On 6 February, Samer woke in the small flat in Nasr City which he shares with his parents and two sisters to news of the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey. Samer and his family arrived in Egypt in 2013 after fleeing the violence which has torn Syria apart.
“It was frightening,” said Samer. “I have friends and family in Aleppo and in Turkey, across the border from Syria.” Samer’s two brothers are in Germany and Italy, having travelled to Europe from Egypt, but many of his cousins and friends remain in Syria or else have taken refuge in Turkey.
It was days before the family was able to contact relatives in Syria and Turkey to make sure they were safe. Fortunately, they were. They had been far luckier than other Syrian families Samer knows in Cairo and Alexandria.
In 2011, Syrians joined the call for democracy that was sweeping across the Arab world. Unlike the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Yemeni presidents who stepped down following massive demonstrations in their countries, Bashar Al-Assad declined to bow to the will of his people. Instead, he opted for a massive show of force against the demonstrators, prompting Arab countries, at the height of the Arab Spring, to suspend Syria’s membership of the Arab League. While Al-Assad kept his presidency, 13 million Syrians have been displaced, many of whom were living in tents in the northern western part of the country that was hit hard by Monday’s earthquake and its aftershocks, and which remains beyond government control.
For Syrians forced to leave their cities, lives, and their careers behind — Samer dropped out of university and ended up making falafel and shawarma sandwiches in Cairo — the choices have been harsh.
Samer says his life in Cairo “has been okay”.
“There have been moments of anti-Syrian feeling, but they are not the norm.”
Since the earthquake hit regular clients have stopped by to check on the Syrian staff and make sure they were coping.
“I think there has been a lot of sympathy here and this has been comforting,” he says.
Ahmed, who works at a café in the same neighbourhood where Samer lives and works, reports that Egyptian clients have shown a great deal of sympathy to their Syrian counterparts. “People would insist on keeping the TV turned on to the news rather than watch a football game or a film so people could follow what was happening in Turkey and Syria. There was a lot of compassion.”
Hours after the extent of the disaster that hit Turkey and Syria became known, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi ordered five flights to the two countries to deliver emergency supplies. The military planes unloaded in Damascus — Cairo observes the limitations on diplomatic representation agreed by the Arab League in 2011 — leaving it to the discretion of the Syrian government to decide on how to distribute the supplies to devastated zones.
The Egyptian Red Crescent was also quick off the mark to collect donations to send aid to victims of the earthquake. According to Hani Al-Nazer, director of the Egyptian Red Crescent, there is an open line of communication with the Syrian Red Crescent to coordinate help, allowing supplies to be delivered within days of the military flights to Turkey and Syria landing. And during a meeting in Cairo this week with a delegation from the Syrian Engineers Syndicate, Tarek Al-Nabarawi, chair of the Engineers Syndicate, discussed ways of helping Syria manage the devastating situation.
Unlike Turkey, which has received substantial help from countries around the world, the Syrian regime’s pariah status has resulted in a dearth of supplies, rescue skills, and equipment.
“We were watching TV and seeing people digging through the rubble with their bare hands in the hope of saving those trapped beneath collapsed buildings,” says Samer.
“The world could have helped but it didn’t. This should not be about Al-Assad but about the Syrian people who have already faced so much suffering and displacement. If the world cared, it would have found a way”.
In Cairo, President Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri called their counterparts in Turkey and Syria to express condolences and show sympathy. Egypt did not, however, go as far as Tunisia, which immediately declared the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Syria, or Lebanon, which sent a delegation to its northern neighbour.
“There have been consultations at a very high level about the best reaction and it was decided that showing immediate solidarity at a humanitarian level was most appropriate and for now this is where things stand,” said a government official.
An informed political source said that while Egypt has been exploring the idea of “bringing Syria back to the Arab fold” for some time now, “of course we understand that there is an international position.”
“There has been a political process to get the regime in Damascus to reach a deal with the opposition, and for a long time Cairo exerted efforts to promote a political deal, but it led nowhere. We have seen one UN envoy after another, one initiative after another, with no progress.”
He added that there is no consensus, at either the international level or Arab level, on what to do about Syria as long as Al-Assad remains in office.
“Al-Assad survived, but there is no plan on how to deal with him. There is an awareness in many Arab capitals on the need to find a way to end Syria’s isolation but there are different ideas on how to get there”.
Egypt, said the political source, “wants things to move in the right direction”.
“We want to help Syria come out of its crisis and we are consulting on how to do this, both at the Arab and international levels.”
In Dubai on Monday for the World Government Summit, President Al-Sisi called on his Emirati counterpart, Mohamed bin Zayed, to expand the aid package Abu Dhabi has pledged, saying “for the sake of God, help Syria.”
The UAE, which reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, has pledged an immediate $14 million package to help Syria and promised triple this amount at a later stage. The Emirati president dispatched his foreign minister to Syria to discuss the coordination of aid, and Al-Assad expressed gratitude for the move. Other Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar which have adopted a strong political position against the Al-Assad regime for bilateral and regional reasons, have also sent direct aid to Syria.
“Sending aid to help with the humanitarian tragedy caused by the earthquake is one thing, accepting Syria under Al-Assad back in the Arab League is another,” says the political source. “Consensus is still lacking, unfortunately.”
Despite this, several Arab countries have expanded cooperation with Damascus in recent years, initially at a non-official level and later at a low-key official level. Industrial and agricultural cooperation has been discussed, and cooperation between Egypt, Syria, and Jordan to help Lebanon out of its fuel and electricity crisis has also been in the works for over a year.
In Cairo, government sources say that Egypt will continue to slowly upscale coordination with Syria, especially when it comes to combating militant groups, including Islamic State, until the time is ripe to reinstate full diplomatic relations, in coordination with international and regional partners, with or without a political reconciliation in Syria.
“I am not sure we will ever see political reconciliation. The regime in Syria has entrenched itself with the help of Russia and Iran, and the opposition today is either fragmented or interwoven with militant groups. For us, hopes for democracy are now firmly in the past,” says Samer.
Though he is hoping for “some arrangement” that would help diaspora Syrians return home without fear of being arrested by the regime or caught up in the violence of militant groups, Samer, who is in his 20s, is unsure whether he will ever be able to go back to his home country, even if only to visit the graves of friends who died “in the war”.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly