Egyptians in Canada are of various ethnic and religious backgrounds which reflect the diversity that characterized the population of Egypt in the nineteenth and for most of the twentieth centuries. Located in the far northeastern corner of the African continent, Egypt’s landmass of just over 1 million square kilometres is washed by the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Red Sea in the east, and it borders Libya in the east, Sudan in the south, and, along its Sinai peninsula, Israel in the far northeast. Ninety percent of the country is covered by desert, so that the vast majority of its 55.6 million people as well as its agricultural lands are concentrated in the Nile valley. The Nile runs the entire length of the country from the far south to a broad delta where its many tributaries empty into the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt is renowned as one of the world’s oldest civilizations, whose empire, founded about 3200 B.C.E. and ruled by native rulers known as pharaohs, was to last for nearly three thousand years. When Egypt was finally conquered by Persia in 525 B.C.E., the country entered a period marked by foreign domination that was to last until the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the new rulers brought with them innovations that were to have a lasting impact on Egyptian culture. The Hellenic Greeks (332 B.C.E.–30 C.E.) replaced the hieroglyphic signs of the language of the pharaohs with the Greek letters of the Coptic language. Under Roman and Byzantine rule (30–640 c.e.), Christianity became the dominant religion although the indigenous Coptic Christians refused to surrender their traditional beliefs despite opposition from the Byzantine authorities. The Arabs, who conquered Egypt in 640 and incorporated the country into their caliphate, brought the Islamic faith and the Arabic language. The Egyptians, the majority of whom were Christian Copts, did not oppose the Arab invasion, seeing in the new political order a chance to liberate themselves from the unpopular Byzantium. Arabic became the official language and by the ninth century the majority of Egyptian Copts had converted to Islam.
Following the fall of the Arabic caliphate, much of the Islamic Middle East was ruled by the Mamelukes, a military caste of Circassian, Turkoman, or Mongol origin, who during their presence in Egypt (1250–1517) made the country the centre of the Arabic-speaking Muslim world. Then, in 1517, Egypt fell to the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was largely nominal, however, so that Egypt, like many of the empire’s other provinces, was left largely under the authority of a local governor (pasha). Under such a system, Egypt had, by the nineteenth century, effectively become a semi-independent state, most especially during the long rule (1805–49) of Pasha Mehemet Ali.
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the growing influence of European powers in Egypt, in particular France and Great Britain, whose primary concern was that their own strategic interests not be threatened by any internal or external forces which might undermine further the increasingly weakened Ottoman Empire. French influence culminated with the construction in 1869 of the Suez Canal connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. When an Egyptian revolt against increasing European domination broke out in 1882, the British landed troops, crushed the revolt, and then remained to administer the country directly for the next forty years.
The nineteenth century also witnessed the demographic transformation of Egypt. Encouraged by its local governors, large numbers of immigrants from Europe and from nearby Lebanon and Syria were welcomed. As a result, by the outset of the twentieth century Egypt’s population consisted of three broad categories: native Egyptians (the overwhelming majority), semi-Egyptianized groups, and foreigners.
The native Egyptians – both Muslims (mainly Sunnis) and Christian Copts – are considered to be descendants from the time of the Pharaohs and the Arab conquerors. Although their religion differs, both groups share a common language (Arabic) and a common history. Muslims still represent the vast majority (over 85 percent) of Egypt’s population, while Christian Copts account for between 6 and 10 percent.
Although a minority, the history and traditions of the Copts are uniquely Egyptian. The very word “Copt” is derived from the Greek word for the country – “Aegyptus.” Moreover, in contrast to other minorities, the Copts have remained actively involved in all aspects of Egyptian life and share many cultural traits with the Muslim majority. They also fought alongside Muslims in the defense of Egypt, as was demonstrated during the struggle against British occupation in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, ever since becoming a minority following the seventh-century Arab conquest, the Copts have been subject to various degrees of discrimination and persecution. Partly in response to their plight, they have increased their value to society by specializing in certain professions (for example, land surveying, accounting, tax collecting, and governmental services), by placing great importance on education, and by learning foreign languages (usually English or French).
The semi-Egyptianized groups include the Syrians and Lebanese, the Armenians, and the Jews. Although not considered native Egyptians, these groups are not really foreigners either, especially since they speak Arabic and have, in part, adopted an Egyptian lifestyle. Although the Syrians and Lebanese have been present in Egypt since its early history, large-scale immigration to the country began in the late eighteenth century. Over the next century and a half their numbers increased from 3,000 to 100,000, so that by the 1940s they had become the second-largest minority in Egypt, living for the most part in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities near the Suez Canal where they engaged primarily in trade and commerce. Most Syrians and Lebanese in Egypt were Christians (Antiochian Orthodox Melkites or Maronite Catholics), although a considerable number became Muslims who assimilated quickly and easily into Egyptian society. Whether or not they converted to Islam, most were bilingual and the Lebanese particularly were known for their adoption of the French language and French culture.
It is in this sense that the Syrio-Lebanese community in Egypt maintained a transitional status. While their mother tongue was Arabic and their cultural background Middle Eastern, they continued to admire and adopt European cultural traits. On the other hand, even though they were immigrants, Egyptian society usually thought of them as a local people, who had become Egyptian nationals and carried Egyptian passports.
Armenians came to Egypt mainly in the last decades of the nineteenth and outset of the twentieth centuries. By the 1940s, they numbered about 30,000. The Armenians maintained their own language, culture, and religion, and, although many spoke Arabic, they never abandoned their Armenian mother tongue. The majority belonged to the Armenian Apostolic (Gregorian) Church and lived mainly in Cairo and Alexandria where they found employment as merchants and skilled artisans.
Jewish communities in Egypt, especially in Cairo, can be traced back to the seventh century. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that their numbers grew from about 7,000 at the outset to 25,000 (1897) and eventually to 65,000 by the 1940s. About 70 percent had immigrated from other Arab countries and the remainder from Europe. In general, the Jews in Egypt were an Arabic-speaking community, and, while they had their own Jewish schools and synagogues, many of their children were sent to European schools which emphasized the French and English languages. The Jews were concentrated in cities and towns, particularly Cairo and Alexandria, where they were active as merchants, artisans, money-dealers, and, later, professional clerks and agents in commercial enterprises. Although originally considered native to Egypt, by the early twentieth century the Jews could be classified as semi-Egyptianized. This was the result of two factors: the phenomenon of Egyptian-born Jews integrating into the community of Jewish immigrants; and the tendency of Jews to obtain foreign protection and foreign passports. (By the 1930s, it was estimated that only 7 percent of the community were Egyptian citizens.)
The foreign groups (mostly Europeans) began to increase during the first half of the nineteenth century and continued especially after the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and the economic boom of the 1870s. By 1907 they numbered 147,000. The most numerous were Greeks, Italians, French, and British. Initially, French influence was significant because Egypt’s local rulers appointed many to administrative posts. After the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, however, British personnel had the most extensive influence over the country’s affairs. The European communities were self-contained and self-sufficient. Most Europeans worked in industry, transport, commerce, banking, and the service sector, located in the towns of the Nile Delta region and the Canal Zone.
The influence of Europeans over Egyptian affairs was disproportionate to the size of their population. By 1914 they owned 92 percent of the capital invested in the country, despite the fact that they made up less than 2 percent of the population. This trend continued well into the twentieth century, so that by 1948 foreigners controlled 61 percent of the total capital of corporations operating in Egypt. Europeans also had widespread influence over Egypt’s educational system. By the 1930s, the country had 279 French, 91 Italian, 88 Greek, 78 American, and 74 British schools. It was mainly through these schools that the English and French languages were introduced to the Egyptian populace, particularly among the middle- and upper-class urban-dwellers.
Following the outbreak of World War I, Great Britain declared Egypt its protectorate and assumed responsibility for the defence of the Suez Canal. At the end of the war, Egyptian aspirations for independence, led by the newly formed Wafd Party, led to a revolt in 1919 that was crushed by British troops. Although in 1922 the protectorate came to an end and Egypt was recognized a constitutional monarchy under its own kings, real power remained in the hands of the British. The current political order seemed destined to continue with the signing in 1936 of a twenty-year military alliance between Great Britain and Egypt and the accession to the throne that same year of the pro-British King Farouk.
The future of Egypt and its dependence on Great Britain was to change, however, during the years of crisis in the Middle East just after World War II. In 1948 Britain left Palestine, and the subsequent defeat of the Egyptian troops during the Arab-Israeli War of that year caused popular discontent throughout the country. The pre-war Wafd Party finally came to power in 1950. It unilaterally cancelled the 1936 military treaty with Britain and this led to clashes between British and Egyptian troops in the Canal Zone. Finally, in 1952, Egyptian army officers launched a military coup that drove King Farouk into exile and that one year later transformed Egypt into a republic.
The real power behind Egypt’s revolution was Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser, who took control of the government in 1954, thereby becoming the country’s first native Egyptian ruler in more than 2,000 years. Nasser set out to create an Egypt not dependent politically or economically on Britain or any other state. His program to nationalize Egypt’s foreign companies, including the Suez Canal, led to a war with Great Britain, France, and Israel in late 1956. But when the war ended after a few months and the canal reopened, it was under the full control of Egypt. As a result of both the 1956 war and the nationalization laws, large numbers of Jews and Europeans began to emigrate from Egypt.
Nasser also sought to bring Egypt closer to the rest of the Arab world, whose interests he felt obliged to defend. The first step in this direction was to join in 1958 with Syria to form the United Arab Republic. Other Arab states were invited to become members, but this did not happen and the union collapsed in 1961. In the early 1960s Nasser passed another series of nationalization laws, this time directed at large landowners and the largest Egyptian-owned, private-sector companies. By the end of the decade he had sent troops into Yemen and had been ignominiously defeated in the Arab-Israeli Six Day War of 1967, which led to Egypt’s loss of the Sinai peninsula. All these events caused a mood of uncertainty in the country and the beginning of a large-scale emigration of Western-oriented groups like the Lebanese as well as native Egyptians. Among the latter were Copts as well as conservative Muslims who were repressed for their opposition to the secular and at times pro-Soviet orientation of Nasser’s government.
Stability continued to elude Egypt during the first few years after Nasser’s death in 1970 and the accession to power of his supporter and former fellow military officer, Anwar Sadat. Sadat attempted to end the Israeli occupation of the Sinai by launching in October 1973 an attack on Israeli troops stationed in the peninsula. While this move compensated somewhat for Egypt’s defeat in 1967, it was not until Sadat visited Israel ten years later and a treaty recognizing that country was signed in 1978 (the Camp David Accords) that Egypt was assured of the Sinai’s return (which eventually occurred in 1982). In contrast to Nasser, Sadat expelled the large number of Soviet advisers that his predecessor had welcomed, and in 1974 he launched a policy of infitah (economic deregulation) that encouraged foreign investment, most especially from Europe and the United States. Although this program did not fulfil expectations, Sadat’s success in reaching peace with Israel did bring with it large sums in American foreign aid that continue to this day.
Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by discontented conservative Muslims, but his policy of supporting ongoing peace negotiations with Israel and its Arab neighbours has been continued by his successor, Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, Egypt continues to be plagued by widespread poverty in its overcrowded cities, whose conditions continue to worsen as a result of the rapid rise in population. Since 1960 the number of Egypt’s inhabitants has more than doubled and by the end of the century the population is expected to reach 70 million. Egyptian society is also periodically rocked by attacks on the part of extreme Muslim fundamentalists who are discontent with what they perceive as its government’s secular, Western-oriented social and economic policies.
Until the second half of the twentieth century, emigration was almost unknown among Egyptians. It was not part of the traditional culture, and for a citizen to settle outside the country was considered unfortunate. However, the military revolution of 1952 tipped the balance of power among the country’s ethnic groups in favour of the native majority. It resulted in fundamental change in all aspects of Egyptian society. As a result, there was large-scale emigration among the country’s minorities, who experienced a great reduction in their economic and political influence.
Most affected by the revolution were the Europeans, who were more isolated from the native Egyptian (Muslim) majority than the semi-Egyptianized groups. The French and British in particular began leaving in large numbers in response to the revolution, the evacuation of British troops in October 1954, and the Suez Canal crisis two years later. Other Europeans departed after a series of nationalization and sequestration laws were passed in the 1950s, the properties of European citizens seized, and British and French banks and insurance companies taken over by the government. Greeks and Italians began a slower, but steady, exodus in response to laws and regulations reducing the number of non-Egyptian citizens in industrial and commercial establishments. Jews also left the country after 1956, mainly in response to the Suez crisis, in which Israel was involved.
Members of the Coptic community began to emigrate in the early 1960s because they feared increased discrimination. The Syrio-Lebanese and Armenians, who had sometimes been associated with foreigners in Egypt, left the country after another series of nationalization laws was passed at the beginning of the following decade. Some native Egyptians also emigrated, particularly from the 1960s on. They did so for a number of reasons: to obtain a higher level of education, to seek better economic prospects, because their property was nationalized, or to escape political pressure.
The history of Egyptian migration to Canada is a recent one. Individuals began to arrive in this country only in the 1950s and in very small numbers. Immigration since 1956 can be divided into three phases: the years 1956–66, in which non-native (particularly Jewish, European, Syrio-Lebanese, and Armenian) Egyptians predominated; 1967–75, when native citizens made up the majority; and from 1976 to the present, an era in which arrivals from Egypt first declined to several hundred per year and then rose with the entrance of investor immigrants. Between 1962 and 1969, Canada was the most common choice for Egyptian emigrants, with 56 percent identifying the country as their intended destination and 28 percent choosing Australia, 8 percent the United States, and 5 percent Brazil.
Canadian immigration statistics for 1956–66 show that, of the 8,825 arrivals from Egypt, the largest ethnic groups represented were Armenians (32 percent), native Egyptians (17 percent), Lebanese (15 percent), Greeks (11 percent), Jews (6 percent), and Italians (3 percent). The Jews and the Europeans were highly represented among the first arrivals, followed by the Armenians, the Lebanese, and the native Egyptians. Between 1956 and 1959, Jews made up the largest percentage. The proportion of immigrants from that group rose from 28 percent in 1956 to 40 percent in 1959; thereafter it declined until it reached 1.3 percent in 1966.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were also characterized by marked European – particularly Greek and to a lesser extent Italian – immigration. The proportion of Greek immigrants rose from 13 percent of all newcomers in 1956 to 32 percent five years later and declined to 6 percent in 1966. Italians, the next largest European group, had relatively high levels of immigration in the late 1950s (peaking at 9 percent in 1960), followed by a decline during the 1960s. The migration pattern of other European groups followed the Italian trend, with peak migration in the 1950s followed by a steady decrease in the following decade. The numbers of these other European groups, however, were notably lower.
Armenians made up a significant percentage of newcomers from Egypt during this period, particularly between 1962 and 1965, when they were the predominant ethnic group. Immigration rose from 12 percent in 1956 to 46 percent of all Egyptian arrivals six years later and declined to 27 percent by 1966. Syrio-Lebanese immigration occurred at relatively low levels during the 1950s, but grew steadily in the early 1960s. Between 1961 and 1966 it increased from 16 percent to 26 percent of the total. The percentage of native Egyptians fluctuated between 3 and 19 percent in the 1950s and grew to 27 percent by 1966. Arrivals on a large scale by members of this group date only from the mid-1960s.
Early in that decade, the Egyptian government had begun to acknowledge the idea of emigration. The socialist measures of the early 1960s and an increase in the number of university and college graduates beyond local needs led to an outflow of Egyptians, particularly the native, educated population. The acceleration in emigration corresponded with the declining role of the state in the economy. Tens of thousands of graduates were either unemployed or worked in jobs that did not match their qualifications. Native Egyptians also left for political reasons. Many were disillusioned with their government, particularly after Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War with Israel in 1967. That year also marked the beginning of an era of official policy facilitating emigration. The Egyptian constitution of 1971 established such movement, whether permanent or temporary, as a right, and the Parliament passed a number of laws and decrees to encourage the process. For example, emigrants would have the right to be reinstated in former government positions within one year of resigning from them. In addition, those who left could maintain their Egyptian citizenship as well as any acquired in another country.
For its part, Canadian authorities welcomed immigrants from Egypt and in 1969 proposed that this country be responsible for immigrants until they were fully settled. Also significant were the new immigration regulations introduced in 1962, which allowed for the admission of newcomers regardless of nationality and judged their eligibility on the basis of job-related skills. Given the Egyptians’ high educational level and knowledge of English, these measures were another factor that contributed to the growth of the Egyptian community in Canada and determined the characteristics of its members. Subsequently, the number of Egyptians arriving in this country declined from about nine hundred a year in the early 1970s to five hundred annually a decade later. Almost all the newcomers were now native Egyptians. This trend continued until Canadian immigration policy changed in 1985 to allow entry by investors, a development that resulted in approximately 5,455 Egyptians entering Canada between 1986 and 1991. These individuals represented a new type of immigrant. Most were wealthy native Egyptians who had lived under the infitah, and they tended to be more conservative and less exposed to European influences than previous arrivals. Some had worked in oil-producing Arab countries, where they had accumulated significant wealth.
Because of the pluralistic nature of Egyptian society, it is difficult to arrive at a clear definition of an Egyptian after he or she has arrived in this country. Strictly speaking, the designation would be applied to an individual who holds Egyptian citizenship, is of Egyptian origin, speaks the Arabic language, and is a Muslim (usually Sunni) or Coptic Christian. However, a person may not fit all of these criteria but still consider him or herself Egyptian. Such is the case with a small number of the semi-Egyptianized group, that is, some of the Syrio-Lebanese, Armenians, and Jews, particularly those born in Egypt. In this essay, the term “Egyptian” has generally been used in the stricter sense, except where self-definition has determined inclusion in the community in Canada.
Canadian statistics divide Egyptian immigrants into three broad, non-exclusive categories: those whose former residence was Egypt, those who held Egyptian citizenship, and those born in Egypt. Before 1955 those from Egypt or classified as Egyptian were included in the category “Africa–not Britain.” Between 1945 and 1975, 18,939 immigrants to Canada listed Egypt as their former residence, 17,633 carried Egyptian citizenship, and 23,696 were Egyptian by birth. In other words, the smallest category was that of Egyptian citizens and the largest those by birth. In the 1991 Canadian census, 25,425 persons reported their ancestry as wholly (18,950) or partially (6,475) Egyptian.
Quebec has received the largest number of Egyptian immigrants. Of the 22,288 who arrived in Canada between 1956 and 1983, 64 percent indicated that province as their destination. Ontario took in 30 percent, and the remainder chose to settle in other provinces. By 1991, according to the census statistics, 49 percent of all Egyptians in the country lived in Quebec and 41 percent in Ontario. During the period of massive immigration in 1962–69, Quebec was chosen three times as frequently as Ontario. These years coincided with the Quiet Revolution and the migration of large numbers of anglophones from the province. By the late 1960s, this pattern had begun to change; the number of Egyptians choosing Ontario as their destination increased and those settling in Quebec declined. By the mid-1970s, the percentage for the two provinces was more or less equal, and it has remained so to the present.
Three factors account for the preference given to Quebec and Ontario. The initial immigrants from Egypt were non-natives such as Jews, Europeans, and Syrio-Lebanese, most of whom spoke French as a second language. Once the early arrivals had established themselves in Quebec, others were encouraged to follow. Native Egyptians who did not have a strong command of the French language tended to choose Toronto, especially after 1980. A second factor was that, at the time of large-scale Egyptian immigration, Montreal’s position as a major economic centre appealed to many Egyptians whose occupational status was professional or semiprofessional. These characteristics would make Toronto more attractive to immigrants after 1980. Finally, the newcomers – most of whom had come from urban centres such as Cairo and Alexandria – were attracted to the large cosmopolitan cities of eastern Canada. In 1991 Egyptians in Montreal (single and multiple responses combined) numbered 11,695 and those in Toronto 6,870. The next largest concentration (1,680) was in Ottawa-Hull. The pattern of settlement in urban centres reflected a strong individuality among immigrants, made possible by their high educational, occupational, and economic achievements and their linguistic abilities.
In general, Egyptians maintain their professional status after immigrating to Canada and are over-represented in the upper white-collar sector. In a 1989 study of the community in Quebec, 43 percent of respondents reported an annual income over $36,000, while 23 percent were earning $48,000 a year or more. The 1986 census shows that 24 percent of Egyptians in the province were employed as directors, managers, and administrators, 16 percent as office workers, 13 percent as teachers, and 10 percent in sales.
Over the years the number of immigrants seeking professional and semi-professional jobs has increased. Such employment accounted for 29 percent of all occupations in the group in the mid-1960s; a decade later, the proportion had more than doubled to 63 percent. At the same time, the percentage of lower white-collar workers (bookkeepers, cashiers, sales clerks, and transportation and communications workers) fell from 45 to 15 percent. The proportion of blue-collar workers among Egyptians in Canada dropped from 24 percent in the mid-1960s to 14 percent a decade later. Thus, the upward trend for professional and semi-professional occupations and the decrease in other occupational categories is unmistakable. The Egyptian investor immigrants who entered the country after 1985 did not for the most part work in their area of professional specialization, in part because of their late age at arrival and in part because of a recession and the restructuring of the Canadian economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Like other recent arrivals, Egyptian immigrants have sought to rebuild the business, social, and personal relationships that they knew in the homeland. These networks address the needs of employment, education, religion, social contact, and personal friendships. Generally speaking, Egyptians have tended to join two types of institutions in the broader Canadian society: economic and educational. They have also created their own religious and socio-cultural organizations to satisfy needs that were not met by the institutions of the host society. The most successful of these have been the churches, which have played both a religious and a social role in the community.
