Egyptian police have detained dozens of students from China's minority Muslim Uighur community living in Egypt in recent weeks, raising fears they will be returned to China and arrested. Many Uighur immigrants are now trying to flee Egypt. While Cairo has not made any official statements about these repressive measures, Beijing’s growing influence in Egypt seems to be behind the crackdown.
Uighurs are a 10-million-strong, Turkic-language, Muslim minority based in northern China that has long been treated with suspicion by the Chinese government, which accuses Uyghurs of “separatism” and “religious extremism”. In recent months, China has demanded that Uighur students living abroad return home as part of a crackdown on the Muslim minority. There is quite a large population of Uighur students studying in Egypt.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Egyptian authorities have arrested at least 62 Uighurs living in Egypt between July 3 and July 8 and arrests are ongoing. HRW said those detained have not been informed of the grounds for their detention and have been denied access to lawyers and their families.
When the raids began on Uighur homes in Cairo, many photos were shared online. However, shortly after the raids, many of these photos disappeared -- deleted by those who had posted them, who were frightened of possible repercussions on the Uighur immigrants still stuck in Cairo.
The photos that are still circulating online show apartments turned upside down, ransacked during raids as if they had been burgled. Several videos posted online show young Uighurs, who have been arrested by Egyptian authorities, sitting on the ground in a police station.
“This is the latest step in a campaign of repression led by China over the past year”
Abdulaziz (not his real name) is a Uighur man living in Cairo. He graduated from Al-Azhar three years ago and now teaches theology to new Uighur students. On July 3, Abdulaziz fled to Istanbul to escape the wave of repression in Cairo.
I didn’t take a direct flight to Istanbul. I flew through Jeddah in Saudi Arabia so as to avoid arousing the suspicions of the border police, because I heard that some of my classmates were arrested at the airport in Alexandria, while trying to flee Egypt [Editor’s note: Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, maintains close relations with the Islamist political movements that oppose the current Egyptian government while Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Cairo]. What we’ve experienced over the past few days in Cairo is unprecedented. Up until this point, we had been living peacefully in Egypt.
A week ago, the Egyptian police started to carry out raids in apartments rented by Uighurs and restaurants owned by members of the community. I heard about around 100 arrests and, since then, we’ve had no word from the people who were detained.
On Sunday, police came to my building and searched several apartments, including my own. They arrested several people on the spot. Luckily, I wasn’t at home. When I was warned about what was going on in my building, I decided that I wouldn’t go back there. I stayed with a friend that night and, the next day, I left Egypt.
"My father and my brother were arrested. We haven’t heard anything from them for the past four months”
The sudden repression of Uighurs in Egypt seems to go hand-in-hand with the Chinese government’s ongoing campaign of repression against this Muslim minority community that started over a year ago. Did Egypt agree to participate as part of a deal with China?
The Chinese central government has amped up surveillance and repression of the Uighur community in China, in measures it claims are part of the fight against terrorism. Authorities have carried out arbitrary arrests of Uighurs. Moreover, authorities have threatened Uighur families whose children are studying abroad in an effort to get them to pressure their kids to return.
For example, parents were forced to agree to stop sending money to pay for their children’s studies abroad [Editor’s note: Uighurs are not allowed to participate in official exchange programs run by the Chinese government. Instead, families pay for their kids to study abroad]. Those of us who studied at al-Azhar become targets of the Chinese government twice over. First of all, we are Uighurs outside of China, which make us hard for the government to control. Secondly, we are studying theology, which makes Chinese authorities suspect us of links with Islamist terrorism.
Since March, authorities amped up the pressure by arresting family members of Uyghur students who refused to return to China. My father and brother were arrested. We haven’t heard anything from them for the past four months.
Hunting us down in Egypt -- where many Uyghur students come to study -- is the latest step in the Chinese government’s campaign of repression, which Egypt has clearly agreed to participate in.
"Chinese authorities are going to end up creating the Islamist terrorism that they claim to be fighting”
Beijing and Cairo have been forging ever closer ties this year, especially following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Egypt in January 2017. The two countries have signed several treaties, relating to Beijing’s desire to strengthen the economic role it plays in the Middle East.
Jean-Joseph Boillot studies the relationships between China and the African continent. He says that certain acts of diplomacy are a given when two countries are building closer economic ties.
China wants to strengthen its presence in the region and one of its strategies is to craft agreements with the weakest countries. When you are like Egypt and you have a giant national debt and, at the same time, struggle to produce enough food for your population, you are in a tough spot. Egypt is doing its best to free itself from dependency on one world power like the United States. It also wants to strengthen ties with countries that have a sway with the International Monetary Fund -- which is the case with China. But there is a political cost to making these deals, which Beijing presents as part of the fight against terrorism.
Since the Paris attacks in 2015, Beijing keeps claiming that it is also a victim of Islamist terrorism while pointing the finger at Xinjiang, the Uighur region.
Since late 2013, there have been several attacks blamed on Uighur terrorists in China. Chinese authorities have even stated that Uyghur extremists train with the Islamic State organisation.
However, Abdulaziz thinks that it is a vicious cycle and that the Chinese government’s repressive policies will turn this radicalisation into a reality.
I’ve been struck by the radical discourse of some of the Uighur students who have just arrived in Egypt from China. After experiencing government repression on a daily basis in Xinjiang, some of these young people find IS group propaganda seductive. It speaks to their anger and desire to rebel. As I teacher, I try to analyse and then break down this kind of angry discourse, which is far from the essence of our religion. But Chinese authorities need to understand that if they keep repressing Uighurs, they are going to end up creating the Islamist terrorism that they claim to be fighting.