Security agents from China and Egyptian plainclothes police officers attempted to arrest an ethnic Uyghur student activist in Egypt’s capital Cairo over the weekend, the activist said, in what appeared to be a rare example of authorities from the two countries working jointly to detain members of the mostly Muslim ethnic group.
More than 200 Uyghurs, many of them religious students at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Islamic University, have been detained since July 4, rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries, sources told RFA’s Uyghur Service in earlier reports.
Dozens of Uyghurs are believed to have already been deported home to China, where rights groups say they face a serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture.
According to one Uyghur student activist, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, four Chinese security agents accompanied by two Egyptian plainclothes police officers attempted to arrest him at his residence in Cairo on Sunday before he fled to safety.
The activist said that the wife of a friend who was visiting with him Sunday wasn’t feeling well and, when returning from purchasing medicine with her daughter at a nearby store, noticed “some Chinese men downstairs” from the apartment.
“Our phone, which is linked to the intercom downstairs, rang and someone asked for a person in Arabic, to which I replied there was no such person,” the activist said, adding that he then handed off the phone to his wife.
“The person on the phone told her he had just spoken with a Chinese person [and wanted to know who it was.] My wife told him it was her husband who had spoken and that there were no Chinese people in the house, before hanging up,” he said.
“After that, we hid everyone, including the kids.”
When the activist’s wife told him to hide, he refused, and instead went to his building’s lobby to investigate who was at the door.
“I saw a Chinese man at the door, but he couldn’t see us from outside and the security guard wouldn’t allow him in,” he said.
“My wife went out and calmly told him there were no Chinese people at our home. The Chinese man yelled at her and said [he knew] there were, while checking photos and passport numbers on his phone. My wife didn’t argue with him.”
According to the activist’s wife, three more Chinese men were sitting in a nearby car with two Egyptians, who she said “looked like security agents.”
“One of the Chinese men from the car came out and asked the Chinese man at the door whether he was able to locate the person in the picture on his phone and he said no,” he said.
“At that point, they all went to the next building. This gave us the opportunity to escape. All of my friends and family fled the building, one by one. Thank God we escaped safely, but my terrified wife and children cried all night long.”
The activist, who has been tracking the detentions of Uyghurs in Egypt, told RFA that there are currently 96 students being held by Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID)—also known as the Mukhabarat—at its headquarters in Cairo and that the Chinese embassy had dispatched officials to interrogate them.
When contacted by RFA last week, an official at the Chinese embassy in Cairo, who refused to give her name and title, said she was unaware of any arrests of Uyghur students by the Egyptian authorities.
On Monday, Mohamed Al-Mahrasawy, dean of Al-Azhar Islamic University, confirmed that 70 Uyghurs living on campus had been arrested and their residency status investigated, according to a report by the Middle East Monitor.
Speaking at a conference at Al-Azhar, Al-Mahrasawy said that 20 of those detained were students enrolled at the university, while 50 others—including three students who had been suspended—reside on the campus but are not linked to the school.
The dean had previously denied reports that authorities had detained and investigated foreign students there and, in a July 7 statement, Al-Azhar said that no Uyghur students had been arrested “inside Al-Azhar campus or from any buildings associated with Al-Azhar.”
Media reports have quoted officials as denying that Egyptian authorities were targeting Uyghurs and saying that those arrested were brought in for “alleged irregularities in their residency papers,” but Uyghur exile groups and students say the detentions were ordered by China on allegations that they had “joined extremist organizations.”
The arrests follow a meeting on June 19 between Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar and Chinese Deputy Public Security Minister Chen Zhimin, during which the two signed an agreement that “covers a number of specialized security fields” and Chen stressed China’s eagerness to exchange information about “extremist organizations,” according to a report by the Eurasia Review.
Human rights and Uyghur exile groups have condemned China for violating the rights of the Uyghurs detained in Egypt and breaking a United Nations treaty forbidding forced repatriations.
Ulrich Delius, Asia director of the Berlin-based Society for Threatened Peoples, told RFA that his group had urged the European Union to pressure Cairo over the detentions ahead of a meeting Tuesday between EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo.
“We asked them to urge the Egyptian government to release all the arrested Uyghurs and allow them to leave to a safe third country,” he said.
He also called on the United Nations’ refugee agency to grant the Uyghurs refugee status in a bid to prevent their forced repatriation to China.
“In light of the urgent situation of Uyghur students in Egypt, the UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] should grant them immediate protection, instead of letting them wait for months, and assist their transfer to third countries.”
The ruling Chinese Communist Party blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in China in recent years, but critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the ethnic group, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.