A number of socio-cultural institutions have been established that are non-religious and non-political and that gather community members together for a variety of activities, but they have had limited success. This fact is reflected in three phenomena: the discontinuity of the organizations, internal splits, and the failure to establish an umbrella association for the community as a whole. The limited success of these institutions can be tied to the fact that most Egyptians have come to Canada as economically independent, professional, bilingual, or even multilingual immigrants. The absence of linguistic and employment barriers has meant that they have not experienced great difficulty in adapting to the new society and have been able to satisfy most of their needs through Canadian institutions. Their own community organizations, therefore, have not developed out of necessity, but have been entirely voluntary.
The Canadian Coptic Association was established in 1968 by members of the Coptic Orthodox Rite. Its goal was to unite the group, preserve its culture, and make it known to other Canadians. The first activity of the organization was a bimonthly magazine called the Canadian Coptic Association, which was published in Arabic, French, and English and was primarily concerned with the history, language, and culture of the Copts. The association also organized a variety of social activities, such as parties and excursions. In late 1972 it split into two parts: the Canadian Coptic Association and the Egyptian-Canadian Association (based in Montreal). The former continued to publish a magazine, renamed Al Resala (The Message), which focused, as before, on the Coptic community. The Egyptian-Canadian Association began publishing its own trilingual magazine, called the Egyptian-Canadian Association, which emphasized news about Egypt and Egyptian immigrants generally. Both organizations had ceased by 1975.
The Nile Club was officially established in Montreal in 1974 with the goal of promoting Egyptian culture and the Arabic language. Its membership peaked in the late 1970s at 150, but the association ceased as a result of its organizers’ loss of interest. Also based in Montreal is the Association Culturelle Égypte-Québec, which has as its aims facilitating the integration of Egyptians into Canadian society and promoting Egyptian culture. It was initially conceived as an umbrella organization for the community in Canada, but it has never achieved this status. The association had about 170 members in 1986, 90 percent of whom were native Egyptians. It has hosted a number of cultural events, including an annual art exhibition featuring the work of Quebec and Egyptian artists. In 1984 an Arabic school was organized within the association; it eventually separated to form an independent institution. Established in June 1989, the Egyptian-Canadian Friendship Association had a membership of six hundred families four years later. In that year the association published the first Egyptian-Canadian directory and began the journal El Masry (The Egyptians). The Egyptian Businessmen’s Organization was formed in 1993 with the goal of encouraging trading and business relations with Egypt.
Les Partenaires de l’Association Chrétienne de la Haute Égypte (PACHE) began its activities in 1977 and was incorporated two years later. It exists to provide moral and material support to its counterpart in Egypt, the Association Chrétienne de la Haute Égypte, and it believes that education is crucial to socio-economic development. Money for its activities is provided by the Canadian International Development Agency and an annual fund-raising campaign. The association also organizes various cultural activities and conferences on social issues. It promotes its activities through the newsletter Eux et nous (Them and us; Montreal, 1982–). Incorporated in 1956, Friends of Bambi Egypt provides social and medical assistance to mothers and children in Egypt. The organization receives substantial support from the Quebec government and from Canada’s Egyptian community.
The independent nature of Egyptian immigrants has resulted in a proliferation of associations with overlapping, if not identical, functions. This individualism has slowed attempts at cooperation between organizations. Most such efforts so far have failed, as have attempts to establish an umbrella group. The Association CulturelleÉgypte-Quebec and the Al-beit Al Masry (Egyptian Home) were examples of such unsuccessful endeavours. As of the mid-1990s, efforts were underway to establish communication between the various associations, but it remains unclear whether they will result in unification or continue the process of proliferation. Today, many, though not all, members of the Egyptian community have become established in Canadian society. With their basic needs taken care of, they are more inclined to promote their culture and traditions within their community. Egyptian Canadians now encourage their children to study the Arabic language and traditions. The community is also seeking to establish ties and exchange information with the homeland in order to promote Egyptian culture in Canada.
Changes have occurred within the Egyptian family in this country, in particular with regard to its composition, its authority structure, the role of women and youth, financial and household responsibilities, and attitudes towards children, sexuality, religion, and politics. In Egypt, financial responsibilities were traditionally the husband’s domain, while the household and the care of children were the wife’s, whether or not she was employed outside the home. In Canada, however, many husbands have taken on a larger share of household duties, including childcare. Changes have also occurred in attitudes towards children, which can be described as generally more tolerant in Canada than they are in the homeland. This difference is more apparent with regard to boys than to girls.
Although most Egyptians prefer that their children marry members of their own community, believing that such unions will be more successful, they generally do not oppose intermarriage with members of other ethnic groups. A survey of Egyptian immigrants in Quebec in 1989 showed that 29 percent of the respondents’ marriages were with non-Egyptian partners. The traditional attitudes towards sexual relations have also changed. Less importance is apparently placed on the virginity of women at marriage than in traditional Egyptian culture. In the same study, 42 percent of respondents disagreed that a woman should be a virgin at marriage, while 31 percent agreed and 31 percent did not express an opinion. There was a wide range of views regarding premarital sex: 31 percent said that they would allow their daughter to spend the night in the house of her boyfriend, 48 percent indicated that they would not, and 18 percent had no opinion. Public displays of affection, however, are still frowned upon by the majority of Egyptian Canadians, with 60 percent of respondents believing that it was improper to kiss in public.
Egyptian immigrants come from a wide spectrum of cultures. Native Egyptians, Syrio-Lebanese, Armenians, Greeks, Italians, and Jews have been able to live together in peace because they have valued integration and unity since ancient times. This orientation has been reflected in the acculturation process of Egyptians in Canada in both the private and the public spheres. Immigrants have generally not retained an Egyptian way of life in their homes. Instead, concessions have been made to the Canadian reality, particularly with regard to language preferences, eating habits, and the observance of holidays.
