Amendments to Egypt’s nationality law: An obscure state for the ‘stateless’

Suggested amendments to the law governing Egyptian citizenship, approved by the Cabinet last Wednesday, may open the door to an unprecedented legal situation in Egypt: Egyptians without the nationality of any state and therefore without legal rights. While people may be left “stateless” by migration, war, political strife or malleable borders, those in Egypt would see citizen rights previously granted to them at birth or at a later point evaporate through legislation, rendering their presence in Egypt “illegal.”

The phenomena is not without precedent. In Arabic, the noun bidoun, translated as “without,” emerged to refer to the over 100,000 stateless people in Kuwait, who cannot access healthcare, education, the employment market and other necessary public services, as Amnesty International notes in previous statements.

While proponents of the amendment in Egypt and the draft legislation’s own verbiage are painted in the veneer of guarding national security and public order, the proposed changes would give broad leeway to the state to target individuals for their political positions, according to legal experts who say that it contravenes the Egyptian Constitution.  

Under what conditions can the state revoke Egyptian nationality?

Egyptian nationality is regulated by Law 26/1975, which grants the Cabinet the power to issue decisions to revoke Egyptian nationality. The law stipulates procedures for two types of Egyptian citizens: those who acquired Egyptian nationality and those for whom it is a birthright.

Article 15 of the law regulates the withdrawal of nationality from a person who acquired it through naturalization under the following circumstances:

  1. If he or she acquired it through fraud or based on false statements;
  2. If he or she has not resided in Egypt for two consecutive years in the absence of an excuse considered acceptable by the Interior Minister;
  3. If he or she is sentenced in Egypt for a felony or issued a penalty that restricts freedom in a dishonorable crime;
  4. If he or she is convicted of a crime that is harmful to the security of the state, whether abroad or locally.

The suggested amendments approved by the Cabinet would add a new condition by which a person who has acquired Egyptian citizenship could be stripped of his or her nationality, according to Major General Abdel Fattah Sirag, the deputy director of Legal Affairs Department at the Interior Ministry. “[Nationality can be withdrawn, if [a person] joins any group, association, body, organization, gang or any entity of any nature with the aim of harming the public order of the state or to undermine the social and economic order by force or by any unlawful means,” Sirag told the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.

Article 16 of the law, on the other hand, enumerates the circumstances under which those who were granted citizenship at birth can be stripped of Egyptian nationality:

  1. Obtaining another nationality without the permission of the Interior Ministry.
  2. If he or she agrees to serve in the military of a foreign state without prior authorization from the defense minister, or has accepted a job abroad with a foreign government or a foreign or international body and has remained in the position for six months after receiving a reasoned order issued by the Cabinet to leave it; if his persistence in the position despite the Cabinet order might threaten the supreme interests of the country.
  3. If he or she works for the benefit of a foreign state or government that is in a state of war with Egypt, or with whom diplomatic relations with Egypt have been cut, due to possible harm to Egypt’s military, diplomatic or economic situation or compromises any other national interest.
  4. If his or her stay abroad and work with a foreign agency aims to undermine the social or economic order of the state by force or by unlawful means.
  5. If he or she is residing abroad and was convicted of a crime that harms state security.

The new amendments would require Egyptian nationals serving in a foreign military without authorization, or working in jobs abroad with a foreign government or a foreign or international body to leave their posts immediately upon receiving a Cabinet order to quit, waiving the six-month grace period. They also permit the state to revoke Egyptian nationality for individuals convicted of crimes that are considered harmful to state security who live locally, as well as those living abroad.

They would add a sixth condition by which Egyptian nationality can be revoked from a citizen who has enjoyed it since birth: “Anyone who joins any group, association, body, organization, organization, gang or entity of any nature inside or outside the country that aims to harm public order of the state or undermine the social economic or political situation,” according to the minutes of the Cabinet meeting in which the amendments were approved.

These proposed changes to the nationality law complement Article 7 of the law regulating terrorist entities and individuals, which makes provision for the three-year withdrawal of a passport or the prohibition of the issuance of a new passport for that time for those whom the court decides to add to the terror list, effectively curtailing their citizen rights.

