Social media hate campaign in Egypt calls for expulsion of Syrians

Government in Cairo rejects online statements that followed count of resident foreign citizens

Syrians work at a barber in an area called 6 October City in Giza, Egypt. Reuters
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A social media campaign calling for the expulsion of Syrians living in Egypt has caused anger and raised questions about the motives behind it.

Egypt says it is home to nine million guests, the term used by government officials when referring to migrants. Syrians, mostly families who fled civil war, are thought to account for 1.5 million of those, making up the second largest group after about five million Sudanese.

The government has publicly distanced itself from the social media campaign and sought to make clear that this was unrelated to a recent count of foreigners living in Egypt.

Unlike the Sudanese or the Iraqis, many Syrian migrants quickly established themselves in business after their arrival a little more than a decade ago.

They have opened thousands of stores and restaurants across the country that have become popular with Egyptians.

Their success was celebrated by Egyptians as an example of how hard work and entrepreneurship pay off.

And for years, everyone was a winner. The Syrians found in Egypt a safe place to live with similar language, culture and customs, and an eager market for their businesses.

For the Egyptians, the Syrian migrants were pleasant, industrious and minded their own business.

But in hundreds of social media posts in recent weeks, Egyptians have condemned Syrians as parasites, black marketeers, hoarders and a burden on a country sagging under the weight of its worst economic crisis in decades.

The posts blamed Syrians for steep rises in the cost of goods and housing, with some social media users declaring their intention to bar them from renting or buying flats in their buildings.

“We will make their life so miserable, they will want to leave. Why are they in love with our country when they have one of their own,” one man declared in a video post.

“Neither me nor other Egyptians want you here,” said another.

“Do you have a country of your own or not? Why don't you just go back home?” said another social media user.

The hate speech was in some cases countered by Syrians also using social media.

One, using an account under the name of Ibn Horan, mocked claims by some Egyptians that he and his compatriots posed a threat to national security.

He, however, added that some posts by Syrians may have angered Egyptians, such as a video clip in which a man called on the government to give Syrians the south-east enclave of Halayeb as an autonomous home that they could turn into another Hong Kong.

No one knows what exactly triggered the anti-Syrian campaign, which, despite being peppered with hate speech and xenophobia, has so far not led to any violence.

Amr Adeeb, a popular talk show host on MBC Egypt, speculated that it might have been inspired by Egyptian businessmen who want to dislodge Syrian competitors, or the economic crisis gripping the country of 105 million people.

Another explanation offered by commentators is that the campaign may have been in response to recent government statements that referred to the “cost” of hosting migrants.

Government spokesman Mohammed Al Homsany said the administration opposed any targeting of foreigners.

“We totally reject the social media campaign against all nationalities, and not just the Syrians. We don't give any weight to these campaigns. We all know how generous the Egyptian people are,” he said this week.

He said the recent count of foreigners conducted by the Interior Ministry, which handles visas and residence permits for foreigners, was only done to determine the number of migrants living in Egypt and to legalise their stay when required.

The government wanted “to know what the state bears in contributing to the welfare of its dear guests” and to determine their actual number so that it can secure proportional aid from international donors and partners, he said.

But Mr Al Homsany's use of the phrase “what the state bears” amounted to an acknowledgement that the logic behind the anti-Syrian campaign is partially sound, London-based author and political analyst Shady Lewis Botros wrote in an article posted online this week.

Although geographically distant, Egypt and Syria have had a special relationship for centuries.

Egyptian kingdoms dating back to Pharaonic times often included parts or the whole of present day Syria. The two belonged to the Roman, Byzantine and Arab Muslim empires. The Mamluks of Egypt, who ruled from 1250 to 1517, had Syria as part of their state just as the Ottomans did after them.

In more recent times, Egypt and Syria were unified as the United Arab Republic in 1958 but broke up three years later following a military coup in Damascus. In 1973, the armies of Egypt and Syria simultaneously launched a surprise attack against Israel in what became known as the fourth and last Arab-Israeli war.

That common history and close religious and ethnic links have deepened the shock and dismay felt by many Egyptians over the anti-Syrian campaign, which was launched with hashtags such as “The expulsion of the Syrians is a national duty” or “Syrians in Egypt are a threat to national security”.

Mr Adeeb, the MBC talk show host, said he was surprised that Egyptians should be engaged in this campaign when there were as many as 12 million Egyptians living in other countries.

“They open businesses, they employ Egyptians and pay taxes,” he said of the Syrians. “What scares me the most is the possibility that this verbal violence against them turns into physical violence.”

This is not the first time that Syrians in Egypt find themselves facing trouble in Egypt.

Syrians were targeted by Egyptian mobs in the immediate aftermath of the removal from power in 2013 of an Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who had severed diplomatic relations with Syria in protest over President Bashar Al Assad's suppression of an uprising against his rule in 2011.

The anti-Syrian sentiments that year did not catch on and proved to be short-lived.

Updated: January 13, 2024, 8:55 AM