At a sit-in by the Ministry of Defense in East Cairo in June 2013, an Egyptian protester held a sign that read, “Palestinians equal Israel for us.”
Protesters were demanding that Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi end Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, which he did on July 3. Since then, Palestinians in Egypt have cited growing hatred towards them.
Between 2011 and 2013, Palestinians experienced some respite from the restrictions placed on their freedoms. For example, the Rafah border crossing was opened more frequently after years of closure, and those born to Egyptian mothers were able to obtain citizenship more easily. Around 24,000 Palestinians were given Egyptian citizenship since 2011, according to the Passports, Immigration and Nationality division at the Ministry of Interior, and many were able to renewal their residency permits after years of deprivation from basic rights.
Soon after Morsi’s ouster, an intense campaign of demonization was waged against the Muslim Brotherhood, labelling them traitors who were conspiring with Egypt’s enemies. One of their major conspirators was seen to be Hamas, in an alleged bid to take over Egypt’s Sinai. Hamas was also accused of having a hand in the security vacuum in Egypt during the 2011 revolution, by orchestrating prison breaks and carrying out terrorist attacks. Shortly after Morsi’s overthrow, a court ordered a freeze on all the activities of Hamas in Egypt and another declared its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, a terrorist organization.
Palestinians who have lived their whole lives in Egypt had to bear the brunt of these developments, as they were seen to be synonymous with Hamas by many Egyptians. The xenophobia they encountered wasn’t dissimilar to that witnessed by Syrians in Egypt in recent years.
On the international day of solidarity with Palestinians, we spoke to a number of Palestinians about the challenges of living in Egypt.
Many of them blame the media for whipping up hatred towards them. Talk show hosts have repeatedly warned of the dangers Palestinians represent, considering any Palestinian a potential collaborator with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This hate speech at times took the form of direct incitement, such as when former MP Mostafa al-Gendy demanded security checkpoints identify Syrians and Palestinians to catch and execute them, on OnTv in November 2013. Other talk show hosts, like Amr Adeeb, Lamis al-Hadidy and Ahmed Moussa aired false information that stigmatized Palestinians and Syrians, as noted in a statement by several rights organizations in July 2013.
Ahmed (who asked not to be identified by name), a Palestinian young man who came to Cairo in 2009 to study, found life in Egypt by 2013 unbearable and moved to London. “I felt that I was no longer able to live with dignity in Egypt,” he says.
“There’s one general rule that controls all the behavior of Egyptians toward Palestinians, which is that Palestinians are seen as a security threat and we have to get rid of them,” Ahmed explains.
“I stopped all my previous political participation. As a Palestinian, any encounters with the state could be hazardous and any police checkpoint is a potential danger that could end in prison. The media says Palestinians and Syrians are the devil; my social relationships were poisoned and I was always scared when walking in the street,” he adds.
A Palestinian friend of Ahmed’s was picked up from a cyber café after the owner got suspicious and informed on him when he saw him browsing a Palestinian news website. He spent two months in prison before he was released.
Bassem Hakim, a 27-year-old Gazan whose mother is Egyptian, has also felt unwelcome in Egypt since 2013.
“When people caught my accent, I would say that I’m Jordanian or Libyan. Any Palestinian became guilty until proven otherwise. It became your role to prove that your presence in the country is legal and that you’re not a member of Hamas,” he says.
As a son of an Egyptian, Hakim was able to acquire Egyptian nationality in 2014, which was permitted for all those born before 2004 in a law issued this year. Ever since, Hakim has been using his Egyptian nationality when dealing with officials in order to avoid the difficulties he would likely encounter as a Palestinian. However, he says his Egyptian nationality hasn’t protected him from social stigma. In 2014, he was trying to rent an apartment and just before signing, the owner realized his Palestinian identity. At this point, he threw him out, saying he doesn’t host Palestinians or Syrians.
Hakim has also suffered from restricted movement, as many Palestinians have experienced with the sporadic opening and closing of the Rafah border crossing.
Since 2013, Egyptian authorities have closed the Rafah crossing, the only land border with the Gaza strip, on which Israel has imposed a blockade since 2007. When Egypt has opened the border, it has been mostly students and patients that have been permitted to cross.
Hakim, who was able to cross several times in the past, hasn’t been able to come back to Egypt since 2014 to finish procedures for obtaining his Egyptian passport in order to be able to travel to Canada, where he wants to settle.
Speaking of a better moment pre-2013, Hakim says, “There was still a revolutionary spirit and there was no mistrust. When people heard I’m Palestinian, they used to express solidarity. Now it has became a crime.”
But while such attitudes towards Palestinians living in Egypt have worsened since 2013, the xenophobia dates back to the late 1970s, when Culture Minister Youssef al- Sebai was assassinated in Cyprus by a group of Palestinians opposed to the Camp David Accords. Ever since, Palestinians in Egypt have experienced waves of discrimination.