Brotherly brawls

Doaa El-Bey , Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Doaa El-Bey reports on a campaign targeting Syrian immigrants residing in Egypt

Syrian Shawerma sandwiches are popular among Egyptians
Syrian Shawerma sandwiches are popular among Egyptians


The last few days have seen an escalating social media campaign calling for the expulsion of Syrians living in Egypt and for boycotting their businesses. Various questions have been raised about the campaign, its timing, and the motives behind it.

“They should go to rebuild their own country and relieve our suffering economy from their burden,” said Abu Ahmed, a manual worker who lost his job when the shop he was working in was forced to close because it could not compete with a Syrian shop that opened nearby.

Abu Ahmed is echoing some social media calls and reflecting the sentiment among some low-income groups that believe that immigrants, or refugees, are likely to take some of the scarce jobs available for them. These feelings have been further aggravated by the unprecedented rise in the prices of staple goods.

However, most Egyptians have condemned this trend and responded by highlighting the fact that Egypt has always opened its doors to immigrants, especially those fleeing from difficult conditions in their own countries abroad.

“Egypt has always welcomed immigrants, especially those who face humanitarian problems in their home countries. How can we ask our brothers to leave their homes,” questioned Seham, a social worker in Cairo.

Political pscience rofessor Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed said that the opposition to the presence of foreign immigrants in Egypt can be ascribed to cultural and social reasons, namely that their presence could affect Egyptian culture or traditions and that foreigners could bring values with them not acceptable in Egyptian society.

“However, that is not true in the Syrian case,” he said, adding that “throughout history, the Egyptians have encountered various cultures but that has not changed their own values and culture.”

Although no one can name what triggered the present campaign, some have expressed the belief that it was prompted by a video clip in which a Syrian man called on the Egyptian government to give Syrians the southeastern area of Halayeb in Egypt as a place they could turn into another Hong Kong.

Others linked the campaign to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli’s calls for documenting the number of refugees and immigrants in the country. The calls came during a meeting last week to review the benefits the Egyptian state provides for migrants of different nationalities.

While the documentation of the country’s refugees and immigrants has already started, the cabinet is keen to distance itself from the anti-Syrian campaign. Newly appointed cabinet spokesman Mohamed Al-Homosani said that the government “totally rejects the social media campaign against all nationalities, and not just the Syrians. We don’t give any weight to these campaigns. We all know how generous the Egyptian people are.”

Al-Sayed highlighted the fact that there is no proof that the presence of immigrants negatively affects the Egyptian economy. On the contrary, most of the shops owned or run by Syrians employ Egyptians, he added.

“Most of these immigrants come with capital that they invest in Egypt, and that capital is sometimes in foreign currencies that Egypt needs,” he said.

Some observers attribute the anti-Syrian campaign to Egyptians suffering from unprecedented and steep rises in the cost of living, housing, and food, to the extent that some social media users have called for stopping Syrians or other immigrants from renting or buying flats in Egypt.

The rise in prices has gone hand-in-hand with escalating fears that an increasing number of refugees will further exacerbate the economic problems.

In April last year, thousands of Sudanese were forced to flee their country because of war, and Egypt was their first destination. Their arrival has raised the demand for rented accommodation, causing a rise in rents that has affected Egyptians and other immigrants who need to rent apartments.

The campaign could also be related to rising fears of the forced entry of thousands of Palestinians into Egypt as the Israeli bombardment of Gaza is forcing them to flee to the border area of Rafah. The continuous bombardment and the collective influx to Rafah is leaving the Palestinians with few options, one of them being to cross the border into Egypt’s Sinai desert.

Egypt has rejected allowing the Palestinians into Egypt, citing concerns about the displacement of Palestinians, the threat of liquidating the Palestinian issue, and other regional security concerns.

The anti-Syrian campaign was launched with hashtags such as “the expulsion of the Syrians is a national duty” or “Syrians in Egypt are a threat to national security.” It was initiated by unknown figures but has quickly circulated on platforms like X, Facebook, and TikTok.

At present, Egypt is home to nine million migrants from 133 countries, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). They include nearly five million Sudanese, 1.5 million Syrians, a million Yemenis, and another million Libyans. Other immigrants are from Iraq, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Somalia.

They constitute 8.7 per cent of the country’s population, and 37 per cent of them are engaged in stable employment, according to Minister of Health and Population Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar.

However, the IOM estimates that nearly 15 per cent of the international migrants in Egypt can be considered as “vulnerable” migrants who may be in need of tailored assistance. Such vulnerability has been exacerbated by the recent Covid-19 pandemic that affected both migrants and Egyptians.

Most migrants in Egypt reside in five key governorates: Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Daqahliya, and Damietta.

The Syrians, who make up the second-largest group of migrants, fled civil war in their country in 2011. They have been particularly welcomed in Egypt because Cairo and Damascus have historically had a special relationship.

In addition to the fact that they are both Arab and Muslim countries, they were unified as the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961. Ever since, they have faced similar regional challenges, namely the 1967 War and the October 1973 War, during which the armies of both states simultaneously launched a surprise attack against Israel.

After their arrival in Egypt in 2011, the Syrian immigrants managed to establish themselves in business including by opening chains of stores or restaurants across the country that have become popular with Egyptians and provided jobs to both Syrians and Egyptians.

It is estimated that the amount of funds invested by the 30,000 registered Syrian investors in Egypt is approximately $1 billion.

The calls to expel the Syrians is not the first time that Syrians in Egypt have found themselves facing trouble. They were targeted by similar calls in the aftermath of the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013, but these did not last long.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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