Syrians in Egypt feel the chill of Mursi's ouster

Egypt's military-backed interim government put on a “business as usual” show on Sunday, announcing that a panel of legal experts had begun working on the country's constitution, while diplomats fanned out across Africa in an attempt to repair its frayed relations with the African Union.

But the turmoil across Egypt showed no signs of easing, with the country's vulnerable population of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, previously welcomed by the government of deposed president Mohamed Mursi now the latest group to face open hostility from triumphant anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces.

Accused of supporting the Brotherhood and participating en-masse in pro-Mursi demonstrations - allegations the community denies - the racially-charged rhetoric directed against Syrians and Palestinians from some TV stations has translated directly into hostility on the streets, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned.

Egypt's new government is attempting to distance itself from the foreign policies of Dr Mursi, who appeared to condone Egyptians travelling to Syria to fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and allowed Egypt become a hub for opposition fighters and refugees.

Although interim foreign minister Nabil Fahmy met representatives from the opposition Syrian National Coalition over the weekend and confirmed Egypt remained committed to the revolution, he said the government was reviewing Dr Mursi's decision to cut all diplomatic ties with the Assad regime.

The UNHCR has registered almost 72,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt, and while another 18,000 are awaiting registration there are many more living in the community. The Government estimates that around 250,000 to 300,000 Syrian nationals live in Egypt.

Their status changed suddenly on July 3, when the Egyptian military, which says it was acting on the will of the millions who called for Dr Mursi's downfall, stepped in and forced the government from power.

Several flights carrying refugees from Syria were turned back from Egyptian airports while new visa requirements forced Syrians to apply for a visa and security clearance before leaving for Egypt – an impossible ask given the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus is not able to issue visas at the moment.

A presenter on one privately-run television station broadcast that Syrians had just 48 hours before they would be driven from their homes. It was not true, but the climate of fear was palpable, prompting the Arab Organisation for Human Rights to accuse elements of the Egyptian media of conducting a “hostile campaign” against Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

The UNHCR regional representative in Cairo, Mohamed Dayri, said he was heartened by the foreign minister's statements indicating that the new visa requirements were temporary.

But many Syrians living in Egypt were becoming increasingly anxious about their status, Mr Dayri said, and were often too afraid to check in with authorities about their papers.

Such is the concern within the Syrian community both in Cairo and Egypt's second city Alexandria that registrations with the UN have increased from 200 per day prior to June 30 to more than 1000 per day, he said.

Mr Dayri called on the interim government to make a public statement in the hope that it would dampen the media rhetoric against Syrians.

“Here they used to love Syrians but in the last few months, even before the collapse of the Ikwan [Muslim Brotherhood] they started with the propaganda,” said 26-year-old filmmaker Bassem Nabhan, who left Syria for Dubai at the beginning of the revolution and came to Cairo six months ago.

“They were saying Syrians are taking your jobs, they distributed flyers around 6th of October City where lots of Syrians live.

“Taxi drivers are always asking us if we are Syrian, they are judging us by our looks – I have a little black beard so people are thinking maybe I am Ikwan, but I am not, we are not that conservative.”

Mr Nabhan does not identify as a refugee but an expat living in Egypt who works and pays rent.

“For me and most of the Syrians here now, we are used to an uncomfortable way of living, we are used to feeling that there is always a danger around us, always on our nerves.”

His friend and fellow filmmaker and musician, 30-year-old Mohamed Tayarra, said the change of heart about Syrians in Egypt didn't make sense.

“Just because you support the revolution in Syria does not make you Ikwan,” he said. “The Syrian revolution started as a non-violent revolution ... then some Islamists came from outside - most of the people on the street are not pro-Islamist and these fighters are not even Syrian.

“For us as Syrians, we just want to live in peace with all sects and religions.”

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, while the UN figures indicate there are more than 1.6 million registered Syrian refugees and a further 2.5 million internally displaced.

This story Syrians in Egypt feel the chill of Mursi's ouster first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.