Egypt continues to arrest and deport members of a Chinese ethnic minority group, sending many into hiding. The arrests come on the heels of a reported Chinese government order for Uyghur students in Egypt to return home.
Since July 3, Egyptian authorities have reportedly rounded up scores of Chinese-nationality Uyghurs in raids on restaurants and supermarkets in Cairo and Alexandria. Media reports show that 90% of the estimated 7,000-8,000 Uyghur living in Egypt had already returned to China.
According to human rights organizations, many detainees had valid residency permits and were students at al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious center for Islamic studies. Right groups concerned about the well-being of the students and their families have also been helping them leave Egypt and move to safety in Turkey.
Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened its control over the restive region. Officials blame recent terror attacks on Uyghur separatists, while others blame local unrest on government restrictions on religion and dress code in the area, as well as wrangles over land, water, and employment. Violence has also erupted between the Uyghur and the country’s Han majority.
China’s Communist Party has in the past banned Muslims in Xinjiang from fasting during Ramadan, ordering restaurants to stay open and prohibiting any vigils or other religious activities. In April, the government banned naming children with Muslim names like Muhammad, and newborns with the banned names risk being denied “hukou,” or household registration, essential for accessing education and social services.
Egypt and China signed a cooperation agreement in security matters (in Arabic) in June, promising to exchange information on extremist organizations and fight terrorism. Egypt is currently facing the threat of terrorism from the Islamic State group, who have carried out attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and in churches across the country.
Last week, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the grand imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, urging him to ask Egyptian authorities not to arrest or deport the Uyghur students. The institution has, however, sent conflicting statements about the situation: first by denying any arrests and then saying it was working with officials to release the detainees.