Egyptian police have arrested dozens of Uyghur students in Cairo and Alexandria over the last week, amid the government’s plan to deport them to China, where the students believe that they will be arrested by state authorities on accusations of belonging to terrorist groups.
The students are either conducting Islamic studies at schools affiliated with Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic religious institution, or waiting for their application to be accepted.
Police have conducted raids on the houses where Uyghur students were residing, arrested them from streets and apprehended and detained some of them at Alexandria’s Burg al-Arab Airport as they were travelling out of Egypt, one Uyghur student who fled his home out of fear of arrest told Mada Masr.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority living in a contested northwest region of China, which the Chinese state refers to as the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Making up half the region’s population, Uyghurs see the region as their homeland and refer to it as East Turkestan, calling for its independence from China. The Chinese government has blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for violent incidents in Xinjiang and outside of China.
Ibrahim*, who just graduated from Al-Azhar’s Institute of Islamic Missions and hopes to join Al-Azhar University, told Mada Masr that the arrests started a week ago, on Friday, and have continued throughout the week.
The raids targeted houses of Uyghur students and an Uyghur professor residing in Egypt — who was not arrested, according to Ibrahim — and a restaurant popular with the Uyghur community in Eastern Cairo’s al-Hai al-Sabea district, where many Uyghur students reside.
Ibrahim said after they heard news of the arrests fear spread through the community, and many attempted to leave the country, including his roommate, whom he said was arrested in Borg al-Arab airport in Alexandria along with 28 others on Wednesday night as they tried to board a plane to Dubai.
A fourth-year Uyghur student at the faculty of Islamic and Arab Studies at Al-Azhar who refused to disclose his name said he was able to reach Turkey on Wednesday night, along with 60 other Uyghurs who had been residing Egypt.
He confirmed that about 30 Uyghurs were arrested in Borg al-Arab, saying his colleague was among those arrested and contacted him afterward. He also added that students who had no family or contacts in countries like Turkey have nowhere to go.
Ibrahim, who fled his house fearing arrest, said the students have resident visas, and those applying for student status have tourist visas. He expressed doubt that the majority of those arrested had any issues with their visas.
The university student added that those who were arrested at the airport had valid visas and flight tickets. He says he is not sure why some were able to board their flights and others were halted.
Both students said the wave of arrests was at the behest of an agreement between Chinese and Egyptian authorities to deport Uyghur students to China.
Ibrahim says the Chinese authorities have accused students studying Islam in Egypt of communicating with or joining separatist Jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Syria, an accusation Ibrahim denies, as does the fourth-year student, who told Mada Masr the Chinese government makes such accusations without any proof. The Chinese government jails those who go back to Xinjiang for periods that range between 7 and 10 years, he says.
Three weeks ago, an agreement was signed between Egypt’s Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar and China’s Vice Minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin, that “covers a number of specialized security fields.” The officials discussed security developments at the local and regional levels and the impact of regional conflicts in the region on the spread of terrorism and extremist ideologies,” according to a statement by the Egyptian government.
Abdulveli Ayup, an Uyghur rights activist and Uyghur language scholar based in Turkey, told Mada Masr that the Chinese government contacted students studying in Al-Azhar in 2016 to inform them to come back to Xinjiang. Thirty students responded and were arrested upon their return, which prompted others to stay in Egypt.
Ayup, who is currently coordinating with Uyghur students in Egypt trying to travel to Turkey, said the request was repeated this April, and that the students were told that if they didn’t come back the government would arrest their parents.
Ibrahim told Mada Masr that he knows students whose parents said that they had been threatened with arrest by local authorities in Xinjiang if their sons refused to come back.
Ayup, who said he contacted Uyghur students who have been arrested in Egypt, said he had been told that about 70 students had been arrested as of Thursday, of which he has a list of 46 names, which Mada Masr has acquired.
Ibrahim and the other Al-Azhar student Mada Masr talked to estimated that at least 100 students have been arrested based on reports they have heard from fellow colleagues. Other than the Uyghur students who have been arrested at Borg al-Arab, both students said they do not know where the rest were detained, but reports circulated on news websites and social media assert that students are being detained in two Nasr City police stations.
Mohab Said, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Mada Masr that what the Egyptian government is doing is illegal, explaining that it is refusing to give any information about the students’ whereabouts.
Said said the group’s lawyers asked about the arrested Uyghur students in Nasr City police stations and at the Borg al-Arab Airport but were not given any confirmation they were being held there.
He added that, since the students face persecution upon their return to China, even if the Egyptian government decided “all of a sudden that the residency of the arrested Uyghurs had problems and decided to deport them, it must get in touch with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”
Whether the residencies of the students being detained are valid, according to Said, it is illegal to deport them under the current circumstances.
Human rights groups have said the Uyghur population in China faces arrests, torture and sometimes executions for accusations of belonging to terrorist groups. However, several public attacks in China were attributed to Uyghur extremists. Beijing considers Chinese Uyghur separatists from the East Turkestan independence movements as terrorists.
East Turkestan was briefly declared an independent state in 1949, before Xinjiang was declared a part of Communist China by the People’s Republic of China in the same year.
*This name has been changed to safeguard the student’s identity.