What happens to those whose nationality is withdrawn?

In October 2014, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb issued a decision to revoke the nationality of Hesham Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb “for his permanent residence outside the country and his association with a foreign body that seeks to undermine the social and economic order of the state,” according to the text of the resolution published in the Egyptian Gazette. The resolution, however, did not disclose the foreign body in question or whether the decision was based on a judicial ruling of related conviction.

Tayeb acquired Egyptian nationality from his Egyptian mother, according to sovereign sources who spoke to the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper at the time. The sources added that “a security report was prepared [on Hisham al-Tayeb], and about his movements inside Egypt. The report was submitted to the Cabinet, which revoked his nationality.”

Prior to the latest amendments, none of the provisions of Article 16 of the law allowed for the state to revoke nationality from a person who has no other nationality and lives inside Egypt, unless she or he works for a foreign state or government at war with Egypt.

Lawyer Ahmed Ragheb believes that the new amendment will be applied to defendants in political cases related to state security, which opens the door to its use as a tool in “political fights.”

For Ragheb, if the state were to revoke citizenship from Egyptians after they had been convicted in crimes related to security, the decision would be an accessory penalty, in the same way that those convicted of certain crimes are denied the right to run for public office.

There is no justification for depriving an Egyptian national of her nationality, even in cases where she or he is convicted of sedition, Ragheb says, adding that to plot the question of nationality into political tensions is “absolutely immoral,” on one level, and, on another, contravenes Egypt’s Constitution:

Article 6 of the Constitution enshrines citizen rights to Egyptians: “Nationality is a right to anyone born to an Egyptian father or an Egyptian mother, and legal recognition through official papers proving his/her personal data, is a right guaranteed and regulated by Law.”

And while there are clear mechanisms to guard citizenship rights, there are no laws in Egypt to protect the status of those without the protection afforded by nationality, according to Ragheb. For him, it would be an imperative for the state to draft legislation to address these new cases if the amendments are approved.

International law

Egypt’s potential decision to expand the scope of cases where the state can revoke citizenship bucks international trends, according to Ahmed Abdel Karim Salama, a professor of private international law at Helwan University. Salama says that many countries have aimed to reduce the conditions under which citizenship can be revoked, turning instead to deterrence penalties.

According to the lawyer, the new amendment would contravene international conventions that Egypt is a party to, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.”

According to Article 26 of the nationality law, “the provisions of international treaties and conventions relating to citizenship concluded between Egypt and foreign countries, even if they violate the provisions of this law, shall be applied.”

However, in a TV interview, Sirag justified the new amendments by arguing that they are being drafted after receiving requests from citizens. He referred to lawsuits brought by citizens before the State Council demanding the withdrawal of nationality from some “terrorist elements” that “seek to threaten Egyptian national security,” lawsuits that were rejected because of their illegality.

The United State Supreme Court dealt with similar issues in its 1958 ruling on Trop v. Dallas, which came just after the political repression of the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

Albert Trop was a natural born citizen of the United States who deserted from the US Army while serving in Casablanca, Morocco. He was subsequently court-martialed and sentenced to three years of hard labor and dishonorably discharged from the military.

In 1952, when Trop applied for a new passport, his application was denied, as the nationality act of 1940 stipulated that members of the US armed forces who had deserted the military would lose their citizenship if they had been dishonorably discharged.

Trop filed a lawsuit challenging the denial of his passport and seeking a declaration that he was a US citizen, and the US Supreme Court accepted his appeal and overturned the decision not to issue him a passport.

In its ruling, the court stated that the issue of nationality “is not subject to the general powers of the Government” and therefore it cannot deprive a citizen of his or her nationality.

The court further added that the decision to strip a citizen of her nationality by way of criminal punishment constituted “a cruel and unusual punishment,” which is prohibited under the US Bill of Rights, and described the article in the law as unconstitutional.

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

Mohamed Hamama 

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