Syrian Refugees: The Latest Target of Xenophobic Fervor

Only a few days after former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian armed forces, more than 200 Syrians refugees were deported from Cairo airport. Egyptian authorities had laid down new regulations for Syrians entering the country only hours before they arrived, sending them back to the Syrian town of Latakia, their point of origin. Prior to July 8, Syrians were not required to obtain any official documents to enter Egypt. New regulations, however, require them to obtain a visa and security clearance prior to arrival in Egypt, a process that could take up to a month. The policy reflects an alarming effort by the state to stoke Egyptians’ xenophobic tendencies to suit its political agenda.

Weeks before Morsi was ousted by the military, he severed all diplomatic ties with Syria and announced full support of the rebel forces by calling for a no-fly zone. At the National Conference for the Support of the Syrian Revolution when Morsi made this announcement, several Salafi and Islamist sheikhs also spoke using harsh sectarian language that in some cases implicitly called for jihad or on the ground assistance from Egyptian militants. However, Nabil Fahmy, the interim foreign minister, after taking office last week announced that Morsi’s foreign policy decisions would be reassessed, saying that although Egypt would continue to support the Syrian revolution, there “are no intentions for jihad in Syria.”

Two weeks later, the visa fee was cancelled in a show of “support for the Syrian people during this difficult period.” Despite this cancellation, however, the burden on refugees waiting weeks before being able to travel to Egypt had not diminished. Egypt’s decisions and new requirements on Syrian refugees could have grave implications for both the refugees and Egypt’s regional neighbors. Lebanon and Jordan are suffering from large numbers of refugees pouring into the camps, increasing both the economic and security burden on already troubled countries.

The visa fee waiver has also not stopped a fierce arrest campaign against Syrians, including those with refugee status. Syrian activists based in Cairo, reported on the events, stating that numerous Syrians, both those with refugee status and without, are being stopped at checkpoints and detained. While many have been released, others have not, with the recent deportation of three juveniles who were detained without charge.

Unfortunately, these actions taken by the military and the state, while a reflection of regional tensions and fear of increasing numbers of armed militants entering the country are only part of the picture. For weeks, incitement against Syrians, Palestinians, and Iraqis has flooded media, going so far as to call on civilians to arrest them if seen near pro-Morsi protests. The military junta in Egypt, assisted by a subservient state media network, has sadly spun this narrative in an attempt to tie the Muslim Brotherhood to foreign actors, as the public prosecutor gears up to investigate Morsi’s ties to Hamas. In the process, innocent Syrian refugees have become acceptable collateral damage.

Xenophobia is nothing new to Egypt’s transitional period; Mubarak attacked foreign conspirators during the January 25 uprising just as Morsi condemned outsiders’ “meddling fingers” attempting to derail his rule. Numerous cases of violence against embassies, journalists, expats, and even fair skinned Egyptians were reported, beginning during the eighteen days leading up to Mubarak’s ouster and continuing over the course of the past two and a half years. State-sponsored xenophobia was particularly notable during the SCAF-led transition, when after the Maspero Massacre in October 2011, leaving over two dozen Copts dead and sparking fear of a sectarian backlash. Instead of admitting to the armed forces’ use of violence against protesters, SCAF blamed the ‘invisible hands’ in what appeared to be a cover-up for their actions. In another outright display of xenophobic propaganda, state media aired a poorly scripted television advertisement that warned viewers against sharing information with foreigners, the implication clear that any foreigner could be perceived as a spy. One government after the other in Egypt has found it easier to point the finger of blame at outside forces to not only justify crackdowns, but to absolve them of any culpability in the matter.

Over the past few weeks, several incidents appear to have occurred in reaction to perceived foreign interference in Egyptian affairs – the backlash felt mainly by foreign journalists. A media crackdown led to the raiding and temporary closing down of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Iran’s Al Alam, among other channels. In both pro- and anti-Morsi protests, US news network CNN was lambasted for its coverage of Egypt’s protests, while its crew, in at least one instance, had to withdraw from the street out of fear for their safety. In late June, prior to Morsi’s ouster, a twenty-one year-old American student Andrew Pochter was stabbed to death while photographing a protest in Alexandria. This was the only fatal attack on a foreign journalist, or so the protesters may have thought, but was preceded by numerous cases of harassment, abuse, and gang rape.

While real foreign threats may exist and many countries are scrambling to secure their influence in shaping Egypt’s democracy, the consequences of this hyped fear is detrimental to society creating rifts between Egyptians and non-national residents, including the growing community of Syrian refugees as well as older refugee communities including Palestinian, Iraqi, Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. This growing tension could lead to increased instability, consequences Egypt can ill afford. A change in attitude, spearheaded by the governing powers in Egypt (both the interim government and the armed forces) is necessary. Unfortunately, with a real threat of increased terrorism in Sinai and the rural and urban governorates coming out in droves in response to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call to protest, tensions have only increased.

Amira Mikhail is the Egypt research intern with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: Flickr user FreedomHouse