁces needed to be repaid through cross-regime coordination on migration:
‘There is not a single Arab citizen or a single Arab country that is not indebted to the Egyptian people, and the Egyptian soldiers, for their sacriﬁces at all times ... It is nationally incumbent on every true Arab to hasten to repay part of that debt so that giant and generous Egypt should continue to stand on its feet in full grandeur. We in Iraq are prepared to contribute to that duty, and that honour. Our doors are ﬂung open to Egyptian farmers, workers, and intellectuals. They will be assured here of the same treatment as their Iraqi brothers, without the least discrimination.’