Uighur Muslims in Egypt: A Welcoming Journey Ending with Deportation

Khaled El-Masri
Egyptian Journalist
Published on 23.01.2020
Reading time: 15 minutes

This investigative report details the crackdown and forced deportation of Al Azhar’s Uighur Muslim students, in a violation of the international laws and covenants.

This investigative report details the crackdown and forced deportation of al-Azhar’s Uighur Muslim students in violation of the international laws and covenants, as well as tales of those who were arrested and prohibited from registering as refugees with UNHCR.

Fear, tension and unrest, this is what al-Azhar’s Uighur students feel while living in Egypt, as a result of accumulated violations of their rights by the Egyptian and Chinese governments. Since 2017, Egyptian security began cracking down on Uighur Azhari students without any legal justification, and allowed Chinese officers to interrogate them inside Egypt before deporting some of them to China, in compliance with a request from Chinese Security.

Now, Uighur students hide their identities from locals, and evade gatherings, meetings and many other social functions that may draw the attention of the Egyptian or Chinese Security: self-restriction rules that they follow of their own volition, before they are coerced to.“I avoid contact with others. I only study and work to afford a living for my family who is staying with me in Cairo. I have no business with other people. I always comply when I’m called by Security for interrogation,” said an Uighur student who gets regularly summoned by an officer at his neighborhood’s police station.

The Uighurs are subject to additional security constraints imposed on expat students in general. One of al-Azhar’s prerequisites is a consent form, approved by the embassy of the country in question to study at al-Azhar. The Secretary General of the Islamic Research Academy has the authority to waive the form and admit the student should their original country refuse to consent. But according to what one Uighur member said to “Daraj”, Egyptian Security interferes in such matters.

What happened in 2017?

“We were studying in Egypt with no restrictions or any trouble at all. We even received aid from al-Azhar and the Egyptian government. However, in July 2017, our worst nightmare came true. Egyptian Security began to crack down on Uighur al-Azhar students, and allowed Chinese officers to interrogate them in Cairo. Some were forcibly deported to China where they were killed in detention,” said Abdul-Akher (pseudonym) narrating his gut-wrenching experience as one of 3000 Uighurs who lived and studied in Egypt before the crackdown.

The Uighur Muslims minority lives in Xinjiang, northwest China, a region also known as Eastern Turkistan.

It all started in September 2016, when Egyptian security services cleared 600 Uighur students to study in Al-Azhar, bringing the number of students there to 3000 in 2017. That worried the Chinese embassy in Cairo.

The Uighur Muslims minority lives in Xinjiang, northwest China, a region also known as Eastern Turkistan.

“It prompted the embassy to coordinate with Beijing to act swiftly and stem the number of students, fearing the increase might constitute a threat in the future. Therefore, the Chinese government contacted the Egyptian presidency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accusing al-Azhar of accepting Chinese students without the government’s approval, according to the information we received by sheikhs in Al-Azhar,” said Sheikh Mahmoud Muhammad, the trustee of the Association of Muslim Scholars of East Turkistan―who lived in Egypt during the crackdown against the students.

Arrest, detention and forced disappearances.

Human rights reports state several violations against the Uighur Muslims by the Egyptian authorities who launched random arrest campaigns on no charge. Without a warrant, they broke into and searched Uighur homes and workplaces, and illegally arrested a large number of them. Authorities also illegally detained students and prevented them from contacting their families.

“This incommunicado detention is in breach of article 54 of the Egyptian Constitution which guarantees unrestricted freedom for every person, apart from in flagrante delicto cases, except by virtue of a reasoned judicial order required in the context of an investigation. Detainees shall be immediately enabled to contact their relatives and lawyer; and shall be brought before the investigation authority within twenty four hours as of the time of restricting their freedom.” according to Marwan (A pseudonym for an Egyptian human rights activist who worked on this file during 2017).

Marwan documented a case of forced disappearance that occured to Mukhtar Ro’wi, a student detained by security forces at Nuweiba port while traveling to Jordan with two other Uighur students who were later released. But no one has heard from Ro’wi.”

