On 19 May, Nour decided to miss Friday prayers in the mosque near his house in the east Cairo district of Nasr City. Instead, he prayed at home. That way he could watch the Arab summit, broadcast on TV satellite channels from Jeddah, to see if Bashar Al-Assad, president of Syria, would actually show up.
Nour has been in Egypt for seven years, during which time he has changed jobs and houses several times. Like most Syrians who fled their country to avoid getting caught up in the violence that started in 2012, Nour was taken aback when he learned from social media in May that the Arab League had decided to end the boycott imposed on the Al-Assad regime after its violent response to democracy protests in 2011 pushed the country into civil war, forcing four million civilians to flee.
Nour and his wife, the families of his two brothers and of two in-laws, were among those who left.
“It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was terrifying. We had some money, and we decided to come to Egypt where we hoped things would work for us. But it’s scary, to leave your home, to leave your country, with no time to prepare and not knowing how it will end.”
Remembering “the agony, worry, and fear” of the past decade, Nour found it difficult to watch as Al-Assad was received at the Jeddah airport and then seated at the Arab summit. It was, he said, “as if nothing had happened over the past 10 years, as if the thousands and thousands who lost their lives or disappeared in the regime’s jails or who were recruited by terror groups did not count. As if Syria had not blown up, had not been divided, as if there weren’t foreign forces on its soil.”
In his 30s, Nour is not keen to examine the past too closely. He is grateful that his parents — they refused to leave Syria with him — are safe, and that his life in Egypt is stable. Nor is he willing to contemplate returning to Syria. Sparing about details out of concern for his own safety, all Nour will say is that as far as he is concerned there is nothing left to go back to. His hometown has been destroyed, his family and friends are no longer there, and he is “too scared to go back”.
Though he never had anything to do with politics, he says “you never know.”
“I could arrive at the airport and security could confuse my name with someone else. Then I’d be taken to prison until God knows when.”
Instead, he intends to go to Jordan and meet his parents who have now decided to relocate.
Nour has little faith in the ability of the Arab League, “the UN, or anybody else” to secure guarantees from Al-Assad that returnees will not be persecuted. “What would the Arab League do if we went back and got hurt,” he asks. “It can do nothing.”
In a resolution adopted on 7 May, the Arab League’s Foreign Ministers Council reversed the 2011 decision suspending Syria from the organisation. The decision, said the council, should allow for the beginning of a political process that enables Syria to regain stability and territorial integrity, and permits Syrians to return home safe and sound.
In his speech before the Jeddah summit on Friday, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit echoed the same line. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who had a brief but welcoming corridor encounter with Al-Assad in Jeddah, made a reference in his statement before the summit to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (December 2015) which expressed support for UN facilitation of a peace process that includes the Syrian government and the opposition. King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country hosts over one million Syrians and shares a problematic border with Syria, also said the return of Al-Assad to the League should mark the beginning of a process.
Nour points out, however, that Al-Assad has made no commitments to enter a political process, or offered any guarantees that Syrians can return safely. And like the few Syrians who agreed to speak to Al-Ahram Weekly but declined to be quoted even anonymously, he has “zero faith” in the Syrian opposition to manage an effective political process even if Al-Assad were to engage in one.
“What opposition,” he asks. “They are just people who travel the world and talk without being able to do anything.”
“The reality is that Al-Assad won. It does not matter whether he won because the West let down Syrians’ hope for democracy, because Russia put its forces on the ground, or because terror groups took over from the opposition. He won and winners do not make concessions.”
And now, adds Nour, “Arab countries need to be realistic and deal with him because they have their own interests to look after.”
Nour is worried for friends who live in Jordan and Lebanon, the two countries that received the largest number of Syrian refugees.
“Here in Egypt, I think we are okay. I don’t think we will be asked to leave. We have work, and we are past any tensions over the presence of Syrians in Egypt. Things are quite stable.”
A government source speaking on condition of anonymity said Cairo has no plans to force Syrians to leave. He insisted the future of Egyptian-Syrian relations is not related to the fate of Syrians living in Egypt.
“We have been working during the past few years at civil society level to explore cooperation and we were hoping to move forward with trade and some other forms of cooperation, along with security consultations,” said the official. He added, however, that the “wish” in Cairo to move forward with relations with Damascus, including a possible upgrade of diplomatic relations, will require political preparation, not least because of Washington’s dismay over Syria’s return to the Arab League.
According to a Washington-based diplomatic source, a bipartisan bill in US Congress is currently advocating stricter sanctions against countries that engage in economic cooperation with Syria. The text of the bill makes reference to discussions that Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon entered into with Washington over plans to export gas from Egypt to Lebanon via the Arab gas pipeline that passes through Syrian territory, and to increase electricity exports to Lebanon through the grid with Jordan.
“The plans were suspended a while ago because we could not get American reassurance on exemption from the Caesar Act,” said the official. Though there was disagreement “in the US administration” over the issue, it “just got shelved on our part.”
The Caesar Act is US legislation that sanctions the Syrian government, including President Al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population. The act was signed into law by president Donald Trump in December 2019, and came into force in June 2020. According to the Washington-based source, the US State Department is currently being blamed for having failed to impose the act.
In Cairo, Western diplomatic sources say the Saudis cleared Al-Assad’s return with Washington. According to one, the deal is that Syria will be officially allowed back to Arab League meetings in return for security and political commitments, especially on the smuggling of drugs from Syria to Arab countries, and that further economic or diplomatic steps from the Arab world will be conditioned on progress on the “political process in Syria”, including the release of political detainees and the security of returnees. The source added that it is not “clear how many Arab capitals will resume full diplomatic relations with Damascus, or whether Cairo will be one of them.”
“I think in principle there is an appetite to move forward on this front but not at any price,” says the Egyptian official, adding that Cairo is “keen on its interests with the US.”
“We want to encourage the Syrian regime to take some serious measures on the ground to give a sense of political openness and to respond to some of the demands of the international community on the political process, and we will take it one step at a time.” He argued that if Damascus exhibited some positive steps, then it would be possible for Cairo to upgrade its diplomatic representation and to have an exchange of officials.
Earlier this year, in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri went to Syria, the first high-level visit of an Egyptian official to Damascus since the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership. A few weeks later, the Syrian foreign minister was in Cairo for talks with his Egyptian counterpart.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly