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Egypt cracks down on Syrian businesses allegedly tied to Brotherhood

Egypt is going after certain Syrian businesses that have flourished, citing national security.

CAIRO — The Egyptian government has begun taking measures to monitor the commercial activity of Syrians in Egypt out of fear that some businesses are being used to fund the Muslim Brotherhood. The measures include not approving any commercial activity for Syrian nationals except with permission from the security authorities, as well as monitoring Syrian account activities and financial transactions in Egyptian banks.

The Ministry of Local Development had sent out a memorandum — a copy of which was obtained by Al-Monitor — to governorates Aug. 11 asking them to assess shops owned by members of the Syrian refugee community in Egypt. “Some people have opened a series of stores within short periods despite suffering from poor financial resources when they first came to Egypt," the memo read. It also said Syrians had bought "commercial stores in important locations using large amounts of unknown sources.”

The memo added, “Some estimates indicate that Qatar funded them through the Muslim Brotherhood, to be a new economic entity representing the organization by financing its prohibited activities inside and outside Egypt.” The memo also said the presidency did not want any commercial licenses granted to Syrians without approval from the Interior Ministry and the security services.

A government official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “A campaign was launched in September to review and monitor the activities of shops and businesses owned by Syrians or in partnership with Egyptians.” The official also said, “These measures are only precautionary and are not aimed at stopping any existing activity, or pursuing or imposing any additional fees on funds or commercial activity by Syrians.”

The source added, “The Syrians' funds in the Egyptian market are secured and subject to the laws protecting foreign investments in the Egyptian market as long as the existing activities do not cause any potential security risk or damage.”

On Sept. 12, Egyptian media outlets published reports about the Central Bank of Egypt instructing all banks operating in the local market to  monitor the account activities of their Syrian clients. The Central Bank said this does not apply to the opening of new bank accounts by those who hold Syrian nationality and have a residency in Egypt but rather to accounts that show a sudden rise in value.

Tayseer al-Najjar, the head of the Syrian community in Egypt, told Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian government's decision does not affect the activity of Syrians in the Egyptian market. The Syrian community has not had any complaints about the implementation of the decision, especially since the Egyptian government has already taken several precautionary measures regarding foreign funds in the context of combating terrorist operations and activities.”

Najjar said, “The decision is an inherent right of the Egyptian government within the framework of monitoring the funds pumped into the Egyptian market, especially with some suspicions about the nature of Syrian money with the increase in competition in the market.” 

He added, “The Syrians who came to Egypt were divided into segments; some were wealthy and had money invested in the Egyptian market, and others started small commercial activities and succeeded as they met demand from the Egyptian consumer, doubling their profits.”

It is unclear how many Syrian refugees there are in Egypt, as all may not be formally registered. According to the migration bulletin issued by Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt in 2017 was 233,000 refugees, more than double than the 110,000 refugees in 2012; Syrians also represent 54.5% of the total number of refugees in Egypt. A July report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of Syrians registered as refugees in Egypt at 130,000.

Najjar said, “Some are trying to create a wedge between Syrians and the Egyptian people, but such decisions by the Egyptian government will show that the economic entities currently operating in the Egyptian market are clean and have nothing to do with the suspicious Brotherhood funds. These measures will be in the best interest of the Syrians since most Syrians in Egypt have obtained security clearances upon entering Egyptian territory.”

He added, “If any Syrian is found to be working with Brotherhood funds, then the Egyptian administration has the right to take all necessary measures against them, even though most Syrians affiliated with the Brotherhood fled Egypt to Qatar and Turkey a long time ago.”

Khaldoun al-Mouakeh, head of the Syrian Businessmen's Association in Egypt, told Al-Monitor, “Our association stands against any investment with a suspicious political or ideological background that harms the Egyptian security, people and economy,” adding, “Any country has the right to take whatever measures and decisions it deems appropriate to protect its security.”

He added, “The Egyptian government's measures do not target productive activities, such as many Syrian factories in industrial cities in different Egyptian governorates. They rather target service activities such as shops and restaurants that serve Syrian food. Such businesses were very modest and only served the needs of the small numbers of Syrians coming to Egypt since 2012. However, they later started receiving broad acclaim from the Egyptians, so their owners established new, larger branches in better locations in order to meet the market’s needs.”

Mouakeh said, “I have received several letters from official Egyptian authorities stating that Egypt always welcomes the Syrians and appreciates the projects and investments they have set up.” He also said, “We are confident that Egypt will be able to verify any suspicious case without causing harm or injustice to anyone.”

In a report issued in May 2017, the UN estimated the total funds that the Syrians had invested in Egypt since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011 at about $800 million, but the Syrian Businessmen's Association thinks that amount is quite low, and has estimated Syrian investments in Egypt at $23 billion.

In August 2019, Egypt’s Administrative Court rejected a lawsuit demanding the deportation of Brotherhood-affiliated Syrians who entered the Egyptian territories illegally amid the security chaos in 2013. Syrian community leaders say they believe almost all Syrians who entered Egypt have made legal accommodations with authorities.

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