PUBLICATION – Exiled Between Two Authoritarianisms: the Sudanese Exiled in Cairo, from Hosni Mubarak to Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, By Maaï Youssef

This article has been published on Noria Research website (Network of Researchers in International Affairs)

The travesty election of the Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the presidency of the Republic in July 2013 (Final report)1 demonstrates the permanence and the solidity of the authoritarian basis of the Egyptian State apparatus. Despite the political changes that have taken place since 2011, the prolonged presence, including during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, of the same political actors within the security apparatus, has led, if not to an authoritarian “restoration”, at least to its re-composition within a counter-revolution movement. In order to grasp the modalities of the transformations and reproduction of authoritarian practices at the national level, studying the migratory issue, and more precisely the forced migration of Sudanese exiled in Egypt 2, provides a particularly pertinent analytical entry. Indeed, the issue of migration is administered by the State Security (amn al-dawla), and not by a ministry or any other governmental organ. It thus represents a key to understand both the regional political context and the spaces of migration, as well as the Egyptian “authoritarian syndrome”3

The political treatment of forced migration in Egypt is central in that it justifies the implementation of a security management in the eyes of the Egyptian authorities, rather than the establishment of a public asylum policy framed legislatively. The Sudanese political opponents considered for this article have fled the regions laden with armed conflict against the Sudanese central government of Omar al-Bashir; they are mainly refugees from Darfur, Kordofan and the Blue Nile.4 The provisional numbers of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for 2015 declare around 15 000 Sudanese refugees, 15 500 asylum seekers 5, but they do not include the Sudanese migrants with visas and those who can reside in Egypt without visas. These are notably the families settled before the murder attempt on Hosni Mubarak in 1995 in Addis Ababa. They have thus avoided the change of regulation that took place after these events and which imposed for the first time visas for Sudanese people in Egypt. There are an estimated 10 000 non-refugee North Sudanese migrants. However, the exiled embodies the figure of the foreigner, who, as for the Egyptian political opponents who have been extensively repressed since the coup of July 2013 6, represents a threat to national security and the established order for the Egyptian authorities. This figure is notably accused of importing with him the political tensions of his country of origin. In this case – the exiled Sudanese –, it is around political Islam that the changes in perception of the figure of the foreigner crystallised. In a society strongly polarised around a conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, the echoes of the conflicts in Sudan, around issues often perceived as similar in public opinion and by the Egyptian authorities, have an important impact. At the local level, from the point of view of both the domestic policies and the concerned dimensions of foreign policy, these echoes condition the type of welcome found by this foreigner figure in Egypt and the strategies he implements to face it.

The situation of refugees in Egypt has thus to be read in a different way, to be analysed not as independent from an Egyptian social and political reality disinterested from the fate of refugees, but on the contrary, as integrated to a configuration where different dimensions of society echo one another. The legislative void on the issue of asylum, which limits the administrative and social intervention of governmental actors, is thus filled, for the refugees, by the same political practices as those which apply to Egyptian citizens. Here the issue of population control at check points after July 2013 can be brought up, when the inhabitants of peripheral neighbourhoods felt the full blow of corruption and police arbitrary behaviour when they tried to join the different urban centres. This article seeks to explore the hypothesis of those echoes between migration issue and domestic issue, through the lens of the exiled Sudanese caught in a context of repeated crises and political ruptures since the January 25th Revolution. Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in the 2000s, the election of Mohamed Morsi in June 2012, the counter-revolution dynamics that have been taking place since his destitution on July 3rd, 2013 and the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi constitute the framework of this analysis. The migrations and exile situations were until recently a “blind spot” 7 in the study of Arab revolutions, and their consideration is only just beginning. However, they constitute a particularly interesting reading lens, through the margins, of these political and social phenomena. The strategies mobilised by the exiled Sudanese in this context of political crises will be under review, through the three periods previously mentioned. This article relies on ethnographic inquiries undertaken between September 2013 and March 2014, in Cairo, Alexandria and Khartoum.

