• Reports
  • January 21, 2006
  • 7 minutes read

The Muslim Brotherhood was the first to condemn what amounted to a city-center massacre

The latest tragedy to darken Cairo’s horizons took place on a street named for the League of Arab Nations. Recently, when Egyptian police forcibly removed Sudanese refugees from a makeshift camp they had set up in the Mohandeseen district of Cairo, anywhere from 27 to 265 of the refugees died by beating, asphyxiation or trampling.

There was irony in the street’s name, because the event occurred just two days shy of the 50th anniversary of Sudan’s independence from Anglo-Egyptian condominium rule, and several weeks prior to its half-century mark as member of the Arab League. Egypt has successfully lobbied to have both the African Union and Arab League summits take place this year in Khartoum, a move helping grant legitimacy to Sudan’s National Islamic Front (NIF) government. The Arab League was formed to foster economic and other forms of cooperation between member states. Presumably, the partnership of ruling elites in the cynical exploitation of disadvantaged citizens was not what the League’s founders had in mind.

The Egyptian and Sudanese governments share important interests and propensities – the brazen abuse of human rights not least among the latter. The NIF’s desire to control Sudan’s oil-rich South and complete the Jonglei Canal there helped fuel a protracted domestic conflict. The canal, which would divert a larger volume of water downriver to Egypt, still stands a chance of completion under the NIF, however environmentally devastating it will prove for those living along Sudan’s White Nile banks. The South’s demand for secession, which Egypt vehemently opposes, is unlikely to succeed so long as the NIF is in power.

 Mohandeseen is an incoherent blend of residential, commercial and professional establishments, poorly built and unattractive, but possessing a specious modernity due to the height of the buildings and the nature of their occupants. The American Express Bank is there, as are the showrooms of General Motors and a panoply of American fast-food joints. A small patch of green separates the street from the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque. Featuring a few trees and benches, the space is often occupied by people awaiting their turn for the mosque’s health-care services or for interviews at the nearby United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). For some three months the narrow green stretch was crammed with around 2,000 Sudanese refugees, protesting their treatment in Egypt and demanding relocation.

Just before dawn on frigid Friday, December 30, Cairo was preternaturally quiet as people eased into the last holiday weekend of the year – the perfect time for Interior Minister Habib al-Adly to disperse the Sudanese protest and a reason why accounts of the ensuing melee and resulting body count differ so widely. The number of bludgeon-bearing riot police was reported variously to be 5,000 to 20,000, but given local tactics it seems likely that the unarmed, homeless demonstrators, among them many women and children, were outnumbered two, if not three or more, to one. The refugees themselves can hardly be depended upon for accuracy, as they were fighting for their lives. When the police showed up and tried to herd them into a fleet of buses, they balked, as anyone in their right mind would. It’s bad enough being a refugee, but now some hundreds of Sudanese are also prison camp detainees facing deportation.

Predictably, Adly blamed the victims for not going peacefully to jail. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu al-Gheit said Egypt had “dealt with the sit-in with wisdom and patience.” Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmad Kerti had not a kind word for his countrymen, initially stating that they had “escalated the situation with no regard for the consequences,” though he later noted that Sudan’s doors were open and all citizens were welcome to return to their often perilous and war-ravaged homes.

Now that a “comprehensive peace agreement” has been signed between the NIF and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, representing Southern factions, Sudan is no longer technically at war. The realities of Darfur – genocide, disease and famine – supersede the technicalities of the treaty, but the UNHCR has nevertheless stopped hearing cases of asylum seekers or assigning them refugee status. For thousands of Sudanese in Egypt there is nothing to go home to and no reason to stay. Egyptian hospitality is not what it was. Refugees have almost no access to education and health care for their children. They are exploited as cheap labor and subject to the racist taunts of beleaguered Egyptians, themselves the victims of unemployment, lack of services and all manners of injustice.

A rumor circulating in Egypt’s refugee community is that of people missing organs following routine surgical procedures. Whether or not this is an urban legend or a legitimate fear of the disenfranchised, the Sudanese National Labor Party recently criticized the Sudanese government for scanty media coverage of the Mohandeseen incident and demanded that Egypt provide compensation for the alleged removal of victims’ organs.

According to Barbara Harrell-Bond, chairwoman of the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance project and professor of forced migration studies at the American University in Cairo, the protestors failed to draw sufficient attention to the discrimination they faced in Egypt, though it is questionable how they might have effectively done so. Egyptians are wont to admit to the racial and religious intolerance that increasingly characterizes their society. The Muslim Brotherhood was the first to condemn what amounted to a city-center massacre, drawing parallels with Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections where 14 people lost their lives, many of them Brotherhood supporters. The refugee tragedy offered the Brotherhood the chance to act as the voice of the public’s conscience; filling Egypt’s ethical vacuum is a card it will no doubt have ample opportunities to successfully play in the future.

Local authorities have given the UNHCR a week to assess the legal status of the hundreds held in detention, as they are anxious to deport the Sudanese. Ordinarily, the understaffed, under-funded UNHCR has the unhappy task of distinguishing between people fleeing political persecution and “economic migrants” who leave war-torn homes in search of a livelihood. Refugee status is awarded only to the former. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs “resettlement is not a right and certain criteria must be met.” The bureaucratization of human misery is a tricky business.

Nor does blatant persecution by a host country apparently improve asylum seekers’ chances for resettlement. UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid von Genderen Stort unconsciously echoed the language of the war against terrorism when saying that offering resettlement to participants in the Mohandeseen protest “would set a terrible precedent.” In other words, some 50 million others displaced by war worldwide might imagine they too have the right to demand a decent life.

For now, the deaths of the refugees have solicited the usual finger pointing, with much of the focus on inept and brutal police tactics. But the incident in Mohandeseen raised larger issues – of governments in league to condone or propitiate wars; of feeble international efforts to prevent or mitigate these wars’ effects; and of public disinterest in the fate of victims, so long as “they” are not “us.”


Maria Golia is the author of a book on Cairo titled “City of Sand.” She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.