Refugees fled the atrocities of armed conflict in their countries, which cost them their beloved ones, homes and peaceful lives. They came to Egypt, hoping to find some semblance of peace. Instead, Syrians in Egypt found themselves facing new political conflicts and Islamists, who tried to lure Syrians into helping Egyptians in their fight against the Egyptian regime.

Refugees fled the atrocities of armed conflict in their countries, which cost them their beloved ones, homes and peaceful lives. They came to Egypt, hoping to find some semblance of peace. Instead, Syrians in Egypt found themselves facing new political conflicts and Islamists, who tried to lure Syrians into helping Egyptians in their fight against the Egyptian regime.

Syrian Rakan Nawwar, 29, fled the war in Syria and went to Egypt in early 2013. “I got in touch with friends of mine who came before me and I managed to find a flat for me and my family in Nasr City,” he says. “I later found out that a group of Muslim Brothers were paying the rent.”

The group also started providing Nawwar with a monthly allowance and food aid. At the time, calls to protest against President Mohamed Morsi were on the rise. “The aid officer used to visit me on a monthly basis and speak to me about the risks of toppling Morsi since it would lead Egypt to hell and inevitably impact refugees,” remembers Nawwar. “He hinted that the aid we were receiving would be affected because donors would be imprisoned. Then, he asked me to more Muslims to demonstrations supporting legitimacy and Islamic Sharia.”

Nawwar had taken part in many Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, including the sit-in at Rabia Square, which was dispersed and ended in a massacre. “I fled the war’s atrocities fearing for my safety and that of my family so why relive the experience here?” he asked himself.

Once Nawwar stopped participating in protests, the aid stopped with it. “We were forced to leave the flat on the pretext that the Muslim Brotherhood had to support many arrested people and families of martyrs and it could no longer provide us with help,” says Nawwar.

Newcomers as supporters

Ahmed Ban, a researcher in Islamic movements and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council, says the idea of using newcomers to Egypt dates back to the early 1930s. This trend, says Ban, started by supporting Al-Azhar University’s foreign students in an attempt to attract them to the group’s ideology and then have those foreign members spread that ideology once they returned to their countries. This became the basis of the international Muslim Brotherhood.

Ban argues that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only Islamist group to recruit refugees, especially those intellectually close to it or sympathizing with it. Jihadist groups, he says, do not adopt this approach as they see refugees as fugitives rather than their target audience.

In mid-2014, Assera J., 32, fled the armed conflict in Yemen. She went to the Hussari Mosque in 6th of October City – a suburb of Cairo, which provides refugees with aid and support. “There, I found a woman who helped me find a flat for me and my children in 6th of October City,” says Assera. “She said she would pay the rent and all of my other expenses until she could find me a job.”

That woman visited Assera regularly and gave her money and enough food for an entire month. Then, the woman started bringing a group of women with her. They talked about the deteriorating situation in Egypt and the destruction it experienced after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted and how Islam was being threatened by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s regime.

“They asked me and my children to take part in the protests demanding the toppling of the regime and the return of Morsi,” says Assera. “They used to take me to protests. I went with them for fear of losing the aid.”

Months later, Assera knew that the police arrested Syrian children for taking part in protests. She feared for her children and started looking for a job until she found one in a Yemeni restaurant. “I thanked them for their help and told them I could no longer take part in these protests,” says Assera. “I took control of my life.”

Ban believes that the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to attract refugees and newcomers is aimed not only at spreading its ideas but also to make up for the shortage in the numbers of its members due to security prosecutions.

“When the confrontations between security forces and Muslim Brothers intensified, refugees started to distance themselves from the conflict,” says Ban. “When some funding sources were cut, the Muslim Brotherhood found it more difficult to cover all of these expenses and thus stopped supporting refugees but continued treating them well to use them as a mobile media outlet among refugees and the Egyptian society.”

M. Assaad is a 24-year-old Yemeni who came to Egypt in early 2013 when unrest continued in Yemen. He found work as an accountant in a Yemeni restaurant. “There, I got introduced to young customers who were members of an Islamist group,” says Assaad. “One of them approached me and said he wanted to befriend me. Then, he started speaking to me about the war between Islam and disbelief in Egypt.”

At first, Assaad thought it was mere conversation about the situation in Egypt, but then, he says, “they asked me to take part in supporting Islam through training some members of their group in arms since I came from Yemen, where arms are everywhere. They said they would pay me well for it. I refused for fear of being arrested or killed. Then, he threatened me that he would take revenge if I informed the police.”

A. Alamy, a 35-year-old Syrian woman, came from Aleppo after she lost her husband during a clash between the Nusra Front and the Syrian army. Alamy and her children arrived in Egypt early this year and managed to find shared accommodation with four other women and their children in the Maadi neighborhood.

“Some Muslim women from a charity looked after these families,” says Alamy. “They paid our rent, food and clothes as well as the children’s tuitions. After a month of free aid, they started coming to the flat regularly to give Quran and religious lessons connected with the political situation in Egypt. Then, they asked us to take part in the protests against the Egyptian regime. My children and I participated in Fridays’ protests in Maady. In May, security forces attacked one of those demonstration and my eldest son, 13, was shot in his right arm.”

Alamy then decided to stop taking part in demonstrations and never to participate in a conflict that had already taken the life of her husband in Syria. Her insistence grew even further when these women asked her to take footage of her son’s gunshot wound, to show it on Muslim Brotherhood’s TV channels for US$ 500. The relationship between the refugee families and the women deteriorated until the women stopped paying the rent.

With their lifeline cut, these Syrian families started a joint venture to cook Syrian food and sell it to major shops to provide for themselves.

 Merely charity

Basma, a Muslim Brotherhood activist responsible for aid provided to refugee families and who asked to remain anonymous said these cases were “pure fabrications to be used for political purposes against the Muslim Brotherhood. What the group provides to refugees is just a tiny fraction of what it provides for society and Muslims as charity, to please Allah and in exchange for nothing. Refugees voluntarily take part in protests because they believe that Islam is in danger and want to protect it,” she said.

Abdulgalil Sharnoubi, a researcher in Islamic groups and former editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s website said that refugees holding the same beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood became naturally became connected with its branches in hosting countries.

“Refugees are used in its different advocacy and political activities. In European countries, for example, they are vehicles for the political presence of such groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. A good example is using Palestinian refugees in Europe and America where the group established dozens of centers and institutions under the cover of the refugees’ issue, which has helped legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood’s international presence and supported its funds. In the early 1950s, Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, took refuge in Germany. Later on, he and Ibrahim El-Zayat played a prominent role in establishing the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), the Munich Center and later the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe which was a turning point in attracting Arab and Muslim refugees to Europe and recruiting them in the Muslim Brotherhood.”

*The names of some refugees have been changed.