The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Report on killing of Sudanese protesters released

The Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Center at the AUC has released its report on what happened during three-month sit-in of Sudanese refugees in Cairo's Mohandiseen district, which ended bloodily in late December. The Egyptian government is condemned for the violence, and the irresponsibility of some of the protest leaders (who nurtured unrealistic expectations of resettlement among protesters) is revealed, but UNHCR's handling of the situation really looks bad.

Excerpts follow.

Although everyone (deservedly) gets a share of the blame for how the sit-in ended, I think UNHCR comes out the worse in this:

UNHCR’s mandate is the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. From the beginning of the sit-in, however, the agency adopted a hostile and confrontational attitude toward the protesting asylum seekers, refugees, and closed files. It issued statements that accused the protesters of everything from rumor-mongering to outright deception. It suggested that the demonstrators were not of concern to UNHCR, given that they included closed files and persons the agency claimed were economic migrants. UNHCR also implied that the protesters were responsible for keeping other, non-Sudanese asylum seekers away from its offices although the decision to “close” the office was made by UNHCR itself. The agency’s claims drove a wedge between the various communities of concern and exacerbated the lack of communication between UNHCR and asylum seekers and refugees. Its attitude served to confirm the protesters’ grievances and frustrations.

Throughout the sit-in, UNHCR exercised tight control over its public posture vis-à-vis the protest. It refused to allow its staff to go the Moustafa Mahmoud Park and interact with the refugees directly until December 17. The agency leadership insisted on meeting and negotiating only with the leaders of the demonstration, even as it was denouncing them as “self-appointed” and accusing them of creating false expectations to lure people to the park.

In early statements, UNHCR placed itself squarely on the side of the government of Egypt, citing mutual concerns and interests. It repeatedly asked authorities to remove the protesters, albeit “peacefully,” without demanding any substantive assurances that the intervention would indeed be peaceful. UNHCR staff members were present as bystanders during the evening of December 29, but no one from the agency was officially sent to intervene, despite requests by protesters and increasing evidence over many hours that the protest could end violently. It is unclear what UNHCR could have done at that late stage. The die was cast, and all the agency could do was watch.

UNHCR took a number of grave risks concerning the safety of the population in the park. It must accept accountability for a number of failures and miscalculations that, at least indirectly, led to the tragic results.
Although of course the Egyptian government deserves condemnation for the brutal way in which it dispersed protesters, the report also underlines how the government was pushed to act by UNHCR:

The government showed remarkable restraint over the three months of the sit?in, but came under increasing pressure from UNHCR, the local media, and residents to remove the protesters. Under the Egyptian Emergency Law, the gathering was manifestly illegal, and it is to the government’s credit that such a long period of time was given for the peaceful resolution of the issues between the demonstrators and UNHCR. Given the failure of negotiations, however, it was inevitable that the Egyptian authorities eventually intervene.

During the removal, Egyptian security forces did not offer protesters the choice to disperse peacefully, which might have averted the violence that occurred. Instead, a decision was apparently made at the highest levels to remove the demonstrators to unidentified detention centers. The authorities gave no clear or consistent information to protesters about the “camps” they were being transported to and refused to grant any requests for guarantees. In fact, misinformation about where the demonstrators would be moved meant that negotiations were compromised from the start: no guarantees concerning the “camps” could be offered because they were actually detention centers. This was very di fficult for the protesters to accept, and consequently, neither they nor security officials had an avenue by which to avoid the confrontation.

Egyptian security used excessive and disproportionate force in removing the protesters, leaving no alternatives or avenues for escape. No allowances were made for the safety of the park’s occupants, especially vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and the sick. Security forces entered the park from all directions at once, leaving nowhere for people to flee. They used indiscriminate violence, and there was no immediate medical attention available to injured protesters. Inadequate training in crowd control methods does not adequately explain the high number of casualties and injuries that resulted. This is clearly a matter for Egyptian and international human rights organizations to pursue.
It's hardly surprising that the Egyptian police is brutal -- you just need to see the way it handles Egyptians, let alone sub-Saharan Africans. But UNHCR should have handled this way, way better.