The Bigios are back. Today, an appeal court in New York City hears the next round in this family's long-running battle to get compensation for their property, confiscated by the Egyptian government and then sold on to Coca Cola. The Bigios are suing Coca Cola because they do not think they will get justice in an Egyptian court. Report by Sharona Schwartz in The Blaze, a new news, opinion and comment site.
Palestinians frequently lament the plight of their refugees, and a main component of peace negotiations has been how to solve the problem of some 700,000 Palestinians who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war plus their approximately 4 million descendants living as “refugees” in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Rarely spoken of are the estimated 800,000 Jews forced to flee their homes in the Muslim world during the Arab-Israeli armed conflicts between 1948 and the early 1970s.
This Thursday, one case bringing light to the issue will be argued in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City between a Jewish family once bullied into emigrating from Egypt and the Coca-Cola Company which later bought part of a company sitting on the Jewish family’s property. The property had years before been seized by the Egyptian government during an anti-Jewish campaign.
The case provides a stark reminder of the plight of the Jewish exiles then and the lasting impact decades later of a government’s theft of private property. With the persecution of Egypt’s Christians a troubling characteristic of the “Arab Spring,” it’s also a reminder that bias against minorities has deep roots in Egypt and the Arab world.
This Blaze reporter examined more than 100 pages of court documents to prepare this article. Here is the story.
The family’s saga: The Bigio family says grandfather Raphael Nessim Bigio purchased a plot of land in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo back in 1929, building up his business.
In the early 1940s, Coca-Cola’s local subsidiary began leasing space from the Bigios and established its first Egyptian soda plant there. For 20 years they had business relations; the Bigios supplied bottle caps and other goods to the company until the Egyptian government suddenly seized the Bigios’ property.
This expropriation was part of the grander scheme by then dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser to implement “Arab socialism,” which included confiscating or “nationalizing” private property for the benefit of the government. The campaign also had an anti-Jewish slant and for some Jews included detention, deprivation of Egyptian citizenship and expulsion. The message was heard loud and clear. In November 1956, there were 45,000 Jews in Egypt. In less than a year, more than half had left.
Arab socialism hit the Bigio family hard. The family contends that Egypt “nationalized” their assets in the early 1960s, seizing two acres, taking it away from them and giving it to government owned entities, the El Nasr Bottling Company (ENBC) whose factories sat on the property, and the Misr Insurance Company which administered the property and leased it to ENBC.
After his property was taken from him and he was stripped of his citizenship, Raphael’s son Josias Bigio left Egypt as a stateless person.
Years later, a new government in Egypt tried to make amends for some of the past actions, and the family says that in 1979 the Ministry of Finance ordered that the property be returned to the Bigios who were by then living in Canada. But according to the family, Misr Insurance refused to comply with the directive to return the property.
In 1993, when Egypt announced it would sell off some government businesses, the Bigios say they learned Coca-Cola was interested in purchasing the government bottling company ENBC. The Bigios say they reminded Coca-Cola that they owned the land and the factories ENBC was sitting on. The family contends Coca-Cola’s counsel agreed to meet the Bigios in Atlanta where the soda maker is based, but before that meeting took place, Coca-Cola purchased 42% of ENBC.
Because Coca-Cola had been doing business in Cairo with the family since the 1940s, the Bigios assert the soda company had witnessed what they term the “ethnic cleansing” taking place in Egypt and the persecution of their family and that the corporation knew exactly how ENBC came in possession of the property.
The Bigios’ brief to the court says Coca-Cola purchased property it knew Egypt had confiscated but bought a large chunk of it anyway, comparing the morality of it to purchasing artwork looted from Jews during the Nazi era. Their brief says that Coca-Cola:
“…has occupied and exploited the Bigios’ properties for profits that range in the hundreds of millions of dollars while refusing to compensate the Bigios as much as one penny.”
The family is asking for “compensatory damages in an amount to be determined at trial and punitive damages.” According to its estimates, the value of the property that was taken likely exceeds $50 million. The Bigios’ attorney Nathan Lewin tells The Blaze, “If Coca-Cola is required to disgorge the profits it has made by exploiting the Bigios’ property, damages could be in the hundreds of millions.”
Coca-Cola’s argument: Coca-Cola says the Bigio family is targeting the wrong defendant. Communications Director Ann L. Moore e-mailed The Blaze this statement:
“The Coca-Cola Company has never owned the property at issue in the litigation. Misr, an Egyptian state-owned insurance company, owns the property. This dispute is between Misr and the Bigios. The Coca-Cola Company should not be a party in this suit.”
In its brief to the court, Coca-Cola says Nasser’s nationalization laws impacted not only Jews but also Coptic Christians, Muslim Arabs, Greeks and Italians. Coca-Cola says it’s not responsible, because Misr insurance got the Bigios’ land from the government, the Egyptian bottling company ENBC rents it, and Coca-Cola is only a 42% shareholder in ENBC. In its brief, Coca-Cola says:
“A purchase is a purchase, not a conspiracy. Holding shares in a company is an investment, not aiding and abetting … ‘Spin’ and rhetoric do not replace law and or factual allegations. The plaintiffs do not claim the defendants had any involvement in or responsibility for the nationalization, which is what harmed them.”
Coke says purchasing 42% of ENBC was a “lawful public transaction.” It says it did not steal the ENBC shares but purchased them “for a considerable amount of money.” It also contends the Bigios did not establish that they were indeed the owners or that “nationalization of the property was wrongful under Egyptian or other law.”
This week’s battle: Coca-Cola’s argument suggests the Bigios should have sued the Egyptian entities, not the American corporation. Because of continued anti-Jewish sentiment, the Bigios believe they cannot get a fair hearing in an Egyptian court. With Coca-Cola based in Atlanta, they turned to the U.S. justice system in 1997. Despite two prior appeals, the family has yet to convince the judges to rule conclusively in their favor.