The majority of middle-class Egyptians speak Arabic and at least some French or English, but the tendency to speak the latter languages increases after their arrival in Canada. According to the 1986 census, only 0.9 percent of Egyptians in Quebec knew neither French nor English, while 73.7 percent knew both languages, 28.2 percent French only, and 5.6 percent English only. A 1989 study in that province showed that the minority (31 percent) of respondents spoke only Arabic at home, whereas the majority (53 percent) spoke either English (30 percent) or French (18 percent) or both languages (5 percent).
After their arrival in Canada, Egyptian immigrants have tended to adopt Canadian food while retaining some of their own traditional dishes. The same study revealed that the majority of those questioned (65 percent) ate both Egyptian and Canadian food, while 23 percent ate only Egyptian and 8.5 percent only Canadian dishes. Egyptian cuisine draws on many cultures, including ancient Egyptian, Arabic, Turkish, and both Western and Eastern European. Among the common dishes are those based on legumes, such as foul (beans), tameia (falafel), adse (lentil soup), bisara (beans), and kousharey (lentils and macaroni with fried onions in a tomato sauce); on vegetables, including melokeia (green leaf soup), mesakaa (fried eggplant with meat sauce), stuffed vine leaves and stuffed cabbage rolls; and on grains, such as freek (roasted green wheat), koskosi (couscous), and fata (bread, soup, and meat). Most Egyptian desserts are made from wheat products and syrup. They include basbousa, kounafa, katayif, baklawa, and Lokmet El Kadi (or bread of the judges, which resembles a pancake soaked in syrup). Likewise, the majority of Egyptians in Canada celebrate both Western and Egyptian holidays. Of those surveyed in Quebec in 1989, 52 percent celebrated both, while 39 percent observed only Western holidays and 4.6 percent only Egyptian ones. In Egypt the major holidays are Cham-El-Nassim (spring celebration), which takes place on the Monday following Easter, and the anniversary of the 1952 revolution on 23 July. As well, Egyptian Copts observe Neirouz (New Year) on 11 September, Christmas on 7 January, and Easter.
The community in Canada receives news from the homeland through both the broadcast and print media. In 1995–96 there were three television programs in Quebec. The Voice of Egypt in Canada is a thirty-minute current affairs show produced in Montreal and aired five times a week. Broadcast in English and Arabic, it consists of news and interviews with members of the Egyptian-Canadian community and Egyptians abroad. Magazine de la télévisionne egyptienne, which was first aired in 1970, is also produced in Montreal. It is a half-hour variety show containing news, interviews, and entertainment items and is broadcast four times a week. Its principal language is Arabic, but 30 percent of the program is in English and French. The most recent addition is the Arabic World Film, also from Montreal, which broadcasts Arabic films in one-hour segments three times a week. Another program, Égypte: Terre des Pharaons, ceased in the late 1980s. Although there have been broadcasts from Ontario in the past, none currently originate from that province.
The first Egyptian magazine in Canada, Egypt and the Arab World (Montreal and Ottawa, 1974– ), a monthly publication written mainly in Arabic with some English and French, carries news about Egypt, the Middle East, Canada, and the Egyptian community in this country. Its subscribers are mainly Canadian, but it also has readers in the United States and Egypt. Almost all Egyptian socio-cultural organizations also issue a newsletter or magazine. These publications are generally of an informative nature and cover both local and international events.
As a group, Egyptian Canadians are highly educated. A representative sampling of the community in Quebec in 1989 revealed that 74 percent had a university degree (57 percent possessed a bachelor’s degree, 13 percent a master’s, and 3.3 percent a doctorate). By contrast, among the population of the province generally, only 10 percent of francophones and 23 percent of non-francophones held university degrees. In Egypt, education is viewed as a means not only of obtaining a job but also of achieving status and social mobility. Immigrants to Canada, most of whom are from the middle or upper-middle classes, have brought this attitude with them. Private schooling for the children is highly regarded, the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal being particularly popular. Parents encourage their offspring to achieve the highest possible level of education. The contrast between their aspirations and those of their Canadian-born children, who generally place less emphasis on education, has created conflicts in some Egyptian-Canadian families.
Some parents send their children to Arabic school on weekends, but such instruction is not widespread in the community. There are Egyptian Arabic schools in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. The one in Montreal began in September 1984 as a project of the Association culturelle Égypte-Québec. From 12 students that year it grew to 150 by 1986, when it became an independent organization. The school holds classes on Saturdays for children and adults, and it currently has an enrolment ranging from 60 to 200, depending on the time of year. It is the only Egyptian Arabic school in Montreal, although several other schools and some churches and mosques provide language instruction.
Egyptian Canadians are adherents of three main religions, Coptic Christianity (Orthodox and Catholic), Catholicism (Maronite and Melkite), and Islam (Sunni and Shiite). Coptic Christians are the most numerous, while the Catholics and Muslims are fewer and roughly equal in number. There are also small numbers of non-Coptic Orthodox Egyptians and Protestants. Of the respondents in the 1989 study in Quebec, 35 percent were Copts, 20 percent Catholics, and 19 percent Muslims, while 13 percent followed other faiths and 12 percent did not indicate any religion. Egyptians have established their own religious institutions in Canada, which have become a unifying force in the community. These organizations offer many services in addition to purely religious ones, and the role of the spiritual leader has expanded to include that of organizer, provider of social aid, and promoter of cultural traditions. The religious institutions receive more support from the community than do socio-cultural ones. Nevertheless, attendance seems to be highest immediately after the immigrant arrives in this country and decreases once he or she is more integrated into the new society.
