Egypt: Exiles denied passports as the government seeks to bring them home
Egyptian dissidents abroad have told Middle East Eye that they are being denied the right to renew their passports and identity documents as a way of forcing them to return home to Egypt.
In 2017, the well-known Egyptian journalist Hosam Yahia, then based in Qatar, tried to renew his passport a year before it expired. To his surprise, the Egyptian embassy in Doha gave him a one-year renewal instead of the standard seven years.
When Yahia asked for a reason, the Embassy staff said he was due for conscription, despite having submitted the necessary documents proving his exemption. They promised him it would be for seven years the next time he renewed his passport.
In the following months, a local Egyptian media campaign was launched against the Qatari state Al Jazeera channel and the Egyptians who work there, including Yahia.
Relations between Egypt and Qatar deteriorated after the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported the coup, while Qatar condemned it. The local Egyptian affiliate was closed shortly after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in Cairo, Al Jazeera, which upset Qatar’s neighbors, including Egypt, with its favorable coverage of the Arab Spring protests.
Meanwhile, Yahia’s family home in Egypt was raided by security forces and his speech in Doha was published on social media, a move he calls “political extortion”.
When the Al Jazeera presenter tried to renew his one-year passport, the embassy staff asked him to return to Egypt or visit the military attache in Abu Dhabi. Yahia was concerned about traveling to the UAE, which has previously deported Egyptian dissidents. The embassy insisted.
Yahia left Egypt in 2014 and has not seen his family since. With his Al Jazeera colleagues Rabie al-Sheikh, Hisham Abdelaziz and Bahauddin Ibrahim all currently languishing in Egyptian prisons, he knows how dangerous it can be to return.
Yahia cannot renew his residence permit or work in Qatar without a valid passport. So, he used the only option left. “In June 2019, I applied for asylum in the UK. I felt like I was going into the unknown against my will,” Yahia told MEE.
The journalist had to wait almost two years to be granted the right to stay in the UK. Living – or waiting to live – in a western country, Yahia felt uprooted from his home, his identity and his culture.
From Cairo to Khartoum
Ali (not his real name) faced such a sword at the Egyptian embassy in Sudan in late 2019.
He lived in Sudan for a long time, visiting Egypt every few months. But that changed, and by 2019 his last visit was in 2013, when his only brother was killed in the Rabaa massacre, when Egyptian security forces led by Sisi killed at least 1,000 protesters.
This led to Ali’s exemption from military service and furthermore, he exceeded the legal age for the army.
He visited the embassy’s military attachment in Khartoum to find out another solution. The official ordered Ali to go back to Egypt and arrange a “military reconciliation” by paying a fine.
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Ali feared that the Egyptian state security would arrest him, imprison him or disappear, as had happened to people he knew. His home was recently raided, with security officers asking about his murdered brother.
Ali’s passport expired while he was trying to resolve the issue with the Egyptian authorities in Sudan. He extended it by paying individuals who claimed to work for a diplomatic mission, but warned him not to travel to any Arab countries. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported cases of countries’ security officials questioning travelers with such extended passports.
After the October 2021 military coup in Sudan, Ali used the extension and went to Turkey that Christmas. He received a residence permit, but the extension will expire at the end of this year.
HRW says Turkey has granted residence permits to many Egyptians on humanitarian grounds due to their exceptional circumstances fleeing oppression, but Ali does not know if he qualifies. He contacted his family, who joined him later, but they have been waiting for an answer for eight months.
Although he is grateful to Turkey for helping the Egyptian opposition, he is concerned that recent improvements in relations between Turkey and Egypt could change the situation. In April 2022, an Egyptian opposition television channel based in Turkey closed its offices.
Ali now plans to make the dangerous journey to Europe by boat. When asked how he felt, Ali remained silent for a few seconds before replying: “I felt like an animal.” He also said that he felt like he was trapped in a big prison with no regard for his future.
In Sudan, his Egyptian background meant he faced obstacles in using his background in economics and political science to pursue a career. In Turkey, he struggled for two years to find a job. Due to the lack of valid documents it was very difficult for his family to obtain official documentation for his daughter.
Similarly, MEE interviewed Ibrahim Abouali, an Egyptian activist and political science graduate in Malaysia, who previously threatened to end his life on Facebook Live after being unable to renew his passport.
Abouali applied for asylum with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, in 2020. He received no response for about two years until his live video sparked media coverage and pressure on human rights.
During this time, he was stressed, worried, and even received a message urging him to leave Malaysia because he was living there illegally.
Abouali received a document that protects him from deportation after an interview with UNHCR last December, but it only lasts for a year and does not allow him to work in Malaysia.
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During the interview, he was asked about his suicide attempts, among other questions. Abouali must undergo another interview to obtain refugee status, but the timeline is unclear. His invalid passport affected his health; he was diagnosed with diabetes during alcohol addiction treatment but cannot get health insurance for regular hospital visits.
To escape their situation, some Egyptians have crossed borders illegally or bought a Syrian passport. Three were contacted by MEE but declined to speak, while a fourth was reserved and few details were shared.
“I don’t have much to say. I was expelled from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, arrested for a while, and received a military sentence. As a result, I could not pass, so I was smuggled into Sudan on a dangerous journey,” he told MEE.
He mentioned that after the Sudanese coup in October 2021, the embassy asked the authorities to ask some Egyptians to leave, so he used Syrian identity.
Using his new identity, he entered another country but was repeatedly arrested and faced the possibility of deportation to Syria. He cannot move freely around this country or travel anywhere else and, to this day, has not been able to obtain an Egyptian passport.