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July 15, 2013

Syrian refugees in Egypt swept up in turmoil

CAIRO — Egyptian officials turn back a planeload of Syrians at Cairo airport. A popular presenter on Egyptian television warns Syrians to steer clear of protests or face the consequences. An Egyptian state school refuses admission to Syrian children.

Once welcomed with open arms in Egypt, many of the tens of thousands of Syrians who took refuge here from the civil war at home have now found themselves targets of hate speech and intimidation. Their dramatic change in fortune is one of the unexpected consequences of the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, whose Islamist-dominated government offered them favorable conditions.

The shift could have a profound impact on the lives of Syrians in Egypt as they currently find themselves in a sort of legal limbo, waiting to see where the political winds will drop them. In what many see as a hint of what lies ahead, Egypt's new military-backed interim government already has imposed new travel restrictions.

That has spooked many Syrians who fear their current visas won't be renewed and they could be forced to leave Egypt. Many have invested their savings in businesses or simply cannot return to their war-ravaged cities.

"Our biggest fear now is that we get deported," said Azzam Ayed, a 32-year-old Syrian who refused to give his hometown out of fears for his security.

The backlash stems from support of the mainly Sunni Syrian opposition by Morsi during his year in office, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which offered cheap housing and food aid to Syrians who fled the violence in their homeland.

With the country divided, Morsi's critics accused Syrians of participating in the protests calling for him to be reinstated.

International human rights groups have urged Egypt to rescind the measures.

"Egypt may be going through tumultuous times, but it must not return anyone, including Syrians, to somewhere threatening their life or freedom," Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. "While Egypt is going through a very difficult period, it simply should not strand Syrians this way, especially those who have fled such a devastating conflict at home.

The U.N. says some 70,000 Syrians are registered in Egypt, although officials estimate the actual number may be twice that since many have opted not to register. That would make Egypt home to the fourth-largest community of Syrian refugees after Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Those who came to Egypt received a warm welcome. Morsi's government supported the rebels' cause, and kept in place a decades-old open-door policy that allowed Syrians to come and go without prior visas. They were eligible to receive medical care at state hospitals, while their children could enroll in government schools.

Over the past few months, Syrians redefined some parts of Cairo, opening their own restaurants and cafes in areas where many of them settled.

But the warm welcome quickly evaporated after the military toppled Morsi on July 3 after four days of mass protests calling for the Islamist leader's removal.

Television networks critical of Morsi aired allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood was paying Syrian refugees to take part in pro-Morsi protests. The arrest of at least six Syrians taking part in violent street clashes only fanned the flames.

"Syrians are facing a defamation campaign," said Syrian activist Salma Gazayerli. "Yes, some of the Syrians support Morsi, but how many? The majority of Syrians know that they are guests in Egypt and they behave accordingly."

Gazayerli, co-founder of the nonprofit Union of Syrian Women, said the Brotherhood has "manipulated the needs of some Syrians," offering them cheap housing from Islamic relief groups in return for participating in protests supporting Morsi. Those who refused, she claimed, were cut off from the aid.

Senior Brotherhood official Saad Emara rejected the allegations. "There were millions in the streets. Can we give them all money?" he said after mass rallies on Friday by Morsi supporters.

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