Egyptians protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad

Egyptian protesters wave flags and shout slogans during a rally in solidarity with opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Cairo. (Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency / June 14, 2013)

CAIRO -- Hundreds of Syrian refugees arriving in Cairo this week were turned back as Egypt instituted new regulations requiring visas for those fleeing their war-torn country.

Previously, Syrians were not required to have a visa to enter Egypt and were able to easily establish residency. Tens of thousands have already done so. But this week, Syrians arriving at Cairo’s international airport and in other cities were put on flights back to where they came from: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and, in some cases, Syria.

A Foreign Ministry official said this week that restrictions were necessary because of the current unrest in Egypt, where protesters have clashed with security forces over the toppling of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement in a military coup last week.

In a statement quoted by local media, the ministry said the visa requirements for Syrians were temporary and added, "This decision does not affect the initial Egyptian position supporting the Syrian revolution and the aspiration for a pluralistic democracy that supports the rights of all Syrians."

The Egyptian military has been keen to convey that the crisis in Egypt is jeopardizing national security and fueling attacks from increasingly well-armed militants in the Sinai Peninsula. Syrians in Egypt have reported that some of their fellow nationals have been deported after taking park in pro-Morsi rallies.

Egypt's visa requirements are the latest sign that doors are closing for Syrian refugees. Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that Syria’s neighbors –- Iraq, Turkey and Jordan –- were preventing the refugees from entering their countries. Numerous border crossings have been closed, stranding tens of thousands of people trying to flee the conflict, the New York-based group said.

More than 66,000 Syrians have registered with the U.N. refugee agency in Egypt. But the Foreign Ministry has reported that as of March, the number of Syrians in the country was at least 140,000.

Haitham Maleh, head of the legal affairs committee for the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition umbrella group, arrived at the Cairo airport Tuesday after having attended a meeting in Turkey.

As he approached passport control, he was surrounded by other Syrians telling him that they had been denied entry and he too would not be allowed to pass through, he said. This was soon confirmed by a passport control officer.

“I said: ‘How can I not enter? I have my house here. I’m with the coalition, and I have my work here,’ ” Maleh said Friday.

Maleh, a longtime Syrian dissident and human rights activist, called the coalition’s former president, Moaz Khatib, and newly elected leader, Ahmad Jarba, for help. Soon he was fielding a call from the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry asking about the situation.

“I said: ‘You are major players. You need to call the Egyptians to figure this out,’ ” he said he told the Foreign Ministry official.

Three hours later, Maleh was allowed to leave the airport, but he said 25 Syrian families who had been waiting with him were deported.

“They even retuned a plane to Syria,” he said.

“I think the Egyptian government is doing a service to [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad,” he continued. “It’s a step against the Syrian revolution.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com
Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com
Twitter: @rajaabdulrahim

Fleishman reported from Cairo and Abdulrahim from Los Angeles