23 Reported Killed as Riot Police Storm Refugees’ Tent City in Cairo

Times Staff Writer

Egyptian riot police armed with clubs and water cannons stormed a downtown square packed with Sudanese refugees before dawn Friday in an attack that a human rights group said left 23 people dead.

About 2,000 Sudanese had been living for months in a dilapidated tent city near the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, demanding to be resettled abroad. Their encampment was viewed by many residents as an eyesore in one of Cairo’s upscale districts.

Thousands of Egyptian riot police massed around the square early Friday and tried to force the demonstrators onto waiting buses. When they refused to leave, police fired water cannons and beat them with clubs. The clashes dragged on for hours; television footage showed the Sudanese fighting back with tent poles and bottles.

Witnesses said at least one child, a young girl, was among the dead.

“They didn’t have to go that far,” said Fathy Zayed, 50, an Egyptian who said police beat the protesters mercilessly. “There were women and children there.”


The Egyptian Interior Ministry put the death toll at 10, but the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said it counted 23 fatalities. In a six-page statement, the ministry said the deaths and injuries were caused by a stampede.

The confrontation “came after the UNHCR office in Cairo received warnings of possible assault on its headquarters and staff, which in turn asked the security to protect them and disperse the sit-in,” the statement said.

A UNHCR spokeswoman told Reuters news agency that the organization had no warning that the police would raid the tent city Friday morning.

The United Nations agency said in a statement that it had tried to resolve the dispute since the protest began in September. “Throughout this period, UNHCR maintained a constant dialogue and several mediation efforts, always emphasizing that such situations needed to be resolved peacefully,” it said.

“There is no justification for such violence and loss of life,” High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said in the statement.

Once the violence subsided, the surviving protesters were put on buses and driven to military camps around Cairo, where their refugee status will be determined, officers at the scene said.

All that remained at the square as evidence of their sit-in were heaps of blankets, still damp from the blasts of water. Family photos were strewn among children’s sandals and empty milk tins. Scattered English-language tutorial kits spoke of their hopes for better lives.

“There were a lot of dead bodies,” said an ambulance driver from a nearby hospital, called by police to remove the bodies. “I know they said there were 10, but there were a lot.” The ambulance driver declined to give his name.

At Embaba General Hospital, where some bodies were taken, workers with a humanitarian agency tried to get more details on the status of the injured and demanded information on the whereabouts of the dead protesters’ remains. They could confirm only that three bodies were at Embaba. They had already been denied access to three hospitals around Cairo, they said.

Sudanese asylum seekers have trickled into neighboring Egypt for years to escape civil war. Upon arrival, they are expected to register with the UNHCR to be recognized as asylum seekers and receive an interview date for determining refugee status.

But the UNHCR stopped hearing the cases after a peace deal ending Sudan’s civil war was signed in January.

It was this legal limbo, along with the lack of medical care, work permits and education they faced in Egypt, that drove the Sudanese to begin the protest. Crammed together in the tight space, they had only blankets to protect them from the winter chill. They survived by picking up jobs where they could. Many of the men worked in construction.

As the months passed, many residents and shopkeepers in the area grew resentful of their presence. Witnesses said that Egyptians looked on in approval Friday as police beat the Sudanese.

“They have been in this square for months, drinking alcohol and conducting their marital relations for all to see,” said Hassan Ahmed, 43, a shopkeeper.

“They were drinking alcohol, getting drunk, and all this in front of the mosque,” Noha Mohammed, a 20-year-old student, said as she came out of a restaurant near the square. “I don’t understand the problem. Why don’t they just go back to Sudan?”

Barbara Harrell-Bond, chairwoman of the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance project and professor of forced-migration studies at the American University in Cairo, argued that the standoff could have been avoided.

“UNHCR’s first words to us were, ‘These people are of no concern to us,’ ” Harrell-Bond said. “If UNHCR hadn’t come out with such provocative statements, heels wouldn’t have been dug [in] so far.”

But Harrell-Bond, who works closely with the Sudanese refugees, said she had advised them against their protest.

“The bottom line is all of them want to be resettled and sent out of Egypt, and they have good reasons,” she said. But she said they should have drawn attention to the discrimination they faced and tried to gain access to services.

The UNHCR’s efforts to resolve the situation “simply came too late,” she said.