Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Arab Spring’s Improbable Refugees | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Rain clouds loom over the skyline of Giza, Egypt,on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Rain clouds loom over the skyline of Giza, Egypt,on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Rain clouds loom over the skyline of Giza, Egypt,on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In a small hotel on Cairo’s Shahab Street the broken dreams of the Arab Spring gather.

Three men congregate in the lobby. They watch a Premier League game and share stories of how they lost everything.

The hotel guests include Khaled, a Yemeni who fled the Houthi advance in Sana’a, Dernawi, a Libyan, and Suleiman, a Syrian national who fled Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

They are refugees of the Arab Spring, but not the ones you usually see in aid appeals or news bulletins. These men are former middle class businessmen, the invisible émigrés who now make up a sizable number of the unregistered refugees in Egypt. Though their plight may not be as dire as those living in camps, their stories tell of the disappointment at revolutions that failed to deliver the desired change at every level of society.

Khaled owned a successful tourism company in Sana’a before fleeing the country several months ago. The outfit has since folded following the latest unrest as the Shi’ite rebel movement took over government buildings and forced the president to resign.

The 41-year-old says he took part in the popular uprising against former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 only to see his hopes of change dashed.

“We rode the Arab Spring train, but we did not know where it would lead,” he says.

When the situation in the Yemeni capital took a turn for the worse Khaled initially relocated his business to southern Yemen. Trouble only followed him there as the southern secessionist movement gathered pace in Aden. He eventually took the decision to leave the country altogether.

Libyan Mahmoud Al-Dernawi, not his real name, is another Arab businessman to have sought refuge in Cairo after fleeing his home country following the so-called February 17 Revolution that brought down the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Dernawi—a nickname given to him by his Egyptian friends in reference to his Libyan hometown of Derna—was a mid-level manager in Tripoli but was forced to flee after extremists took over the port city.

Dernawi, like the others, is living off his personal savings. He ended up at the budget hotel after several downgrades in accommodation over the past year as his funds dwindle.

Next to him sits Suleiman, 55, who owned a bakery in Syria. He was forced to shut his business after two of his workers took part in anti-government protests and were arrested; he says the Assad government is looking for him.

Suleiman first fled with his family to Jordan, and later moved to Egypt. His wife and son remain in Amman. He said that there may be opportunities to invest his capital in Egypt but with the economy so unstable any venture carries substantial risk. His money is running out, and he is not sure if he will return to Amman or try to bring his family to Cairo.

According to Egyptian government officials who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat, Egypt is hosting hundreds of thousands of unregistered refugees from the countries that experienced the Arab Spring revolutions.

While more than 200,000 Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis and other Arab nationals have obtained refugee status with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Egypt, many more, particularly wealthier Arabs, have chosen not to register with relief agencies.

However, as conflicts across the Middle East rage into their fifth year these formerly well-off Arabs are increasingly unable to support themselves.

Libyan investment banker Amr Farkash supported the revolution against Gaddafi but decided to leave as warring militias rampaged across the country leaving a trail of violence in their path. More than three years later, he is still living out of Cairo hotel rooms, and Libya is more divided than ever.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had not registered as a refugee, and was supporting himself on his savings, which are rapidly shrinking.

“Many Libyans, like myself, came to Egypt to live here off our own savings,” he said, “but we have been forced to change our priorities as it becomes clear that we don’t know when we will be able to go back, be that in one year or many more.”

What he initially thought would be a short stay has turned into a long exile with no end in sight.

“If I went there [Libya] now, I wouldn’t be able to find a job,” Amr said.

“The reason that I have not returned to Libya is not political. It is because there is no stability.”