Syrian Refugees Caught Up In Egypt's Political Crisis

The ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has changed things for other Arabs living in the country. When a group falls from grace, so do those who are perceived to be its supporters. Under Muslim Brotherhood rule, Egypt was one of the few remaining safe havens for Syrians fleeing the war in their country. The political change in Egypt is putting Syrians in danger.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Egypt, the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi has changed things - not just for Egyptians, but also for another group of Arabs living in that country. It's a story of how when one group falls from grace, so do those who are perceived to be its supporters.

Under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was a safe haven for Syrians fleeing the war in their country. Now, as NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Cairo, the power shift in Egypt is putting Syrians in danger.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The trouble for Syrians in Egypt actually started last month, before Morsi's ouster. It was mid-June, and Morsi was already losing popularity as the Egyptian state faltered. Instead of talking about Egypt's internal problems, Morsi spoke at a massive rally in a football stadium, that was all about Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAMMED MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Morsi announced he was cutting diplomatic ties with Syria. He said Syrians fighting to oust their president deserved Egypt's support.

MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We are ready for you, Syria, he said, using a version of the word "ready" that's often used during religious ceremonies and by jihadist fighters. Many took it as a call to arms. All of a sudden, the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who've sought refuge here in Egypt were perceived as allies of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood - whether they wanted to be or not.

Then, Morsi was ousted. Five days later, more than 50 Morsi supporters were shot dead by Egyptian security forces. Unverified reports circulated in the Egyptian press that authorities had arrested an armed Syrian who provoked the military to shoot. The Egyptian government announced it would require Syrians to get visas and security clearances before entering Egypt. Syrians were turned away at the airport. Then the real trouble started.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

YOUSEF AL HUSSEINI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: On his nightly news talk show, Egyptian TV anchor Yousef al Husseini compared Syrians to lice. If you Syrians support Morsi, he said, why don't you just leave Egypt? If you stay and get involved in Egypt, you will get 30 shoes thrown at you.

RAMI JARRAH: One minute, we were in one situation. Suddenly, everything was different. It was obvious that there was going to be a different situation for Syrians that were here in Egypt.

MCEVERS: That's Syrian activist Rami Jarrah. He says he was chased out of a cab at knifepoint, after the driver recognized his accent. Other Syrians told us they've been insulted in the street. Abu Eyad is a Palestinian Syrian who fled Syria with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. We reached him by Skype.

ABU EYAD: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Eyad entered Egypt during Morsi's time. He says airport authorities turned a blind eye to the fact that he didn't have the proper documents to enter Egypt. After Morsi was ousted, Abu Eyad was pulled off a bus with three other Syrians, at an Egyptian army checkpoint.

EYAD: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He was held for three hours, then told he has 45 days to leave Egypt.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND STREET NOISES)

MCEVERS: The sun has just gone down. We are in the October 6th neighborhood of Cairo next to the Hossari mosque. This is basically a parking lot that's been turned into this huge, open-air cafe. There are big-screen TVs, chairs set up everywhere; people are smoking shisha, drinking tea just after breaking the fast. This really is the heart of the Syrian community here in Cairo.

MCEVERS: At a Syrian shwarma restaurant, Abdulaziz al Jahjar says his brother-in-law's two brothers escaped the war-torn Syrian city of Homs last week, to board a flight to Egypt. After making it through dozens of dreaded government checkpoints, they thought they were home free.

ABDULAZIZ AL JAHJAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: They were detained when they arrived in Egypt, and held for three days. They haven't been heard from since. Now, the family here in Egypt is thinking of moving again, this time to Turkey. But they worry that won't remain an option either.

JAHJAR: (Through translator) And if they will close down the doors for us - even they - then we don't have any other option than to go back to death, to Syria.

MCEVERS: The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have called on Egypt to reverse the visa policy. The Egyptian government says the measures are just temporary. But given the continued vitriol on Egyptian media against Syrians, and the blame game going on here in Egypt, it appears that no matter what happens, the damage to Syrians has already been done.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Cairo.

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