War and Forced Migration in Egypt: The Experience of Evacuation from the Suez Canal Cities (1967-1976)

By Shakur, Mohamed Abdel; Mehanna, Sohair et al. | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

War and Forced Migration in Egypt: The Experience of Evacuation from the Suez Canal Cities (1967-1976)


Shakur, Mohamed Abdel, Mehanna, Sohair, Hopkins, Nicholas S., Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


THE MIDDLE EAST HAS PRODUCED more than its share of stories of refugees, displaced persons, evacuees, and other victims of politics and development. Of course the deplorable plight of the Palestinian refugees in countries neighboring Palestine is by far the most striking example. But there are others. As a contribution to this history of flight and resettlement in the Arab world, this article analyzes the story of the Egyptian "migrants" from the Suez Canal zone who fled between 1967 and 1976 as a result of the Six-Day War in June 1967. This analysis of the "forced migration" experience in Egypt is a contribution to a broader understanding of the contemporary processes of response to war and disaster in the Arab world.

The case of the displaced and the evacuees from the Suez Canal cities illustrates the social processes of the creation and absorption of refugees. As in many other cases of forced migration, people's flight was caused by unexpected warfare, but this Egyptian case has some unique features. In particular, the story shows the three phases of flight, adaptation, and return (or integration into the host setting), and it illustrates the situation where the migrants and the hosts share the same basic culture, and where the hosts played a supportive role in the beginning.

The Suez Canal became the temporary Egyptian frontier when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula in 1967. Many Egyptians departed the Canal cities and villages to avoid the combat zone in 1967, and with the heating up of the "War of Attrition" (beginning March 1969 through summer 1970) the remaining civilian population left or was evacuated (Waterbury 1973). Altogether nearly one million people were displaced from the three Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailiya, and Suez, and their vicinities. Janet Abu-Lughod (1985:180-181) refers to this as a 'war-induced migration of urban people.' The peak of migration from the Suez Canal area to the rest of Egypt was in 1967-1969, and with the Egyptian recovery of the Sinai through treaty after the 1973 war, a return movement began in 1974 and continued until about 1976. Abu-Lughod relates that the return was as unforeseen as the flight. Thus at the time of the movement of the internally displaced in the late 1960s no one could anticipate that the possibility of return would occur so soon: as usual with refugees, people did not know what to expect.

The original flight was a result of a war with an external enemy, rather than as a result of an internal conflict, and the civilian population was pushed into the Egyptian heartland as the Israelis appeared on the east bank of the Suez Canal. People were fleeing warfare and not occupation and expulsion. The displaced and their hosts were politically on the same side, confronting a foreign enemy. Those who left their homes and jobs remained within Egypt, and within a decade were able to return to their starting point, although this outcome was not known at the beginning. The host population provided substantial assistance, especially in the beginning. The Egyptian administrative system remained intact, and played a key role. Those with government jobs retained them or were transferred to similar posts. The reception and integration of the displaced was handled entirely within the Egyptian system, with no foreign aid. Egyptian authorities tried successfully to avoid the word 'refugee,' to escape the parallel to the Palestinian case, and instead spoke of 'migrants' to cover both the displaced and the evacuees. Finally, one can note that this episode has not become part of a national mythology even though those affected by it remember their histories quite clearly.

There are certain features of the Egyptian handling of the case that can be seen in a wider context. The official policy was to distribute the displaced as widely as possible rather than to use camps. The same practice occurred with regard to the treatment of the Palestinian refugees from the late 1940s (Dajani 1986; El Abed 2003) and the sub-Saharan African refugees today (Cooper 1992).

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