CAIRO (WOMENSENEWS)–The massive edifice of the Mugamma, the center of Egypt’s sprawling bureaucracy in downtown Cairo, always hosts a hive of people searching for the myriad permits and licenses necessary to do just about anything here.
For the past month, it has been busier than ever, especially in the Department of Passports, Immigration and Citizenship as thousands of Egyptian women married to foreigners go to see if they can get citizenship for their children.
On Sept. 28, President Hosni Mubarak closed the annual ruling party conference with a number of announcements, including a rather vaguely worded statement that the Interior Ministry would begin processing citizenship applications for children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers. If the president’s assurances are actually implemented, Egyptian women will gain the historic right to pass their nationality on to their children. Until now, nationality could only be conferred by the father.
The president also said that parliamentary preparations would begin for a new citizenship law allowing mothers to confer nationality on their children. If the government places too many conditions on the citizenship applications–as many advocates fear–hopes will turn toward this new law which could face parliament at the earliest by spring.
More than a quarter million Egyptian women are married to non-Egyptians and they have more than a million children who until now were not eligible for citizenship. A few days after the announcement the press reported that an estimated 1,000 mothers had already gone to the Mugamma to start the process and there have been thousands more since.
Material Advantages of Citizenship
The president’s announcement cannot come soon enough for the hundreds of thousands who have been born and raised in Egypt but have no citizenship. Aside from the sentimental sense of belonging, citizenship conveys significant material advantages. Foreign children are not entitled to state-provided free medical care and education. This means that parents have to send their children to expensive private schools or pay public school fees in foreign currency. To get jobs, employers must be willing to process work permits on their behalf.
"It makes you feel totally dismissed that you are born and living in the country, but when it comes to official documents you are treated like a foreigner," said Yasmine, 28, who speaks Egyptian Arabic and considers herself Egyptian. She prefers her real name not be used because she is currently applying for citizenship.
With a Jordanian father (who left the family when she was quite young) and an Egyptian mother, Yasmine is required by the government to have a residency permit and to pay foreign prices for education.
"It is a real achievement because we’ve been working on this for more than 10 years," said Berlant Qabeel, media coordinator for the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, one of the many organizations that have been pressing to change the 1975 citizenship law.
However, she warned that, as with many official announcements in Egypt, there could be a gap between the policy’s declaration and its implementation. "They are not that enthusiastic about it," she said, referring to the Interior Ministry, which is charged with carrying out the president’s directive and any new law that may pass. "They don’t like it."
"We are a little bit worried that no change will happen," said Qabeel, "You know the law can take ages until it is issued."
Activists such as Qabeel expect that burdensome documentation requirements and associated fees will continue to bar citizenship to many children of Egyptian women.
Experts say that most of the women striving to get their children citizenship won’t succeed since they don’t have the proper documents or the estimated $200 to pay for the necessary paperwork or the lengthy process of identification and security clearance.
Numerous Conditions Apply
A few days after the president’s announcement General Hamdi Hafez, the head of the Department of Passports and Immigration, announced that children of Egyptian mothers who seek citizenship must be over 21, be gainfully employed, have proof of 10 years’ continuous residence in Egypt, have a clean criminal record and not be handicapped.
Palestinians are excluded even from these strict conditions by a 1959 agreement made by the Arab world not to give Palestinians citizenship in order to preserve their national identity.
Also, extensive proof–in the form of documents that many people lack–is required about the citizenship of the mother’s father. The general justified the heavy documentation with the oft-cited reasons used to deny these children Egyptian citizenship, namely preventing increase in population, social burden and security concerns.
"Investigations are necessary, so that no strange elements enter Egyptian society and threaten its internal security–for example in the case of an Egyptian women married to an Israeli or an Afghan who might be affiliated to one of the terrorist organizations," said Hafez in a press conference. He said the issue was not the same for a foreign woman married to an Egyptian man since children are believed to identify with the father’s nationality.
Efforts in the past to bring the issue up in the parliament, which has seven female members out of 454, have been repeatedly squashed, usually with members of parliament citing threats to security due to the children’s supposed divided loyalties. On the other hand, with the president’s approval and clout, the law should face little opposition.
While there are certainly cases of well-off mixed marriages, there is a very common phenomenon of foreign-born husbands walking out on their Egyptian wives and leaving them impoverished and with the children.
Situations like these make the Interior Ministry’s conditions almost impossible to meet, since it is difficult to be gainfully employed without citizenship. Also, limiting applicants to over 21 years of age means that parents still have to cope with expensive school fees.
Plans to Pursue Issue in Court
Also for male children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers, it is very difficult to get married, since few Egyptian parents want their daughter’s children to suffer the same stigma.
Organizations such as the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, however, are not relying solely in the parliament, but are also using the courts.
"We are working on all roads, the case in front of the Constitutional Court has been there for a long time," said Qabeel, referring to an ongoing lawsuit to declare the 1975 law unconstitutional. Since the Egyptian constitution grants men and women equal rights, the plaintiffs argue that mothers should have the right to pass on their citizenship to their children.
The government-formed National Council for Women in Egypt, chaired by the country’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, has been pushing strongly to address this issue. This has earned the grudging respect of independent women’s nongovernmental organizations that had initially distrusted the council.
Paul Schemm has been working as journalist in Cairo since 1998 and is the editor of the Cairo Times.
For more information:
Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women
(In English and Arabic):
The National Council for Women in Egypt
(In English and Arabic):