The new Egyptian Interior Minister, Maj.-Gen. Mansour al-Issawi announced last week that Egyptian women who have a child with a Palestinian man can confer their Egyptian citizenship to their child.  This is a significant shift in Egyptian citizenship law with implications from both a gender and a Palestinian perspective.

The Egyptian Parliament passed a new citizenship law in 2004 that allowed Egyptian women married to non-Egyptian men to pass their Egyptian citizenship to their children – so long as the non-Egyptian father was not Palestinian.  The children of Egyptian men, regardless of the nationality of the women with whom they have children, have always been able to inherit their father’s legal nationality.  The 2004 law removed a long-standing form of sex discrimination in the Egyptian citizenship law, but did so by creating an important carve-out that preserved a “special status” for Palestinians.  The basis for that exclusion in the law was a 1957 Arab League resolution urging Arab states not to grant Palestinians citizenship in order to preserve the Palestinian identity.

According to media coverage, “The move came following protests in Cairo by scores of Egyptian mothers of Palestinians demanding that they not be singled out.”

The overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt has ushered in a number of important paradigm changes.  One of them is a refiguration of Egypt’s relationship to Israel/Palestine.  Mubarak was well-know as a loyal friend of Israel, often to the detriment of the Palestinians locked into Gaza.  Marking a significant sift from the policies of the Mubarak regime, the interim Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil al-Arabi, recently announced the indefinite opening of the Rafa border crossing with Gaza, thus allowing the flow of food, medicine, humanitarian aid and other essential goods.  Mubarak’s participation in the blockade of Gaza was quite controversial, insofar as the blockade was widely viewed as a form of collective punishment of the population of Palestinians living in Gaza.  The International Committee of the Red Cross said in 2010 that the blockade was a clear violation of international humanitarian law.

The new Egyptian government’s willingness to allow the children of Egyptian women and Palestinian men to gain Egyptian citizenship signals an important shift in the Egyptian government’s relationship to the plight of Palestinians living both within and without Palestine.  After all, the largest group of non-Egyptian men to whom Egyptian women are married is Palestinian men – 33 %.  Up until this important reform in Egyptian law, the children of these relationships – many of them now adults – were stateless, living in Egypt as they are in Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia among other regional states with a liminal and precarious status without nationality or the rights/obligations of any state citizenship.  Jordan has granted some Palestinians Jordanian citizenship but has systematically withdrawn that recognition under policies that have been condemned by, among others, Human Rights Watch.

This new law marks an important shift in the treatment of Palestinians in the regional diaspora, insofar as their present circumstances are seen to take precedence over larger geo-political goals (such as the benefits to authoritarian regimes of the ongoing emiseration of the Palestinians).  It will be interesting to see to what degree Egyptian policy reforms serve as a model for larger reforms in the region.

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