The Copts are the only group whose entire population is Egyptian in ethnic origin. They are subdivided into two major religious persuasions, Orthodox and Catholic. Though the fundamental beliefs are similar, the Coptic Catholic Church acknowledges the supremacy of the pope in Rome whereas the Coptic Orthodox church recognizes the patriarch in Cairo as its leader. As well, Orthodox clergy are permitted to marry. The first Coptic Orthodox church established in Canada was St Mark’s Church in Montreal, which dates from 1967 and serves about eight hundred families. The city now has two other Coptic churches, Toronto two, and Ottawa, Kitchener, and Mississauga one each. As of 1994, there were ten Coptic Orthodox churches in Canada, eight of them located in Quebec and Ontario and one each in Alberta and British Columbia. Most non-Coptic Orthodox Egyptians are of Syrio-Lebanese origin. Many are members of St George, an Eastern Orthodox church established in Montreal in 1909. Of the 1,300 families registered at the church in 1987, approximately 250 were Egyptian.
In November 1986 a new parish named Notre-Dame d’Égypte was formed to serve the Coptic Catholic community in Montreal. The priest was given a mandate to unite this group and revive its liturgy and traditions. The church’s membership exceeds four hundred families. The non-Coptic Catholic community is comprised of two groups, those of Syrio-Lebanese origin (the majority) and native Egyptians. Melkite Catholicism, common in both Syria and Egypt, follows Chaledonian orthodoxy in preference to Monophysitism. Many Melkite Catholics attend the Saint-Sauveur church in Montreal, which is the oldest in the Syrio-Lebanese Egyptian community. It dates from 1890, when a priest from the Basilian Salvadorean parish came to the city to minister to some seventy Catholic and Orthodox families. The church has the largest Egyptian membership of any religious institution in Quebec. In 1987 the parish recorded three thousand families, two-thirds of whom were from Egypt. The community is Arabic-speaking with a strong orientation towards the use of French. Church services are conducted in both languages, and French is used in many of the church’s activities.
Maronite Catholicism, which originated in Syria and was established in Lebanon in the sixth century C.E., is the dominant Christian religion in that country. Its adherents have retained their liturgy in the Syriac language, distinctive saints’ and feast days, and their own patriarch, who is confirmed rather than appointed by the pope. The St Maron Church in Montreal unites the Maronite community in Quebec. Although the first priest, Elie Najar, arrived in 1969, the parish was not officially established until 1982. The vast majority of its members are of Syrio-Lebanese Egyptian origin. As of 1987, the church had a membership of 1,284 families, 600 of whom were Egyptian. Sunday Mass is celebrated in Arabic and Syriac, with a commentary at the end in French. Protestant members of the community in Canada attend Presbyterian and, to a lesser extent, Anglican and Baptist churches. The Egyptian membership at these churches is small.
The Egyptian Muslim community in Canada is also not large and has not established its own organizations. The group participates to a limited degree in the mosques and centres that serve many nationalities in Canada. At most, Egyptians account for only 5 to 10 percent of the thousands of members in such large Islamic centres as the El Omma mosque in Montreal. The Muslim community has stressed the importance of instruction in both religion and the Arabic language. There is now a full-time school, accepted within the public educational system, at the Islamic Centre in Montreal. The children are taught in Arabic, English, and French.
The average Egyptian is relatively indifferent to political issues. This attitude is largely a result of historical factors, particularly the country’s long-time domination by foreign powers. Egyptians believe that governments are upheld by force and injustice and are responsible for taxes and military service rather than for public welfare. They always refer to individuals in authority as “they,” yet historically they have manifested a psychological need for an authoritarian regime. The fact that Egypt is a society dependent on a large-scale, government-controlled irrigation system may help to explain this view of authority. The education system and the mass media also promote subordination to the government. The nature of Egyptian immigration to Canada – an individualistic movement of mainly middle-class people – has also meant that the community has remained largely uninterested in politics. In general, Egyptians in Canada do not participate in public affairs. Many of the socio-cultural institutions state in their constitutions that they do not have any political affiliation, either in Canada or in Egypt. This indifference can be seen as a failure to become acculturated to a liberal democracy based on active participation by the citizenry.
According to a 1989 study in Quebec, participation by Egyptians in the political process at the local, provincial, and national levels is limited to voting in elections. When respondents were asked how often they discussed federal politics with others, only 16 percent said that they did so often, while 32 percent indicated “sometimes,” 28 percent “seldom,” and 20 percent “never.” The level of discussion of provincial politics was higher, with 22 percent responding that they did so often, 39 sometimes, 22 seldom, and 14 never. Political knowledge, interest, and participation by Egyptian immigrants in the host society were significantly correlated. However, as the level of education increased, all three factors decreased. Furthermore, a belief in the efficacy of politics and involvement with Canadian society did not increase the level of participation. Given that Egyptian emigration arose mainly from uncertainty about the transformation of the homeland from a pluralistic society to one dominated by a single culture, Egyptian immigrants – even those who live in Quebec – are not strong supporters of Quebec nationalism and separation from Canada. A perception of similarities between postrevolutionary Egypt and the political situation in that province causes great concern among Egyptians who live there.
