In the early morning hours of December 30, roughly 4,000 black-clad Egyptian riot police–wearing masks, with batons and shields in hand–descended upon a strip of grass about the size of two tennis courts in a decidedly upscale quarter of Cairo. The unlikely inhabitants of the Mustafa Mahmoud Park, upwards of 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers from neighboring Sudan, were trampled underfoot, beaten, hosed with cold water and finally dragged, often unconscious and sopping wet, onto awaiting buses that would take them to prisons and military detention sites around the city.
The raid and ensuing abuse, not completely out of character for an Egyptian security apparatus accustomed to the excessive use of force, was the climax of a three-month standoff between the assembled Sudanese, a fraction of the estimated 2 to 3 million who make their home in Egypt, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). By January 12 the official death toll was twenty-eight–twelve children among them–though that number will inevitably rise as human rights groups continue to take stock of the city’s maze of hospitals and morgues.
For the three months prior to the raid, the demonstrators cum squatters had made for an incongruous site in Mohandiseen–a commercial zone marked by unsightly high-rises, ubiquitous neon and a concrete-jungle air. Their demands were varied, though most centered around a reassessment of their situation in Egypt, given a UNHCR office that they found chronically unsympathetic and a life in a host country that left them firmly situated at the margins. Some had been misled into coming, told that joining the sit-in might mean the chance to get resettled in Canada or America; these demonstrators tended to show up with livelihoods in tow. At one point in November, their numbers swelled to upwards of 5,000, many welcoming the solidarity born of the sit-in. Mohamed Matar, one of the organizers, told me in the days following the raid, “In the garden–whether from north, south, east, west–we were one nation.”
Eighteen months earlier, UNHCR had announced that it would suspend hearing individual asylum claims from Sudanese–granting them all “temporary protection” in Egypt instead, marked by a yellow card that affords little beyond the right not to be deported. At the same time, the UN agency announced that it would aid interested Sudanese in repatriation, given Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 2005, which ended a bloody decades-long civil war between the north and south.
But for thousands of Sudanese whose cases had nothing to do with the north-south conflict, the CPA’s version of peace has no bearing on their asylum claims. For these people, return to Sudan could mean facing detention, warfare (in the case of Darfur in particular) or torture. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the south continues to be unsafe–riddled with land mines and more than occasional fighting, as well as the wanderings of Uganda’s rogue Lord’s Resistance Army.
So what exactly happened on the morning of December 30, and who is to blame? The Egyptian Ministry of Interior, for its part, was quick to absolve itself of any responsibility–announcing that it had simply responded to UNHCR’s request to remove the demonstrators. UNHCR representatives explained that they had put forward their best effort to resolve the standoff, holding more than nine rounds of negotiations with refugee leaders over three months. One last-ditch attempt at negotiation resulted in a signed agreement between the sit-in leaders and the agency on December 17–but it was rejected after the fact by the more intransigent demonstrators who had stayed behind. With the agreement in shambles, the state of affairs within the park seems to have gone from bad to worse, marked by a massive internal feud as well as some dissenters reportedly being tied to a tree to block their departure. And so it began.