Tuesday, October 15, 2002


Out of Egypt

By Alexander Kitroeff

Accounts of the demise of the once-glorious Greek presence in modern Egypt like to employ the last line of Constantine Cavafy’s poem, The God Abandons Antony, as their epigraph: “…say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.” The famous poet was the most important Greek literary figure to live in twentieth-century Egypt. Yet this particular poem was written in 1911, a moment in which the Greeks were still thriving in Egypt. And when the decline came, a little after Cavafy died in 1933, it was not precipitous but gradual. The Greek farewell to Alexandria was a long goodbye.

Betwixt and between
A firework display in Cairo last July was one of the many events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution. Half a century earlier, a group of junior army officers led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser seized power in the early hours of July 23. The country’s head of state, King Faruq, was forced to abdicate and to flee the country aboard the royal yacht. The Free Officers, as Nasser’s putschists were known, began the establishment of a one-party nationalist and quasi-socialist regime.

  Nasser’s nationalism was initially directed against the British, who had ruled Egypt since 1882, when their fleet bombarded Alexandria and put down a nationalist uprising. For reasons that have to do with the Byzantine politics of British imperialism, Egypt was never officially described as a colony. Yet London controlled Cairo even though Egypt was granted political autonomy beginning in 1922; in 1936, the British military presence was limited to the Suez Canal area and the Sinai. But during the Second World War, the fig leaf was torn away when Britain turned Egypt into a major Allied stronghold.

Greek merchants had settled in Egypt long before the British occupation of 1882. The Greek community organization in Alexandria was established in 1843. The Greeks were active in financing and exporting cotton from Egypt, a country that was semi-independent from the Ottoman empire and wholly dependent on the activities of foreign merchants who enjoyed extensive privileges. Egypt was already absorbed into the world economy and, in theory, British occupation should have benefited the foreigners, whose activities were occasionally stymied by local pashas turned into bankers.

Yet as the Greek writer, Stratis Tsirkas, explained in his study of Cavafy’s Egypt, British hegemony in fact constrained the activities of the Greeks and forced them to play the role of middlemen for British interests in lieu of acting as their own agents. Tsirkas famously described the impact on the wealthy Alexandria Greek community as the clash between the old-money protoklassatoi and the nouveaux riche deuteroklassatoi.

Among the first-generation merchant families that were eventually marginalized when the deuteroklassatoi got the upper hand were the Cavafys. It is this decline, which he experienced firsthand, that was probably on the poet’s mind when he was composing The God Abandons Antony, if indeed the farewell to Alexandria can be interpreted as a reflection of Greek life in Egypt.

While Cavafy had to settle for a clerical job in Alexandria’s Irrigation Department rather than a senior managerial position in an export or finance firm, the new Greek elite prospered alongside the city’s other European residents. Greek merchants controlled a quarter of Egypt’s lucrative cotton exports, and they were also prominent in banking, commerce, and in the nascent industrial sector. One of Alexandria’s most exclusive neighborhoods was known as the Quartier Grec. Remittances from Egypt, meanwhile, helped build a series of educational and philanthropic institutions in Greece and also underwrote its military modernization.

The First World War brought changes that would eventually lead to an end to the gilded age of the foreign presence in Egypt. The war’s disruption of the country’s import-export trade generated domestic efforts to build a domestic manufacturing base and achieve a degree of economic self-sufficiency. A weakened Britain in the 1920s could not stem the tide of Egyptian economic and political nationalism. The so-called protectorate status was ended and elections yielded a government made up of moderate nationalists under Saad Zaghloul.

Perfidious Albion
As would be the case with Nasser a generation later, Zaghloul focused on loosening Britain’s grip on the country. The privileges and conveniences accorded to the Greeks and the other foreigners were less pressing. The British, however, anxious to retain strategic if not political and economic control over Egypt, decided that a few limitations on the privileges of the foreign residents would defuse local nationalist passions and allow London to stall in its negotiations with Cairo.

  Meanwhile, the Greeks in Egypt adopted a three-point strategy in an attempt to protect their interests. First, they pledged their support to the Egyptian nationalists and distanced themselves from British rule, invoking their long presence in Egypt and what they described as their contributions to its development. Second, they expressed their willingness to negotiate their future status in Egypt and to make some concessions to nationalist demands. Third, they appealed for assistance from Athens.

