The closure of a popular Syrian-owned restaurant in the east Alexandria neighborhood of Asafra over what an employee in the Alexandria governor's office claimed to be "health code violations" has renewed fears among Syrians of tighter restrictions on their businesses in Egypt. It has also sparked a new wave of hostility toward Syrian refugees, raising concerns about their personal safety in a country that has largely been accommodating to them.
In mid-August, security forces sealed the doors of the Bride of Damascus (Aroos Dimashq) after a resident in the same building filed a lawsuit against its owner, complaining that gas cylinders in the restaurant's ground-floor kitchen posed an imminent danger to the building's occupants and to the neighborhood in general. The complainant's elderly mother had earlier appealed to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to take punitive measures against the restaurant owner and posted a video on Twitter showing the Syrian man dismissing her objections and telling her to "get me a man to talk to."
The video prompted a "social media row," with angry Egyptians via Twitter calling for the deportation of Syrian refugees. Others later cheered the restaurant's closing, thanking the government for the "restitution made to Egyptians." Government supporters appear to be behind the xenophobic social media campaign and are its loudest voices, claiming that Syrian businesses are financed by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and accusing Syrians of "funding terrorism."
Meanwhile, other Egyptians have expressed solidarity with the Syrians, drawing similarities between the hate campaign targeting them and white supremacists' campaigns against African Americans and other people of color in the United States. Posting images of "illegal" street cafes, one person noted that corruption in local government is allowing some Egyptian cafe owners to defy the law and questioned why the authorities were turning a blind eye to such violations while going after Syrian-run businesses.
The social media uproar over the closure of the Bride of Damascus comes two months after Samir Sabry, a vocal pro-government lawyer notorious for filing frivolous lawsuits, filed a complaint calling for strict government oversight of Syrian-run enterprises, accusing them of all types of nefarious activities. He has also fanned the flames of xenophobia by protesting the alleged "Syrian takeover" of some sectors of the economy and the "Syrianization" of neighborhoods where Syrians have heavily invested in real estate.
The current rise in anti-Syrian sentiment is reminiscent of an earlier wave of xenophobia targeting Syrians in 2013 that included frequent assaults on them on public transport and in the streets. The attacks were prompted by a media campaign vilifying Syrian refugees as Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers seeking to wreak havoc in Egypt. That perception has been overcome with time, however, thanks to an impressive number of Syrians who have established successful businesses and in the process created much-needed jobs for Egyptians.
Mohamed Farouk, an Egyptian who manages the Maadi branch of Khayrat El Sham, a Syrian-owned restaurant with three branches, told Al-Monitor, "Egyptians and Syrians are one people. We work together as brothers." He attributed this fraternity to a "common language, cultural similarities and historical ties between our two countries."
Syrian refugees have in the past complained of exploitation as well as discrimination at the hands of their Egyptian hosts. A January 2013 article in The New Humanitarian cited "survival sex and forced marriages" among a host of other security concerns facing the community in Egypt. Financial necessity has forced some Syrian families to marry off their young, sometimes underage daughters to older Egyptian men in exchange for small dowries and in some cases without the customary bride price at all, sparking an outcry from the National Council of Women.
The most vulnerable of the refugees are those who fled their war-ravaged country with little or no belongings and therefore have had to rely on meager cash assistance from various organizations that is hardly sufficient to afford them dignified lives.
Radwa Sharaf, a public information associate at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, told Al-Monitor, "We provide assistance directly and through partners to all registered refugees including but not limited to the most vulnerable, education grants to schoolchildren and healthcare services to survivors of gender-based violence."
Sharaf also remarked, "The situation of refugees remains in a position of comparative disadvantage as they lack access to the formal labor market. They are forced to negotiate the informal employment market where they face many protection risks and underemployment."
Syrian refugee women can be seen at traffic lights in various Cairo neighborhoods attempting to sell homemade cookies, kibbeh, jars of pickles and other food and items to commuters in an effort to provide for their families. More-affluent Syrians meanwhile have managed to set up small and medium-sized businesses despite the bureaucratic hurdles and the high inflation taking a toll on many Egyptians. In spite of Egypt's discriminatory labor laws, many of them have been granted permits to operate their businesses without an Egyptian sponsor.
Abdullah Bashir, a Syrian sweets maker who arrived six years ago, told Al-Monitor, "I was jobless for more than a year after arriving here and was concerned that the money I'd saved was quickly running out." His situation improved after he managed to open a confectionery store with his brother in the 6th of October, a satellite town 20 miles west of Cairo in Giza governorate.
Abdullah's business thrived, and today his family owns a small factory and two confectionery shops in the Cairo district with the largest concentration of Syrian refugees. The commercial area in the vicinity of Al-Hossary Mosque in the Giza district of Sheikh Zayed, has come to be known as Little Damascus. It teems with Syrian-run grocery stores, bakeries, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, mobile shops and other businesses, and large numbers of Egyptians frequent it to sample Syrian delicacies and to purchase Syrian products with a "Made in Egypt" label at affordable prices.
"Out of the total of 240,00 refugees and asylum seekers hosted by Egypt, more than 131,000 are Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR," Sharaf said. Government estimates are much higher, with some officials asserting that Egypt is host to as many as 500,000 Syrians. As the country has no refugee camps, the majority of them are dispersed across the Greater Cairo area, Alexandria and the Nile Delta port city of Damietta, with smaller numbers having sought refuge in Sinai and Mansoura.
In 2013, after Egypt revived ties with Damascus, authorities in Cairo altered the country's refugee policy, effectively banning additional Syrians from entering, a marked shift from the period before the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, when Syrian refugees were granted renewable three-month tourist visas upon entry, unlike refugees of other nationalities, who were required to obtain visas prior to their arrival.
Some observers, including the novelist Alaa El Aswany, have accused officials of deliberately inciting anti-Syrian sentiment in a "systemic defamation campaign" through media "controlled by the intelligence services." Such moves, Aswany claims, are geared toward paving the way for the deportation of Syrians. In a weekly column published by Deutsche Welle, Aswany has also suggested that the recent flare up over the shuttering of the Bride of Damascus was "fabricated," possibly to put pressure on more affluent Syrians to make donations to state-run charities. He questioned whether the security forces would have meted out the same ill treatment to a restaurant owner from the Gulf had the latter violated the health codes.
If Aswany is accurate in his assessment, it would not be the first time that Egypt has deported Syrian refugees in contravention of international agreements. In a damning report from October 2013, Amnesty International highlighted what it describes as the "tragic consequences" of Egypt's hard-line stance toward Syrian refugees, including the forcible return of hundreds of them and unlawful detentions.
It is unclear where Egyptian authorities are headed in their approach toward Syrians in the country. All one can say with any certainty is that for the moment, the Syrians are standing on shaky ground amid threats to their businesses and security.