During the crackdown, security forces used real estate brokers and landlords to know where Uighur students lived, before breaking in and arresting them. Their personal belongings were confiscated, from cell phones to laptops and books, and searched for clues on the students’ thoughts, ideas and beliefs, according to Abd-al Akhir, an former student who managed to flee. This campaign began by breaking into a Chinese restaurant called “Aslam” in Nasr city― an affluent neighborhood of Cairo. The restaurant’s owner and most of the workers are Uighurs. Security forces rounded up at least 30 and drove them all to Nasr City Police Department where a total of 80 had been arrested on the streets, in restaurants, shops and homes.

“When the campaign was launched, I was outside with my family and one of my friends called and warned me about it. I spent several nights, with my wife and three children, running away from Cairo. I ended up staying in the countryside with one of my teachers. We knew about a certain“wanted list” at the airport. I was scared, thank God I wasn’t on that list and fled safely,” said Abd-al Akhir.

Human rights reports state several violations  against the Uighur Muslims by the Egyptian authorities who launched random arrest campaigns on no charge.

“Twenty nine people were arrested on July 6 at Alexandria’s Borg el-Arab International Airport, five were then freed and allowed to travel while 24 others were deported on July 18. Seven others were arrested at Hurghada International Airport (470 km away from Cairo), and three others―including two women―while on their way to the same airport. Those were later released. In Nuweiba Port, (380 km away from Cairo), three families who tried to travel by sea were stopped, two were released and the third was detained,” Mahmoud said.

Terrorist Students?

Mahmoud Muhammad narrated what happened behind the scenes: “The Chinese government launched the campaign in 2016 and announced, at neighborhood association meetings attended by citizens every Monday, that Muslim students are a part of a terrorist organization, active in Egypt. They asked parents not to send their children al-Azhar, and to ask those who are already in Cairo to return home. Then, the government sent letters to the students themselves asking them to return immediately to China, threatening to arrest their families. The government followed through on its threats and arrested a number of families, which scared students into leaving their studies at Al-Azhar and going back to China. Over 1,000 students left, fearing for their families.”

“About 2,000 students remained in Egypt, falsely believing that as long as they’re studying in Egypt, under the protection of al-Azhar, then the Chinese authorities will not be able to get to them, and the Egyptian government would not be in a position to hand them over. They didn’t imagine that the Egyptian government might collude with China to extradite them.” He added.

Muhammad―who later became a trustee of the Association of Muslim Scholars of East Turkistan―has been living in Egypt for 15 years. He never expected that the Egyptian police would track him down after this long time and raid his house at midnight on Thursday, June 29, 2017, while he was out, before his wife rushed to tell one of his colleagues, who in turn hurried to tell him, so that he could escape.

“Police forces entered the house and asked my wife and eldest son where I was. They said I travelled to Turkey. Officers searched the house and went upstairs, where other Uighurs lived, and asked about me.” Muhammad says. One of his Uighur friends told him that in 2016, during Ramadan, Chinese security agents contacted him via an application and sent him Muhammad’s photo and asked if he kmew him, “At that time, I knew I could be arrested at any point in time.”

The breaking into Muhammad’s house went viral within the Uighur community in Egypt. It was believed that Muhammad was personally targeted and that al-Azhar, being the oldest religious institution in Egypt and the Middle East, would protect its students from arrest, according to Suleiman, a pseudonym for an Uighur student who witnessed the crackdown and is still in Egypt until now.

Suleiman, who’s studying at the Islamic Research Academy, said: “We were mistaken. The attempt to arrest Muhammad was the spark of an expanded security campaign, launched in early July 2017, which targeted dozens of Uighurs in Egypt.”

During the crackdown, security forces used real estate brokers and landlords to know where Uighur students lived, before breaking in and arresting them.

“My friend called me, and we decided to escape and disappear. We travelled to Alexandria to hide from security forces while we decided the next move. We learned that there were “wanted lists” but did not know if our names were on them, and so we preferred disappearing anyway. We spent three months away from Cairo until things got better and we heard that some were released, and others were deported to China. However, we did not pursue our studies that year, we were still afraid and bent on disappearing,” he added.

The Number of Detainees

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms revealed that 90 to 120 Uighurs were arrested, in addition to other arrests in Borg Al Arab, Hurghada and Cairo airports, Nuweiba Port or on the roads leading to those ports. However, Muhammad―the trustee of the Islamic Scholars Association of East Turkistan― asserts that the actual is 200, in addition to 25 others who were forcibly deported to China.

Action of International Human Rights Organizations

On July 7, 2017, Human Rights Watch issued a statement demanding that the Egyptian government not send Uighurs back to China. The international watchdog sent a letter to the Imam of Al-Azhar, asking him to intervene and protect the students.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, along with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression issued another statement asking the Egyptian authorities to stop the arbitrary detention campaign against the Uighur students and to clarify their legal situation.

On the 20th of July 2017, a joint statement by the three organizations called on the Egyptian government to allow detained Uighur students to contact their lawyers and families, and asked for judicial supervision of detention.

What Happened to those Arrested?

Days after the interrogation at Nasr City police station, the Uighur students were sent to the infamous Tora Prison, where they were divided into three groups and assigned a color: Red for those who were subject to deportation; green for those to be released, and finally yellow for those who would await further interrogation. The red and yellow groups were interrogated by Chinese officers, according to Muhammad.

The Chinese investigators interrogated 10-15 detainees only. They probed them about their political views on China and the ruling Communist Party, and whether or not they were members of the Turkistan Islamic Party, according to Marwan, who cited a source that reported torture during these investigations.

The students remained in prison for about 4 months, 25 were forcibly deported to China where they all landed in prison. Two detainees died in jail, and those who are still alive are certainly suffering, according to deputy director of The Association of East Turkistan Scholars.

Egypt violated international law by deporting individuals who would be liable to human rights violations, according to the article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed in 1984. The convention states that “No Contracting State shall expel or return any person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

Why is Egypt Arresting Uighur Muslims?

On July 20, 2016, Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Majdi Abdul-Ghaffar received the deputy of the Chinese minister of Public Security, Mr. Meng Qingfeng, to sign a technical cooperation document between Egypt and China, with a goal to enable bilateral cooperation and exchange of experiences in the field of security and training. Qingfeng expressed his country’s willingness to benefit from the “outstanding experience” of the Egyptian police force, especially in fighting terrorism and dealing with extremist organizations and tracking down militants. In return, China would offer the Egyptian police technological support in these areas.

Less than one year later, on June 19, 2017, the Egyptian Minister of Interior Affairs received Chen Zhimin, Chinese Deputy Minister of Public Security, accompanied by a high-level delegation to discuss topics of mutual interests in the war on terror. Zhimin expressed his country’s willingness to cooperate with the Egyptian security force, activating the channels of information exchange on extremist organizations and illegal immigration activities, in addition to his country’s benefiting from the experience of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior combating terrorism and extremist ideologies. Abdul-Ghaffar emphasized the extent of the deep friendship between leaders of both countries which led to expanding their cooperation.

Muhammad thinks that the systematic campaign Egypt launched against the Uighur community is a result of these two agreements. Egypt gives great importance to Chinese technological advancement in security, especially when it comes to monitoring and censoring social media.

A Friendship Between Two Presidents

Muhammad explained that the economic interests between Cairo and Beijing were behind Egypt’s assistance to China in arresting the Uighur students. China is one of the major foreign investors in Egypt. It pumps money into infrastructure megaprojects, like the new administrative hub east of Cairo. Trade between the two countries has reached an unprecedented USD 13.8 billion last year.

Chinese Embassy Restores the Institute of Islamic Missions

Abdul-Akhir said that the Chinese Embassy in Cairo paid al-Azhar in return for the arrests. It also paid for the restoration works at the Islamic Missions Institute, on Ahmad Said Street in Abasseya district in Cairo, and the Egyptian government also received processing allowances.

Al-Azhar’s Position on the Campaign

At the beginning, al-Azhar denied the arrest of its Uighur students. Later, the consultant of Sheikh al-Azhar, Muhammad Mehanny, confirmed the detention of 43 people, 3 of whom were al-Azhar students, and the release efforts being done.

