July 25, 2013
By Michael Pizzi and Abdulrahman al-Masri
AMMAN: Deportations, travel restrictions and anti-Syrian fervor in the media are putting pressure on the up to 300,000 Syrians currently seeking refuge in Egypt.
Syrian exiles and human rights observers say that anti-Syrian sentiment is the unanticipated fallout of the July 3rd military action that deposed President Mohamed Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood party. The intervention occurred in response to massive unrest in Egypt’s major cities, where citizens decried Morsi’s failures on the occasion of his one-year anniversary as president.
Since then, what is being called a coup by Morsi supporters and the fall of “political Islam” by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egypt’s interim government has begun to enact increasingly restrictive travel policies affecting Syrians entering Egypt. New regulations under the acting military leadership require Syrians to obtain travel visas prior to entering Egypt, and the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees currently residing within its borders face the prospects of raids and even deportation.
Under Morsi, Egypt had instituted an open-door policy towards Syrians fleeing the conflict.
The stricter policies for Syrians are being attributed to reports that Syrian Islamists in Egypt have flocked to the defense of President Mohammed Morsi, joining in protests and violent clashes against supporters of the Egyptian military.
A Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday condemned the sharp uptick in anti-Syrian sentiment among Egyptians, detailing a wave of similar incidents that have targeted Syrians throughout July.
Citing “growing hostility” towards Syrians in Egypt, the report describes several instances of local police or Egyptian security agents arbitrarily detaining Syrians, including several children, who possessed either valid immigration documents or UNHCR asylum status.
Egyptian security services should “immediately end their campaign of picking up Syrians on the streets and threatening them with summary deportation,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Syrians in Egypt report the arbitrary detention of friends and family members, coupled with accusations of Muslim Brotherhood affiliation.
Actors Ahmed and Mohammed Mallas, twins who are famous in Syria for their satirical anti-Assad work, resided in Egypt with their brother Hussam after fleeing Syria. The twins moved to Paris last year, but their brother stayed on in Cairo until Egyptian authorities raided his home earlier this month, placing him under arrest.
“They claimed that he was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and giving them weapons,” one of the twins said. “They destroyed his house during the search; they didn’t leave anything in one piece.”
Hussam was then escorted to Cairo International Airport and deported to Turkey, with no charges filed against him.
In a separate incident, Reuters reported on July 12th that a flight of 250 Syrians coming from Latakia had been turned around due to tighter visa requirements for the Syrians on board.
Some of the strongest anti-Syrian rhetoric has been broadcast over partisan Egyptian television channels.
“If you continue to stand by the Brotherhood, the people will destroy your homes,” threatened talk show personality Tawfiq Okasha on the anti-Brotherhood channel al-Faraeen.
Not all Cairenes agree that Syrians are being harassed.
“About Syrians being mistreated in Egypt, it’s completely wrong,” says Ahmed Zaghlol, a newly graduated Egyptian medical student in Cairo.
“Egyptians are willing to help them,” he adds, citing “newly opened Syrian restaurants and cafes” in Cairo as evidence that Syrians have been incorporated into the Egyptian economy.
In a press conference following his meeting with newly elected Syrian National Council President Ahmed Jarba, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi reaffirmed his country’s support of the revolution in Syria and dismissed reports that Syrian refugees in Egypt were a significant factor in the widespread pro-Morsi protests.
“These incidents do not represent the Syrian people as a whole or even the Syrian Coalition,” Fahmi said, adding that they “will be addressed independently from our commitment to the Syrian cause.”
After meeting with the foreign minister, Ahmed Jarba reassured Syrians that recent entry restrictions into Egypt were a temporary measure not aimed at them alone.
“Egypt is the second home for Syrians,” said Jarba.
For their part, Syrian Brotherhood leaders have uniformly condemned the coup against their Egyptian counterparts, whose claim to legitimacy derived from their democratic election just a year prior.
“The coup in Egypt ruined a nationalist project and an Arab project – not just an Egyptian project,” Syrian Brotherhood spokesman Zuhair Salem told Syria Direct on July 9th.
“Now the democratic project is dead and buried in Egypt.”
With additional reporting from Abdulrahim Qaddoumi