Hostility mounts against Syrian refugees in Egypt

There are approximately 550,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said, but independent estimates put the number far higher.

CAIRO — Syrian refugees are facing a wave of hostility in Egypt, with locals accusing them of dominating business activities and filling valuable employment positions.

“Syrians are taking the jobs of Egyptian workers,” said Alaa Mamdouh, who works at an electrical appliance shop in Cairo. “No other government in the world would allow refugees to do this.”

Anti-refugee sentiment began rising after a resident of Alexandria posted a video on Twitter purportedly showing the Syrian owner of a restaurant in her apartment building responding to her complaints with personal insults.

In the video, the woman pleaded for authorities to close the restaurant, located just below her balcony, saying the noise and workers’ disruptive behaviour violated her living standards. The restaurant was soon shut down by municipal authorities. The owner was also reportedly wanted for other offences.

However, the video continued to fuel anger, with many calling for the state to crack down on refugees who violate Egyptian laws.

The incident highlighted the centrality of social media in Egypt, where tens of millions regularly turn to their computers or phones for socio-political commentary.

The 2011 uprising against long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak started on social media, as did a subsequent campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which took over after Mubarak’s ouster.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has frequently said social media have been central to political developments and are “uncontrollable.”

Information technology expert Osama Mustafa said social media make for a new powerful tool, especially after the “Arab spring” revolutions.

“For Egyptians,” he said, “social media are an important platform where they can easily and fearlessly voice out their views on everything.”

As of February, there were 40.9 million internet subscribers in Egypt, the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology said; 34.4% of those subscribers access the internet through their cell phones. This means nearly half the population turns to the internet for news and commentary, making it a powerful political reality.

Syrian refugees are caught in the middle, finding themselves the subject of intense political discussion and debate.

There are approximately 550,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said, but independent estimates put the number far higher.

Syrians have established communities in many Egyptian cities and have become serious actors in many economic sectors. Syrians are prominent in the food and beverage and retail sectors and often outnumber Egyptian barbers.

There have been complaints that wealthy Syrians are driving up the cost of housing and contributing to the gentrification of certain neighbourhoods.

An Egyptian shop owner from 6th of October City, a sprawling community on the south-western outskirts of Cairo that has become a Syrian enclave, told a local newspaper that Syrians are able to pay far more than locals, making them preferred tenants.

Egyptian authorities have begun to respond to locals’ complaints, raiding Syrians’ shops, including in 6th of October, and in some cases shutting them down.

While the government has not contributed to anti-immigrant rhetoric — Sisi has welcomed and expressed admiration for Syrian refugees on numerous occasions, even calling Egypt their second home — Syrians are increasingly concerned about what is to come.

“It is unfair to punish all the refugees because of the mistakes committed by one or two of them,” said Abu Fawaz, a Syrian barber from 6th of October. “Some people are there to exaggerate the mistakes of the refugees with the aim of turning the public against them.”

Ahmed Meghid is an Egyptian reporter based in Cairo.

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