The Uighur Condition in China

Amnesty International declared that the Chinese authorities cracked down on the Uighur Muslim minority in Xingjiang province, and that about a million Muslims were detained arbitrarily, in places where they are subject to brainwash, torture and punishment, in addition to forced integration and inculcation of political doctrines.

The organization said that the detainees were handcuffed and chained, forced to stand still for up to 12 hours, chant political songs, and memorize Communist speeches. They are not allowed to talk to each other, and are coerced to repeat “Long live Jin Bing” before meals. Whoever refuses would be verbally abused, deprived of food, detained in solitary confinement, or beaten, shackled, and forced to sit or stand in exhausting positions.

The organization also confirmed that some died in detention; others committed suicide.

They also explained that displaying any external signs of their religion or culture, like long beards or hijabs or niqabs, or praying, fasting, or abstaining from alcohol, the possession of Islamic books or books on Uighur culture, all that can be considered by law as a sign of extremism which also applies to traveling to work or study in Muslim countries, or contacting people living outside China. Their cellphones are regularly checked for any suspicious content.

National Security Threatens the Students’ Lawyer

Daraj tried to contact Ezzat Ghoneim, the lawyer of the Uighur students who were detained in 2017, but it turned out that he was arrested 7 months after the crackdown on the Uighur.

Security forces mistreated the students’ lawyers. National security officials tried to stop those lawyers before they were officially appointed by the students’ families. Then an agreement was reached to allow the students who were still free to leave Egypt on a flight to China with a stopover in Turkey, to give them a chance to stay in Istanbul, according to a report issued by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

Seeking The Right to Asylum

Marwan said that a number of Uighurs, who had valid residence permits, applied for asylum at the High Commissioner for Refugees, but their interview dates were set to a later date. Others were afraid of applying citing dangers that faced them should they go into the commissioner’s office. The commissioner tried to arrange the meetings in relatively secure areas, but failed.

China stopped the Uighur from traveling

“The government prevents citizens of certain regions from traveling to Egypt,” says Sulaiman. Muhammad concurs that Uighurs stopped leaving Xingjiang to study in Egypt because the whole region was transformed into a collective jail, as it has been shut down for 4 years.

Mahmoud mohammed, vice president of the Association of East Turkistan Muslim Scholars, said that those living outside the prison-province sought to acquire another citizenship to be able to travel to Egypt for the purpose of education without fearing for their lives, and to evade the obstacles they are faced with when applying to Al-Azhar where they are forbidden from living in Egypt on a Chinese passport.

Sulaiman said that Egypt now hosts 200 to 400 Chinese Muslims studying at al-Azhar in Cairo, and the universities of Ain Shams.

Why is China chasing the Uighur in Egypt?

Muhammad points that the reason behind the Chinese crackdown on the Uighurs may be the Communist belief that religion is “the opium of the people,” and that it should be eradicated. Atheism is taught throughout all the stages of education, and there is a belief that by cornering religion, they can totally eradicate it within two generations.Abdul-Akhir said that China has been trying to erase the Uighurs’ culture, language and faith ever since they came to the province 70 years ago, erasing the real history of the province and the Uighur identity. He noted that their identity and Islamic faith constitute the cornerstone of Uighur culture.

Amnesty International declared that the Chinese authorities cracked down on the Uighur Muslim minority in Xingjiang province, and that about a million Muslims were detained arbitrarily

He also stated that China prohibited teaching Islam in the province, and asked all Chinese students studying Islam around the world to return home and remain there. However, some countries, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, gave those Chinese students the chance to learn, and did not concede to the Chinese government’s demands. Egypt is not one of them.

Abdul-Akhir is now living in Germany, working at a restaurant to provide for his family, trying to acquire citizenship, hoping, with a German passport, he would be able to return to study at al-Azhar.

Mahmoud moved to Turkey. His life in Egypt spanned 15 years of study and work. He dedicated his time there to the support of the Uighurs who fled Egypt, document their suffering, and help them defend their cause.

Khaled El-Masri
Egyptian Journalist
Published on 23.01.2020
Reading time: 15 minutes

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