Mostafa Mahmoud Square – Tahrir Square: a limited opening to new possibilities

In 1995, the attempted murder of Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa was a turning point in the Egyptian migratory policy towards Sudanese migrants. This change was grounded in an already tense climate between the two countries. It can be partly explained by the accusation made on Sudan of having harboured the members of the Egyptian Islamist party responsible for the murder of President Anwar El Sadate – an accusation renewed with those responsible for the attempt on Hosni Mubarak. From 1995 onwards, the Sudanese migrants, for the first time in the joint history of the two countries, have been constrained to apply for a visa to enter Egyptian territory. 8 The tensions have crystallised around the support given by the Sudanese regime to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which has been relentlessly repressed by the successive Egyptian regimes since Nasser. These tensions have led Sudanese political opponents to settle in Cairo, where they have been favourably perceived for their rejection of the Sudanese regime and its latent conflict with Egypt.

It is in this context that in December 2005, on Mostafa Mahmoud square in Cairo, near the UNHCR headquarters, thousands of Sudanese refugees participated in a peaceful sit-in for several weeks. They opposed the UNHCR’s decision to no longer grant refugee status to Sudanese migrants following the peace agreements of June 2004 between Sudan and South Sudan. Between the 29th and the 30th of December 2005, the UNHCR, incapable of containing the movement, called upon the Egyptian authorities to evacuate the premises, whilst still declaring their fear of violent actions by the police. The later indeed intervened and massacred hundreds of refugees. 9 The number of casualties varies from 28 to 150 depending on the sources, including children. Two thousand refugees were arrested and detained in several army camps and prisons. 10 The event generated outrage and revealed the complex ties between the UNHCR and the Egyptian authorities. Those ties are reinforced by the precarious status of the UN agency in Egypt. The UNHCR has, indeed, a representative office in Cairo but this presence relies on a letter of understanding, and not a headquarter agreement as is generally the case. This situation puts the UNHCR in a permanent insecure position regarding the durability of its actions in Egypt. For example, it deprives the agency of diplomatic immunity, which would consolidate its activities. However, Egyptian law does not include asylum rights and thus has no juridical or social framework for these situations on its territory. The UNHCR is thus in charge of administering these issues, without its activities being recognised or supported in any way by the Egyptian government. This highlights one of the paradoxes of the study of migration in this country. Egypt is de facto a “host” country, notably by the length of settlement of refugees on its territory. However, despite the numerous ratified international agreements, the Egyptian state is enacting a transit policy. By defining migrations as isolated cases and framing them in a migratory project that does not include settlement in Egypt, this policy has allowed for the toleration of an often officious and clandestine circulation of migrants on Egyptian soil transiting to Europe or Israel. Officially, this situation could be modified as a result of the pressure by the Israeli State on Egypt to reinforce control over their common border in the Sinai. 11

The mobilisations of Sudanese refugees in 2005, which gathered several thousands of people, came into being in a context laden with the emergence of a series of particularly large social movements, such as the Kifaya movement. 12At that time, Hosni Mubarak indeed sought to provide “democratic pledges” to the international community, participating in the construction of a “consolidated authoritarianism”. 13 This semblance of democratic openness created a space for the organisation of social mobilisations, which then participated to the formation of key political actors. Indeed, the latter played a central role in the revolutionary movement of January 2011. The Egyptian mobilisations have without doubt opened a new range of possibilities which has encouraged the refugee populations, usually extremely discreet in the Egyptian public space, to hit to streets.

Nevertheless, the presence of Sudanese exiled during the mass mobilisations of January 2011 remained very marginal. Although the political events aroused interest, even passion, the claims federated neither the refugees nor the exiled. Some said “This is not our Revolution”, and mentioned the considerable costs of mobilising for a country that is not theirs. In 2005, on Mostafa Mahmoud square, the brutality of police intervention against refugees, the arrests and imprisonments in military jails and the decisions of military courts, had already shown that the refugees, beyond Sudanese political opponents, were perceived as a threat to the established order. They were consequently treated as the Egyptian citizens and political opponents, 14 with the same authoritarian practices. Refugees, exiled, opponents, activists, and Sudanese opposition sympathisers were thus capable of weighing the risks taken when facing the repression led in the first phases of the mobilisations. They have developed discretion mechanisms towards the authorities, allowing them to adapt to the political and social context. These mechanisms were particularly striking in light of the political splits that followed the start of the Revolution of July 25th, 2011 and the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

The Morsi presidency: an inversion of the balance of power

As soon as the Darfur conflict started in 2003, certain opposition groups organised themselves ahead of the departure for exile of thousands of Sudanese. In the groups with strong economic and social capital, the youngest members of the opposition were sent overseas by their families, notably to the United States, to finish their studies and graduate. The rest of the youth often became fighters straight away. The journalists, the intellectuals, the students and graduates of Sudanese universities, were sent to the neighbouring countries to work with the refugees, to maintain contact with these populations. The fighters remained in the conflict zones to lead the armed struggle. 15 It thus became important for political opponents to maintain a presence in Egypt, close to the refugee populations torn from their original communities. The Egyptian authorities under Hosni Mubarak allowed political actions to take place, such as political training workshops and meetings aiming at connecting the different sections of the Darfuri diaspora.

These activities took place alongside the associations created by political activists converted to social work in Egypt; either as local Egyptian associations, international NGOs, or more informal structures. Social workers gave access to the resources and skills gained in this new activity sector to the mobilisation movements against the Sudanese regime. Invisible as official activists, fighters or opponents, these social workers gained an institutionalised role within local or international associations, notably supported by the UNHCR. These mobilisations, clandestine at times, often discreet and undercover of social work, were established for a return to Sudan after the hypothetical fall of the current president and regime.

In June 2012, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi came as a threat to the precarious balance that the Sudanese exiled in Cairo had found. The improvement in the relationship between the two States was seen, for example, in the visit of the Sudanese president to Egypt, on the 16th and 17th of September 2012. For the Sudanese exiled, this change was forecasting a less favourable configuration, the start of “a scenario a little too familiar” 16, which led to preventive measures such as the flight of political opponents to Uganda. Drawing on their previous experiences, the Sudanese opponents of Darfur thus anticipated the repressive practices which could target them. The repressive discourse which had led to the massacre of refugees in 2005 changed after 2012, it was from then on about favouring the diplomatic relationships with the Sudanese neighbour, whose Islamist regime could constitute an ally in the region. This strategy change from the Sudanese activists shows how well the exiled have understood their sensitive role in the representations of the different Egyptian governments towards Sudan. The social and physical invisibility of the Sudanese exiled in the public space in Egypt has not exempted them from political and social stigma, which has made them visible to the authorities. The departures of opponents were done collectively, decided through mutual decisions, regardless of the political tendencies of these exiled opponents, and this in order to join the actors playing similar roles in Uganda.

Several interviews carried out in Cairo in 2014 show the distanced repression led by the Sudanese regime. It is organised around diplomatic personnel working in Cairo and pressuring the exiled. The fall of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the return to power of the army announced an appeasement in this respect. It shows a posteriori that the election of Mohamed Morsi allowed for attitude changes from Sudanese diplomatic personnel, who were until then very discreet because of the hostile environment that pre-2011 Egypt represented for them. Khartoum seized the opportunity of Mohamed Morsi’s presidence to further pressure the exiled. The representatives of the Sudanese regime missioned to Egypt did not ignore that many of them played a role in the sector of humanitarian and social aid for refugees, but also in culture. Cultural centres indeed aim at maintaining and valuing the collective initiatives and actions reinforcing the bonds between the Sudanese populations in exile. These centres, as for the headquarters of NGOs specialised in refugee support, are places of daily sociability and socialisation for the Sudanese originating from the regions in conflict with the central government. Controlling these places means controlling the space in which the political and public opinions of refugee populations are created, circulate, and evolve.

The implementation of adjustment strategies to the regime of the host State concerns more than the exiled: it also applies to the diplomatic personnel close to the regime in place in Sudan and living in Egypt. The latter have no longer felt threatened by the disagreements between the two countries under Morsi and have attempted to make the most of the absence of the leaders of the Sudanese opposition. These splits shed light on the relationship between the control of populations implemented by the host State at the national level and its alliance games at the regional level; in the same manner as the political ruptures then shed light on the reproduction in Egypt of the inter-Sudanese political and social splits. The Sudanese political opponents, who were allies under Mubarak against Omar al-Bashir’s regime, have become adversaries under Morsi to the settlement of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood at the head of States of the region.

Sudanese exiled and counter-revolution: the effects of an authoritarian “restauration”

On June 30th, 2013, at the initiative of the Tamarrud movement and several Egyptian opposition parties, mass protests took place around the country. They reinvested the symbolic places of the Revolution of the 25th of January 2011, the first being Tahrir square in Cairo. These mobilisations demanded the departure of President Mohamed Morsi and denounced his failure to improve the economic, security and social situation of Egypt. On July 3rd, the Egyptian army deposed Mohamed Morsi in a coup which led to a wave of repression on July 5th. The period of counter-revolution then began. Nearly one thousand partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood were massacred between the 14th and the 17th of August 2013, as they were the main target when they contested the destitution of the Islamist president during a sit-in on Rab’a al-Adaweyya square. 17 Simultaneously, an anti-Syrian propaganda was led throughout the country. Started by the new Egyptian authorities, it was then diffused by the official media. The Syrian refugees were accused of being pro-Muslim Brotherhood, as Mohamed Morsi was openly supportive of the Syrian revolution during his presidency 18, and of participating to the chaos presumably established by the Muslim Brotherhood in the country. Whilst the Sudanese and the Palestinian refugees had channelled most of the popular xenophobic reactions instrumentalised by the pre-2011 regime, the Syrian refugees were now targeted.

Several Sudanese exiled interviewed in September 2013 observed this without surprise: “Today it is them, yesterday it was us. Everything changes very fast.” 19 They did not hesitate to mention the naivety of Syrians, as newcomers who had arrived in a favourable context thanks to Mohamed Morsi’s hosting policy and support for the Syrian revolution.20 To them, the Syrian refugees had not been “wary” enough. These interpretative discourses are the mirror of the strategies developed during exile. The daily practices demonstrate a series of mechanisms aiming for example at avoiding mobility in unknown geographic spaces that could lead to arbitrary arrests and to detention in military camps. The refugees have also avoided any isolation in non-community spaces, where interactions with local Egyptian populations can be complicated. They have made sure not to undertake administrative procedures, or not to manage contentious issues, without an intermediary from the “community”. These intermediaries are there to insure the proper understanding of the procedures linked notably to asylum-seeking. A refugee, even if he did not have strong bonds with any Sudanese community in the country of origin, is forced by the different management models of migration (international, state, local) to join a group in order to integrate a social organisation in parallel of Egyptian society whilst in exile. A specific social order of forced migration is then constructed, necessarily leading to a reinforcement of community ties, even of the relatively fake ones.

The reinvented community has aimed at adapting to the requirements of international institutions. Since the Mostafa Mahmoud events, the UNHCR has notably reinforced the role of community leaders, implementing a community-led management of asylum. Relying on the latter, it has aimed at avoiding the repetition of the 2005 scenario, where the lack of channels with the refugee populations had participated to the absence of dialogue with protesters, and, consequently, to the bloody intervention of the Egyptian police. The UNHCR had then been accused of not having the capacity of protecting the individuals under its mandate.

The Sudanese exiled have thus designed their political and daily strategies according to the regime in place and of its partisan and clientelist orientations. After the fall of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the political elites that had fled to Uganda returned to settle in Egypt. At that time, other actors of the exiled Sudanese cultural and associative scene reviewed the collaborations started with individuals close to the Sudanese government during Morsi’s presidency. The previously mentioned censorship and co-optation attempts by the employees of the Sudanese diplomacy in Cairo have no longer been taken seriously and have been pushed aside, for example by quitting certain projects that were started under constraint. These alliance games between adverse groups 21 of Sudanese demonstrate the means created by exiled to compose with the distanced repression carried out by the Sudanese regime, with the more or less tacit agreement of local authorities. They also show how the exiled can evaluate their resistance capacity to the country of origin, as well as to the host country, depending on regime changes. The variations in the balance of power between Sudanese expatriates and exiled – following the pressures, threats and intimidations of all types of the former on the latter – can, for example, tune in to the political ruptures taking place in Egypt.


The case of the Sudanese opponents exiled in Cairo urges to depart from the “inside” and “outside” dichotomy that is often affixed on migration. It indeed illustrates the way in which the character of the foreigner and the conditions awaiting him reveal the political practices of the regime in place. The actors’ strategies have led to the strengthening of cohesions within different groups of the refugee populations. These cohesions can be regional or communitarian, as both are often intertwined. They are religious at times, as with the Christian communities united around the Sudanese churches in Cairo. These cohesions provide for a defence wall between the refugee populations and the authoritarian context of the host country. However, this security-led management of immigrant populations recalls the bureaucratic, policing, and economic arbitrary practices applied to the Egyptian populations who for example live in the same neighbourhoods of said “informal” or “unplanned” dwellings 22 as the refugees. From there stem well known phenomena: the appearance of intermediaries between the State, the UNHCR and the Egyptian and refugee populations, the reinforcement of the role of notabilities and of the importance of clientelist practices, the organisation in associative-like local groups, the development of self-managed services and vigilantism, the increase in criminality and the presence of organised gangs, to cite only a few. On a macro scale, the case under review here underlines the connections between internal and external politics, depending on stakes often presented as “security” ones by the Egyptian authorities, although they often are of diplomatic, political or even economic order.

Translation by Alice Judell

  1. The Egyptian elections that took place in late May 2014 were the object of many criticisms by international and local observers. The latter notably criticised a repressive climate, which resulted in numerous arrests of political opponents from the Muslim Brotherhood and the revolutionary left and led to a high level of abstention and media censorship. They stated the absence of a complete visibility of the electoral process and voting modalities, in particular outside of Cairo, and criticised the creation of a third day of vote to compensate for the record rate of absenteeism (it went from 37% on the second day of the elections to 47.3% on the third, lower than the previous elections in June 2012 that counted 51.7% of voters. This procedure could also have enabled electoral fraud. For further information, see the reports of the present European Union observers. Preliminary report, and final report).
  2. The use of categories characteristic to forced migration in order to define these actors is problematic. The actors under study for this research are not all refugees, especially according to the institutional and administrative definitions. Furthermore, if we use Stephane Dufoix’s definition of exile as “an ensemble of political activities geared towards the transformation of the political situation in the country of origin”, some continue to mobilise from Egypt, and can thus be qualified as exiled. However, others have ceased to be politically active for different reasons: impossibility to integrate mobilisation networks, beginning of politicisation that was abandoned when leaving Sudan, changes in ideological or personal choices, threats received against family members remaining in Sudan. These actors should thus not be qualified as exiled but simply as refugees; which is impossible for the previously mentioned reasons. This is why the term exiled will be used for both engaged and disengaged, or disengaging, actors. The term “political opponent” will also be used as this terminology offers more possibilities. Here “political opponents” is used to define actors which have engaged in anti-authority initiatives in Sudan (political personalities, activists, fighters, protesters or punctually mobilised individuals). Stéphane Dufoix, “La communauté politique des exilés, une nation hors l’État”, Hommes et Migrations, dossier “Trajectoires en exil” 1253 (2005).
  3. Michel Camau, “Globalisation démocratique et exception autoritaire arabe”, Critique internationale, n° 30, 2006, p. 75.
  4. The Darfuri exiled started arriving in Cairo at the beginning of the first civil war in 2003 and were close to the different liberation movements of Sudan (Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), or Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)). The Sudanese from southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile have arrived in larger numbers since 2011 and the increase in fighting against Khartoum. They were close to the SPLM/N (Sudan’s People Liberation Movement which became the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North after the independence of South Sudan). These groups are now grouped under one alliance: the Revolutionary Front.
  5. See the UNHCR official numbers, accessed online on 25 March 2015.
  6. The events of the 3rd of July 2013, and of the following weeks, are symptoms of one of the classic definitions of a coup in political science: the overthrow by armed forced of an elected state authority. However, Mohamed Morsi had been elected in June 2012 as a result of the first democratic elections issued from the revolutionary process started in June 2011. It thus seems important to dissociate the mass mobilisations of the 30th of June 2013 calling for the departure of Mohamed Morsi, from the events of the 3rd of July 2013 which happened in the same context but revealed different dynamics.
  7. Extracts from the call for papers of the ERC Wafaw colloquium (Tunis, October 2014), “Diasporas, migrants et exilés : quels rôles dans les révolutions et transitions politiques du Monde Arabe ?”, written by Claire Beaugrand and Vincent Geisser. For a complete report, see the Carnets de l’Iremam online, accessed on 23 November 2014.
  8. ZOHRY, Ayman, “The Place of Egypt in the regional migration system as a receiving country”, Revue européenne des migrations internationales, vol. 19, n°3, 2003, accessed online on 1 June 2014.
  9. On these events see: Harrell-Bond, Barbara, “Le drame de la place Mustapha Mahmoud au Caire raconté par Barbara Harrell-Bond”, Recueil Alexandries, Collections Reflets, April 2006. See also, AGIER, Michel, Managing the Undesirables, Polity Press, 2011, p. 13 “In Cairo, on 30 December 2005, a horrific massacre took place, in which the Egyptian police killed dozens of Sudanese (27, including 7 children, according to official figures, over 150 according to certain lawyers and voluntary organizations) […].”; or: AZZAM F. (ed.), A Tragedy of Failures and False Expectations: Report on the Events Surrounding the Three­-month Sit-­in and Forced Removal of Sudanese Refugees in Cairo, September–December 2005, Cairo, Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program, American University in Cairo, 2006.
  10. See for example this AFP post, accessed on 26 March 2015.
  11. For further information see Pauline Brücker’s article on Noria, last accessed on 11 March 2015.
  12. “Kifaya”, which means “that’s enough” in Egyptian Arabic, is an opposition movement from the Egyptian civil society, which was particularly mobilising in the years following its creation (2004). As a movement for change and against Hosni Mubarak’s regime, it called for a large reform of the political power. Many of its activists were amongst the first to mobilise during the Revolution of the 25th of January. See the work of Sarah Ben Nefissa on these issues: BEN NEFISSA, Sarah, “Verrouillage autoritaire et mutation générale des rapports entre l’État et la société en Égypte”, Confluences Méditerranée, n°75, 2010, p. 145 ; or: BEN NEFISSA, Sarah, “‘‘Ça suffit’’ ? Le ‘‘haut’’ et le ‘‘bas’’ du politique en Égypte”, Politique africaine, n° 108, 2007, p. 5-24.
  13. CAMAU, Michel, “Globalisation démocratique et exception autoritaire arabe”, Critique internationale, n° 30, 2006, p. 77.
  14. Several cases were reported, notably thanks to the work of lawyers fighting for the defence of refugee rights or against the military dictatorship and the use of military courts for civilian affairs.
  15. Interview with O., 10 March 2014, Cairo, Egypt.
  16. Interview with M., community leader of a local NGO, 3 February 2014, Cairo, Egypt.
  17. See the Human Rights Watch report on these events, All According to Plan. Accessed on 10 November 2014.
  18. This issue was further studied in a Masters thesis written by the author in 2013-2014 at Aix-Marseille University, titled Élites réfugiées et régime autoritaire. Les cas syrien et soudanais dans l’Égypte contemporaine.
  19. Interview in Cairo, 10 September 2013.
  20. In particular during a speech in support of Syria, in a stadium in Cairo, on June 15th, 2013. See one of the videos of the speech, last accessed on 17 June 2013.
  21. The supports of the Sudanese government versus its political opponents.
  22. On this point, see Patrick Haenni, L’ordre des caïds, conjurer la dissidence urbaine au Caire, Karthala, Paris, 2005.


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