Egypt’s Military-Backed Government Cracks Down on Syrian Refugees

As Egypt's new government solidifies its power, Syrian refugees face growing vitriol and arrests

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Nasser Nasser / AP

A protester during a candlelight vigil marking the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution in Cairo on March 14, 2013

In his small flat in the Mesekeen Uthman neighborhood on the desert outskirts of Cairo, Hamid pulls prayer beads tensely through his dry fingers, his legs folded beneath him on the living room floor. A flickering television illuminates the walls and a rotating fan beats the hot air. “It was night,” he says, recounting his recent arrest. “Two friends and I were in the apartment. There was a pounding on the door.” It was an investigator, Hamid recalls. “Evening, boys,” the officer said. “Your passports.”

Two months before, when Hamid’s residency had expired, Mohamed Morsi was still in the presidency, and Hamid wasn’t worried about being deported from Egypt, where he’d found a sanctuary from the war in his native Syria. But in the xenophobic atmosphere following Morsi’s ouster, overstaying one’s papers has taken on a new danger. “Come with me,” the investigator said, and he took Hamid into the night.

On July 25, the night before Egyptians took to the streets to support military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror,” Qasim, who fled from Dara’a in southern Syria in early March of this year, was also detained by Egypt’s Homeland Security forces. Along with his elderly father, he was taken from their home in Mesekeen Uthman by a security officer wearing civilian clothes. Qasim’s yellow card, which guarantees protection by the U.N. Refugee Agency, did nothing to help him. Waiting for them below their dilapidated apartment tower were five security cars and a troop of Homeland Security officers.

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Hamid (who asked that TIME not use his real name), Qasim, and 17 others were arrested in one fell swoop on July 25 and accused of meddling in Egyptian affairs. The Homeland Security agency, successor of the Mubarak-era state-security body that was abolished after the 2011 revolution, questioned them aggressively about demonstrations at a former Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in northeastern Cairo. Exasperated, Qasim told them that most of the Syrians living in Mesekeen Uthman didn’t even know where the sit-in was.

“Too bad. Some of you have been going to protests with weapons and causing trouble,” a Homeland Security officer told Qasim. “Those people have ruined everything for the rest of you.”

Hamid and Qasim’s experience has become commonplace among Syrians in Egypt since the military-backed ouster of Morsi in early July. Mohamad Elmasry, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, says Syrian refugees are being scapegoated by the military-backed regime, part of a larger campaign to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood. “According to coupist logic, since the Muslim Brotherhood had been generally supportive of Gazans and Syrian refugees, it must follow that Gazans and Syrian refugees are harmful to Egypt,” Elmasry says. “Syrian refugees have been blamed for Egypt’s worsening economy, among other things.”

Media praise for the military and demonization of the Brotherhood and minority groups is nothing new in Egypt. What is shocking, Elmasry says, is how many Egyptians have accepted the disparaging stories about Syrians and been willing to participate in acts of repression. “The past few weeks have witnessed civilian arrests, violence against Syrian refugees and destruction of businesses and other property owned by Syrians,” Elmasry says.

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“It’s true that security measures have been tightened in Egypt, but the basic policy remains the same,” Nasser Kamel, the Assistant Minister for Arab Affairs in Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, says of Syrian refugees. “I do recognize that some media outlets do not make the distinction [between average Syrian refugees and Brotherhood supporters],” he says. Regarding claims of cooperation between authorities and the media to vilify Syrians and deflect attention from the military’s crackdown, Kamel dismisses them categorically as “totally false and wrong.”

According to rights workers, the scapegoating of Syrians began almost immediately after calls for Morsi’s removal. “After the 30th of June, I am afraid to leave my apartment because the Egyptian media is saying that Syrians support Morsi,” Amin Kazkaz, a Syrian rights activist in Cairo working with a local refugee-assistance organization, tells TIME. Since Morsi’s ouster, promilitary television hosts like Lamis El Hadidi from Egypt’s CBC channel regularly spout anti-Syrian vitriol, likening them to the Muslim Brotherhood. “She says things like, ‘I support Assad because he’s killing you and you deserve it,’” says Kazkaz, noting that the Egyptian authorities often tolerate this kind of hate speech. In a statement in July, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information condemned the rhetoric against Syrians and Palestinians, declaring that El Hadidi, among several others, were the worst purveyors.

An accurate number of Syrians arrested is hard to determine. Kazkaz says that hundreds of Syrians have been arbitrarily detained over the past month and a half. Mohamed Dayri, from the U.N. Refugee Agency’s Cairo office, puts the figure at 160 arrested since early July. Nathaniel Kim, assistant director of the Tadamon Council, Egypt’s largest refugee-serving organization, asserts that the number is far higher. He says that since June 30, there have been more than 500 Syrians arrested in Cairo and Alexandria, but there are likely hundreds more arrests outside of the major cities going unreported. He notes that the U.N. Refugee Agency’s numbers are lower because they only track those registered with the U.N.

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The targeting of Syrian refugees has raised concerns that Egypt might return to a Murabak-style security state. Elmasry thinks that is a real possibility. “I don’t think there’s any question that what has happened in Egypt is part of a larger counter–Jan. 25 revolution,” he says. “The constitution has been suspended; numerous media outlets have been shut down without due process; there have been numerous political arrests, also without due process. Mubarak’s notorious state-security apparatus has been reintroduced.”

If the persecution of vulnerable Syrian refugees is an indicator of political trajectory, Egypt’s future may well be grim. Elmasry worries about the future for Syrians if the military-backed regime continues to solidify its power. “Policies forcing them out of Egypt are likely, and I would not be surprised to see more anti-Syrian vigilante violence, particularly if media rhetoric continues to be as hysterical as it is,” Elmasry says. “I hope I am wrong.”