Egypt’s Syrian Scapegoats
Protesters wave the Syrian revolution flag during a rally in Cairo, Egypt, last year (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Abu Shihab recalls when armed police officers in full riot gear barged into his cramped apartment and led him away in handcuffs, along with a dozen other Syrian refugees. “They were dressed like they were ready for a war,” he says. He stands in the sun-washed courtyard of Masaken Othman, a cluster of cracked reddish-brown residential buildings rising from the dust in Cairo’s desert outskirts. Trash and car tires float in fetid green water seeping from a drainpipe onto the sand.
Abu Shihab arrived with his wife and children in May, fleeing his hometown of Hama after his 12-year-old son was killed in an airstrike by the Assad regime. They now live in this isolated apartment complex alongside some 240 other families, among an unprecedented wave of Syrians who have fled the fighting at home only to find themselves trapped in the cross-hairs of Egypt’s political upheaval. Those who have not been turned away at the border have been detained in large numbers by police and vigilante groups. Dozens have been deported. Meanwhile, members of Egypt’s established Syrian community face increasing harassment, their businesses attacked and looted.
The United Nations has registered close to 100,000 Syrians in Egypt, but the Egyptian government estimates that up to 300,000 currently reside in the country. In the past two and a half years, more than 2 million refugees have fled Syria, a displacement the UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls “unparalleled in recent history.” The tide of Syrians crossing borders has risen almost tenfold over the past twelve months alone, with neighboring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey seeing the greatest influx. In Egypt, the UNHCR confirms that at least 143 Syrians have been arrested over the past eight weeks, of whom fifty-eight were deported. Yet the Tadamon Council, the largest refugee service provider in Egypt, puts the number of those detained over the same period at more than 600, with some 200 being deported. (The council says that the UN numbers are lower because it tracks only refugees who have registered.)
Short, with a compact build and a thick mustache, Abu Shihab tells his story in animated, rapid-fire sentences. On the night of July 27, security forces raided Masaken Othman and detained him, along with several other Syrian men and boys. He says he was shuttled among a courthouse, a police station, and state and national security offices, and interrogated—and asked repeatedly whether he had participated in the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in, the epicenter of support for deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi before its brutal dispersal in August.
Even though his papers were in order, including his passport and an official UNHCR registration card that should have guaranteed his protection, Abu Shihab spent three days in detention without charge before being released.”Why are we being treated like this?” he asks. “What are we, terrorists?”
Nathaniel Kim, associate director of the Tadamon Council, describes such arrests as clear intimidation. “It’s definitely struck fear in the hearts of a lot of Syrians here,” he says. “And they’re really nervous about their future in Egypt, if it’s even possible to stay.” According to Kim, a number of NGOs have come under pressure from Egyptian authorities just for working with Syrians, and community organizations making donations to Syrian refugees have been shut down.
In the dying days of his presidency, Morsi voiced strong support for the rebels fighting the Assad regime, cutting off diplomatic ties with Damascus and speaking at a rally on June 15 alongside clerics calling for a holy war in Syria. The move was just one way Syrians have ended up being used as pawns by those fighting for control of Egypt. In this case, it proved counterproductive; while Morsi appeared to be mobilizing supporters ahead of the planned June 30 protests against his rule, the move “may have alienated a large part of the public,” says Adel Iskandar, a professor at Georgetown University and author of Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution.
Following Morsi’s overthrow, Syrians were caught up in a growing wave of nationalist fervor and xenophobic rhetoric propagated by the military-led regime. Syrians were accused of siding with Morsi supporters; one popular presenter, Tawfiq Okasha, warned local Syrians that the Egyptian people knew where they lived and said that if they did not stop “supporting the Muslim Brotherhood” after forty-eight hours, their homes would be destroyed.
Iskandar puts much of the blame on the media, which he says have “put Syrian refugees, many of whom are not fighters but rather refuge-seeking civilians, in a maelstrom of vilification and demonization.” The public now perceives Syrians as “infiltrators, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, radical jihadists and terrorists whose objective is to destabilize Egypt as retribution for Morsi’s toppling.”
Five days after Morsi’s ouster, the military leadership put new restrictions on Syrians entering Egypt, requiring them to obtain a visa and undergo a security clearance. That same day, July 8, authorities turned away a planeload of Syrian refugees.”The policy change has had a strong effect,” says Edward Leposky, associate reporting officer for the UNHCR in Egypt. “The number of Syrians entering Egypt before July 8 was hundreds each day. Now it is nominal at best.”
Before Morsi was overthrown, “we never had to worry about papers or residency,” says Bilal al-Shami, a 26-year-old Syrian with slick black hair and a calm demeanor from the hard-hit city of Homs. “Now they just pull Syrians off the street.”
Because of the increasingly hostile environment, a growing number of Syrians are looking to leave. Mowaffaq Safadi, 25, packs his belongings into two suitcases as he prepares to head to Turkey the following morning. He came to Egypt last fall after being shot and arrested in an anti-regime protest in Damascus. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, he has a mane of disheveled hair, a long beard and a steady gaze. He sits cross-legged on the floor of his small apartment in downtown Cairo.
Fluent in English, he worked as a fixer for the Guardian correspondent in Cairo for several months but had to quit in July after he encountered increasing hostility, particularly while helping to cover protests in the capital.
One night in August, he rode in a taxi whose driver pulled up to a police officer. “He told the officer, ‘I have a Syrian with me,’” says Safadi. “I felt betrayed.” The policeman ordered him out of the car, examined his passport, went through his belongings and peppered him with questions before trying to hand him over to a passing police van to be taken to detention. He was eventually let go.
“I was shocked by the way people were very easily led or brainwashed by the media. I didn’t expect it to change this quickly,” he says, adding that he took to staying indoors most of the time to avoid trouble. “The campaign against us Syrians was a secondary plot in the plan to dehumanize the Brotherhood.”
Safadi looks across the floor of the apartment, cluttered with books, at two cats he cannot afford to take with him to Turkey. “It’s very depressing as a young Middle Eastern man—you have to deal with all of these issues just to get on with your life,” he says. “We watched the Egyptian revolution in 2011 like we were watching a dream—it gave us such hope. Now I’m really disappointed.” He zips up his suitcase. “There is a huge sense of hopelessness.”
Sarah Carr investigates life in Egypt, after the clampdown.