In the months that Alaa lived in Cairo after fleeing her war-torn Syrian homeland, she had grown accustomed to Egyptian men asking for her hand in marriage, believing that Syrian women are prettier, better cooks and cheaper. She could handle the lack of jobs and families sharing one-room apartments to survive on the bare minimum. But the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi July 3 – and the response that has provoked among Egyptians, civilians and soldiers alike – was just too much.
“I would rather die in my country,” Alaa, who asked only to be identified by her first name, said just before leaving Egypt last month.
While much of the Middle East is bracing for an influx of even more Syrian refugees as the United States threatens to launch a punitive military attack on the government of President Bashar Assad, the opposite is happening in Egypt, the most populous Arab country.
Cairo’s 6th of October neighborhood that only weeks ago bustled with Syrian refugees is distinctively Egyptian once again. No longer are the streets lined with vendors selling Syrian spices and trinkets. No longer is the sound of the Syrian dialect ubiquitous. Where once scores of Syrian flags waved, just one remains. To find a Syrian in the district now, one must search and be cleared as a friend and not another Egyptian foe.
In the new Egypt, to be a Syrian refugee is to be a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency. The Egyptian military-led campaign against its Islamist foes has extended to those Syrians who just weeks ago were welcomed here.
Refugees who came from Syria to Egypt find themselves stuck between the two kinds of instability that plague the Middle East. In Egypt, there have been several volatile changes in power – from former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Morsi and his Brotherhood-stacked government and back to the military, each time suddenly changing who is up and who is out.
During the same period in Syria, a two-year long war that aimed to force change has led to more than two million refugees, 100,000 deaths and the same president in power. In the middle are the roughly 100,000 refugees here who cannot go home and yet no longer believe they can stay here.
It’s hard to know how many Syrians have left and how many are simply hiding from Egyptians. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees climbed rapidly here, from 70,000 just four months ago. But the group’s statistics, based on registered refugees here only go till Aug. 1, three weeks after Morsi was out of power and Egyptian security forces engaged in violent clashes with his supporters.
McClatchy spoke to about 20 Syrians in 6th of October, none of whom had been in Cairo for more than 10 months. They all said the change in heart here came in late July, the first time security forces clashed with Morsi supporters staging a sit-in in Cairo’s eastern district of Rabaa.
“Wait, are there any Egyptians around?” a Syrian man asked, turning his head each way, before explaining his circumstances. He refused to give his name, fearing the security forces, and urged other Syrians gathered around him also to hide their identities.
“They say we are terrorists who came here to create terrorism,” said the man, who said he was 40 and had arrived in Cairo five months ago. “They say ‘You are with Morsi. Leave.’ ”
Leaving, however, is not an option, he said. “People are tired. We are in the streets trying to live,” he said. “I want to leave, but where am I supposed to go? We just got here.”
“It came as a surprise,” a 53-year-old woman who wanted to be identified simply as Umm Alaa said of the change in Egyptians’ attitudes toward them. She said Syrians are not here voluntarily. “We want to go back to our country.”
Under Morsi, the Egyptian government supported the anti-Assad opposition, which includes members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Within days of Morsi’s ouster, the military-named civilian government announced an about face on policy. The new government was fighting a war on terrorism against Islamists and the Brotherhood; the Syrian rebels were branded as part of the problem.
Egyptian security forces began stopping Syrians the street and asking what they are doing in Cairo.
The news media have joined the campaign. One news channel reported that Syrians were arming the Brotherhood fighters in Rabaa with chemical weapons. A Syrian in 6th of October keeps a screen shot of the news coverage on his cell phone.
Many Syrians have now fled Egypt for Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, refugees here said. Others just don’t come out in the streets anymore.
Najab Ali, 70, arrived in Cairo June 28, two days before massive protests led to Morsi’s ouster, said she no longer cares if Egyptians welcome her or not. Walking with her young granddaughters, she said all she wants is be reunited with her four children again. Her fifth, the father of her granddaughters, was killed in Syria.
“The situation here and there is very sad,” she said. “We left before they murdered us in Syria.”
Mahmoud Zabiteh, 21, runs the last Syrian sweet stand on what was the main street of the Syrian enclave. The nearby mosque told him two months ago that he could no longer sell his wares from their sidewalk, so he sets up his stand on the street. Since Morsi’s ouster he has seen Egyptians steal Syrian cars, try to kidnap women and yell at him to go back to Syria, he said.
“In Syria, we ran away from thugs,” he said. “Now it is the same thing here.”
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.