- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
CAIRO — On July 8, Suad, a Syrian woman residing in Egypt, returned home with her mother after a trip to Jordan to renew her passport. Her three daughters and husband were waiting for her in the city of Alexandria, just a few days before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.
But the pair was stopped at Alexandria International Airport: New regulations had been put in place that very day, they were told, requiring Syrians to obtain an entry visa before entering Egypt. Meanhwile, Suad’s mother was suffering from diabetes and was running out of medication; while they were caught in legal limbo, there seemed to be no way to get her treatment. Suad suddenly found herself separated from her family and grappling with a medical crisis as she struggled to figure out how to return home.
Suad and her mother found themselves stranded at the airport for nearly 48 hours. When it became clear that there was no hope of gaining entry to Egypt, her husband bought her a plane ticket back to Amman, where she can tackle the new visa process.
"We have a nine-year old girl who is very attached to her mother, she’s very upset, she cries every day," the husband said. "We had no idea what was happening. Nobody told us anything."
The coup in Egypt has not only upended politics in Cairo, it has endangered some of the country’s weakest residents: The estimated 70,000 refugees who have fled the horrific civil war in Syria. Egypt previously had an open-door policy for Syrians. Fears for the country’s stability — fueled by conspiracy theories that foreigners are providing crucial support to the Muslim Brotherhood — is causing that to change. On July 8 alone, 276 people were denied entry to Egypt, with some having no choice but to return to Syria.
"According to the security apparatus, they found [Syrians] participating in protests and using violence," said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty, in explaining the decision to institute a visa requirement. "We ask our Syrian brothers to respect the current circumstances in Egypt now."
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, there are currently over 70,000 Syrians who have registered as refugees in Egypt. According to Syrian activists and aid workers, many more Syrians fleeing the violence currently reside in Egypt but have not applied for refugee status. But with the new restrictions, the days of Egypt as a safe haven for incoming refugees may be coming to an end.
"I think it will be difficult for Syrians to get a visa," said Mohamed Dayri, the UNHCR regional representative in Cairo. The process could take up to a month — a long time for a refugee trying to flee the bloodshed in Syria, or trying to make ends meet in a foreign country with no form of employment. Dayri also noted that the U.N. refugee agency was "very concerned" about the fate of Syrians like Suad who were turned away after arriving in Egypt.
The backlash against the Syrian community has been fueled by scattered stories of Syrians joining sides — or even taking up arms — in Egypt’s political unrest. On July 6, three days after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm reported that a Syrian named Mohamed Mohie al-Darjuni was under investigation for being paid by the Muslim Brotherhood to attack anti-Morsy demonstrators in clashes near downtown Cairo the previous day. Darjuni allegedly received 500 pounds (roughly $71) for each clash with the protesters.
Officials who work with the refugee community, however, insist that such stories are merely isolated examples. "A few Syrians in public demonstrations and using violence should not be generalized," said Dayri. "The Syrian community should not be held hostage to the bad decisions of a few people."
Some prominent anti-Morsy voices, however, have been only too eager to stoke fears that the Syrian community in Egypt has been bought off by the Muslim Brotherhood. Television commentators Youssef el-Husseini and Tawfiq Okasha both publicly warned Syrians against supporting Morsy or participating in Egyptian affairs; Okasha went so far as to encourage Egyptians to arrest them should they see them on the street.
Syrian activists here are trying to contain the public backlash. Over 20 groups who work with Syrian refugees in Egypt recently signed a statement calling on all Syrians in the country "to stand in a neutral position in what is an internal Egyptian affair."
Whether they are successful, however, may depend on whether Egypt is able to avoid more spasms of violence like those that have occurred over the past week. Just as xenophobia arose following the most violent days of the 2011 uprising, attacks on foreigners in Cairo appear to be directly linked to the stability of the current regime — and this time, the most vulnerable are in the crosshairs.