Assuming that there is such a thing as a good time for Greeks abroad to ask Athens for help, the late 1920s were certainly not it. Greek society was still trying to absorb the million and a half refugees that had streamed in during and after the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922. Moreover, it would soon face further problems following Wall Street’s crash in 1929. Eleftherios Venizelos, who was prime minister at the time, told the Greeks in Egypt that they had to get on as best they could without help from the motherland. This news must have been particularly galling to the leaders of the Alexandria Greek koinotita (community) leading the Greek mobilization in Egypt since they were cosmopolitan liberals and so, naturally, staunch Venizelists as well.

In the end, the Egyptians managed to gain concessions both from the British and the foreign residents. The Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936 limited Britain’s military presence and stipulated that Britain could interfere in Egyptian domestic affairs only during a crisis. The Montreux treaty of 1937 abolished the capitulations, the privileges granted to foreigners that protected them from taxation and from immunity from local courts. The international courts were scheduled to close in 1948. Meanwhile, Egypt solely assumed the right to judge issues relating to citizenship and to the autonomy of foreign institutions. It was the beginning of the end for the Greeks of Egypt.

Thus, at the time of the revolution in 1952, thousands of Greeks had already begun their exodus from Egypt, heading to Greece, other European countries, or further south through Africa, with many of them settling in South Africa. Yet a large number remained, especially from the wealthy group that had too many investments in Egypt to be able to move easily; with them stayed many of the middle and lower strata for whom emigration was a risky prospect. Nevertheless, the Greek presence was shrinking rapidly from the peak figure of 100,000 it had reached in the 1920s. Egyptian measures obliging business-owners to increase the quotas of Egyptian employees in the late 1940s, introduced by the moderate Egyptian nationalists, fueled the Greek movement out of Egypt. With Australia figuring as an inviting destination, many Greeks boarded ships in Port Said and headed south.

The beginning of the end
After the revolution in 1952, Nasser’s regime adopted a stage-by-stage approach to transforming Egyptian society. In September 1952, it decreed land redistribution, placing a ceiling on ownership of roughly 216 acres, a move that drastically affected the cotton sector. Almost three years later, Nasser proclaimed the “Egyptianization” of foreign companies and joint ventures. This measure still gave some wiggle-room to Greeks who were in partnerships or on boards with Egyptians, but everyone could read the writing on the wall.

Everyone, that is, except the Greek government. There was really only one strategy that could have kept the Greeks in Egypt: some form of citizenship. As long as they remained foreigners, they were doomed, despite their claims of longstanding friendship with the Egyptians – which were genuine, for the most part. Nasser was a nationalist and socialist; the Greeks were mostly foreigners and capitalists, or employees in private companies. Failing a negotiated form of joint citizenship, the Greek government could have offered to broker an agreement by which the Greeks could have left with a part of their capital, with Greece in return pledging financial support to Egypt.

Instead, Prime Minister Alexandros Papagos sent Athens University professor Sotirios Agapitides to study the economic problems facing the Greek koinotites in Egypt, a move akin to sending someone to tune the piano on the Titanic. When Konstantinos Karamanlis became prime minister in 1955, he and foreign minister Evangelos Averoff-Tositsa adopted close relations with Nasser, and tried to reassure the Greeks in Egypt that, somehow, rhetorical warmth between the two countries would protect their interests.

Nasser was evidently not listening. An avalanche of measures restricting the activities of foreigners followed each other in quick succession. In 1956, the Egyptian government placed all foreign community organizations and schools under its jurisdiction. In 1957, the Egyptian leader nationalized all foreign-owned banks and insurance companies, and he also ordered all foreign agencies and representations to pass on to Egyptian ownership. The coup de grace came with a string of nationalization of Greek and foreign-owned manufacturing companies.

Within a few years, the Greek presence in Egypt was reduced to a few thousand persons. Their number has dwindled since then but several hundreds remain, as do a handful of their once-imposing communal institutions. These few Greeks who are left might not have said goodbye yet, but their Alexandria is lost.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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