Members of the community in Canada continue to read about and discuss the political affairs of their homeland. However, they have not established any political organizations in support of movements in Egypt, and their associations in this country remain staunchly non-political, with the exception of Coptic groups, which have denounced the treatment of Copts in Egypt and urged the government to protect them against Muslim fundamentalism. Coptic churches became politically active for a short time in 1981 when conflict between Muslims and Copts erupted in parts of Cairo and President Sadat put the patriarch under house arrest.
According to the 1989 survey in Quebec, the attitudes of Egyptian immigrants towards Canadian society are positive. Freedom and peace are the most appreciated features of life in Canada, while other Canadians, the standard of living, and the natural world are also valued. The degree of identification with the country is also high; the majority in the survey now call Canada their home and said that they intend to stay. However, dissatisfaction may be stronger among immigrants who arrived since 1990 because of their lack of economic and professional success.
In general, Egyptians in Canada have experienced little discrimination in the workplace or in housing. Three factors have played a role. Because of their exposure to European culture in the homeland, they are already acculturated to Western values and traditions. Many Egyptians attended English- or French-language schools in Egypt and speak one or both of the official languages. Thus most immigrants have been able to adapt easily to this country and have not been obvious targets of discrimination. A second and closely related factor is that Egyptians come from a pluralistic society and have been able to adjust to the multicultural nature of Canada with little difficulty. Thirdly, the immigration of Egyptians coincided with the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, when many anglophones left the province and the newcomers were able to fill the resulting demand for bilingual employees.
It is difficult to speak of a unified Egyptian community in Canada because of its diverse religious and ethnic nature. Interaction between native Egyptians who are Coptic or Muslim is limited because of a lack of interest and because there is no structure that encourages such relationships. Their separate religious institutions do not provide an opportunity for association, and socio-cultural institutions have so far been unsuccessful in bringing the two groups together. The only contact is at weekend Arabic schools and indirectly through the media aimed at the broader Egyptian community. Contact between native Egyptians and the semi-Egyptianized foreign groups is also limited. The Syrio-Lebanese have some relations with the native community through attendance at Catholic churches. Most Armenians, Jews, and Europeans, however, identify with their own ethnic groups after they come to Canada. 0Interaction between Muslim Egyptians and other Islamic groups is limited to participation in religious ceremonies, but the absence of strong socio-cultural Arabic organizations contributes to their lack of contact. Moreover, many members of the community, especially the Copts, tend to identify themselves as Egyptian rather than Arab. Consequently, interaction is limited to cultural events, such as dance productions, concerts, and lectures featuring artists and speakers from the Arab world.
The 1989 study of the community in Quebec revealed that Egyptian immigrants are a highly assimilated group in both the primary (home) and secondary (outside the home) environments. In terms of language, diet, and the celebration of Egyptian culture, their degree of ethnicity is low. They also have little involvement in specifically Egyptian associations, religions, and the mass media. However, with regard to sexual behaviour, the father’s role as head of the family, and conformity to community norms, they tend to maintain their traditional values. Most Egyptian Canadians return to their homeland on a regular basis, taking advantage of group fares on the airlines. These trips are usually made to visit relatives or for recreational reasons. However, some use them for the express purpose of teaching their children about Egyptian history, culture, and language, introducing them to their extended families, and encouraging them to take pride in their origins.
There is a truly enormous body of publications dealing with the history of Egypt, in particular with ancient and classical Egypt. A good short history that begins with the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century and ends in contemporary times is Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot, A Short History of Egypt (Cambridge, U.K., 1985), while P.J. Vatikiotis, The History of Egypt: From Muhammad Ali to Mubarak, 4th ed. (London, 1991), covers the period from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. A sense of life in contemporary Egypt can be gained from Hamid Ammar, Growing Up in an Egyptian Village: Silwa, Province of Aswan (New York, 1966).
The available research concerning Egyptian immigrants in North America is limited, although Egyptians have been mentioned in studies and other publications about the Arab communities in Canada and United States. See, for example, Baha Abu-Laban, “The Arab Canadian Community,” in Elaine C. Hagopian and Ann Padon, eds., The Arab Americans: Studies in Assimilation (1969). The first book to concentrate on Egyptians in Canada was Mohammed Awad, Egyptian with a Million Dollars (Cairo), which was based on interviews with Egyptian immigrants.
The present entry owes much of its information to Nadia Wassef, “The Egyptians in Montreal: A New Colour in the Canadian Ethnic Mosaic” (University of Montreal, 1978), which studied immigration from Egypt to Canada in the late twentieth century and focused on Montreal’s Egyptians, outlining their background and institutional life. Migration is also discussed by Fouad Assaad, “Egyptian Immigration to Canada,” ARC Journal, vol.2, no.8 (1975). Nazih Ayubi, “The Egyptian Brain Drain: A Multidimensional Problem,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol.15 (1983), deals with Egyptian migration from the Egyptian point of view.
Louise Colin studies the acculturation and the ethnic identity of an Egyptian group in Montreal in her study Acculturation et identité ethnique d’un groupe d’égyptiens à Montréal (Montreal, 1981), and Nabil Mikhail, “The Egyptian in Montreal,” La Verité, vol.1, no.1–2 (1983), is a more general view of that city’s Egyptian Canadians. Fouad Assaad analyses the behaviour and political acculturation of Egyptian immigrants in The Egyptian Personality and Its Political Behavioral Characteristics: An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of the Structure of the Belief System on the Behavior and Political Acculturation of Egyptian immigrants in Quebec, Canada (Cairo, 1989). Lidia Ribeiro et al., Profils des communautés culturelles de Quebec: communautés culterelles et immigration, 2 vols. (Quebec, 1991), includes an entry on Quebec’s Egyptian community, with information on their origins, population characteristics, and religious, social, and institutional life.