By Negar Azimi*, The Nation
Jan 13, 2006 — In the early morning hours of December 30, roughly 4,000 black-clad Egyptian riot police–wearing masks, with batons and shields in hand–descended upon a strip of grass about the size of two tennis courts in a decidedly upscale quarter of Cairo. The unlikely inhabitants of the Mustafa Mahmoud Park, upwards of 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers from neighboring Sudan, were trampled underfoot, beaten, hosed with cold water and finally dragged, often unconscious and sopping wet, onto awaiting buses that would take them to prisons and military detention sites around the city.
The raid and ensuing abuse, not completely out of character for an Egyptian security apparatus accustomed to the excessive use of force, was the climax of a three-month standoff between the assembled Sudanese, a fraction of the estimated 2 to 3 million who make their home in Egypt, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). By January 12 the official death toll was twenty-eight–twelve children among them–though that number will inevitably rise as human rights groups continue to take stock of the city’s maze of hospitals and morgues.
For the three months prior to the raid, the demonstrators cum squatters had made for an incongruous site in Mohandiseen–a commercial zone marked by unsightly high-rises, ubiquitous neon and a concrete-jungle air. Their demands were varied, though most centered around a reassessment of their situation in Egypt, given a UNHCR office that they found chronically unsympathetic and a life in a host country that left them firmly situated at the margins. Some had been misled into coming, told that joining the sit-in might mean the chance to get resettled in Canada or America; these demonstrators tended to show up with livelihoods in tow. At one point in November, their numbers swelled to upwards of 5,000, many welcoming the solidarity born of the sit-in. Mohamed Matar, one of the organizers, told me in the days following the raid, “In the garden–whether from north, south, east, west–we were one nation.”
Eighteen months earlier, UNHCR had announced that it would suspend hearing individual asylum claims from Sudanese–granting them all “temporary protection” in Egypt instead, marked by a yellow card that affords little beyond the right not to be deported. At the same time, the UN agency announced that it would aid interested Sudanese in repatriation, given Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 2005, which ended a bloody decades-long civil war between the north and south.
But for thousands of Sudanese whose cases had nothing to do with the north-south conflict, the CPA’s version of peace has no bearing on their asylum claims. For these people, return to Sudan could mean facing detention, warfare (in the case of Darfur in particular) or torture. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the south continues to be unsafe–riddled with land mines and more than occasional fighting, as well as the wanderings of Uganda’s rogue Lord’s Resistance Army.
So what exactly happened on the morning of December 30, and who is to blame? The Egyptian Ministry of Interior, for its part, was quick to absolve itself of any responsibility–announcing that it had simply responded to UNHCR’s request to remove the demonstrators. UNHCR representatives explained that they had put forward their best effort to resolve the standoff, holding more than nine rounds of negotiations with refugee leaders over three months. One last-ditch attempt at negotiation resulted in a signed agreement between the sit-in leaders and the agency on December 17–but it was rejected after the fact by the more intransigent demonstrators who had stayed behind. With the agreement in shambles, the state of affairs within the park seems to have gone from bad to worse, marked by a massive internal feud as well as some dissenters reportedly being tied to a tree to block their departure. And so it began.
In the week following, the reactions to the raid within Egyptian society have been troubling. The official response has been nothing short of defensive, while almost no information has been made available about the names of the dead or the status and locations of the detained. The state television recently cut to shots of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif visiting injured security police in the hospital, and in the meantime the Egyptian press has been rife with allegations that the Sudanese were in fact drunkards, opportunists and AIDS carriers. The morning after the attack, as orange-clad municipal workers threw the mounds of blankets, English books and the occasional family photograph left over from the sit-in site into dumpsters to be burned, one taxi driver asked me why one should care at all. He echoed the sentiments of many: “Isn’t life difficult enough for all of us? Why don’t they go back to where they came from?”
Perhaps above all, the demonstration brought attention to the fact that the Sudanese in Egypt continue to live as second-class citizens, suspended in a curious state of benign neglect at the hands of the authorities. While a 1992 ministerial decree guarantees access to education for some foreigners–Sudanese among them–and the Four Freedoms Agreement signed in 2004 between Sudan and Egypt guarantees the right to freedom of movement, residence, work and property, everyday bureaucratic obstacles make such rights practical impossibilities. Most work is carried out informally and is pathetically paid, and accessing medical care is a Herculean task–even for those with official refugee status. Racism abounds. The theft and occasional voluntary sale of body organs among refugees is growing increasingly common.
UNHCR, which has been determining refugee status among the Sudanese in Egypt since 1994, has faced allegations that it is unresponsive to refugee needs, and even occasionally arbitrary in its decision to give refugee status or, alternatively, to close files in Kafkaesque fashion. Once the sit-in began in late September, the agency’s office shut down to partial activity–a crude form of punishment. As a result, asylum seekers who had arrived in Egypt since then have not been able to register. Their safety, without any papers to speak of, continues to be precarious.
Beyond isolated voices, little has been forthcoming in terms of public condemnation or calls for moderation in the face of continued racist slurs in the media–particularly from the Egyptian government. To its credit, the banned Muslim Brotherhood was the first political group to speak out against the raid. Likewise, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa has issued a fatwa calling for solidarity with all Sudanese–Muslims and Christians alike.
The Sudanese presence will continue to be a significant one in Egypt for years to come. Considering the ongoing strife in Sudan and increasingly slim slots for resettlement in the West, there ought to be investment in their integration. The Four Freedoms Agreement and its associated privileges must be observed and implemented through a joint effort between the government of Egypt and the UNHCR. Access to schools must be assured for refugee children, while UNHCR should be cautious in its endorsement of repatriation. Here, UNHCR’s disastrous forced repatriation of the Rohnigyas of Burma in the 1990s and, more recently, its repatriation of Afghans from Pakistan and Iran to a land that is wrought with instability is worrisome and should serve as a warning. As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Egypt should ensure that no Sudanese nationals are forcibly repatriated to a country in which many would be at risk of torture. As of January 12 UNHCR was still negotiating with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prevent the deportation of 463 people who remained in detention. And finally, an independent investigation exploring the excessive use of force must ask why an otherwise peaceful demonstration had to come to such a tremendously bloody end.
Just outside the emptied park last week, its dramatic occupation all but a distant memory, a handful of people were out waving placards in solidarity with the deceased. A member of Kifaya, Egypt’s modest opposition movement, reminded us that the Egyptian security’s brutality was not limited to refugees as targets. In 2004 at least twenty-two people died in Egyptian prisons, while the excessive use of force is the norm at most demonstrations. One placard, particularly prominent, caught my eye. Inscribed in red magic marker, it read in Arabic, “We Are All Sudanese Today.”
Negar Azimi, a graduate student at Harvard, is an editor of the New York-based arts and culture magazine Bidoun.