As a charismatic revolutionary from a rambling Cairo neighborhood, Ahmed Hassan was one of the stars of Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 documentary The Square, which followed a group of Egyptian activists as they toppled the longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011 then fought to maintain their failed revolution.
The film won three Emmy Awards and was nominated for the Oscars. But Hassan’s life became more difficult after his release.
His work as a director of photography and filmmaker ended when production companies stopped hiring him, possibly because he was blacklisted.
He had to abandon a film project after receiving threats. He couldn’t carry a camera in the street without being harassed. Most of his friends were in jail, some were dead.
“I felt like I was inches from prison,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
In 2018, he jumped at an opportunity to escape and traveled to Turkey, which has become a major hub for Arab exiles, as many of the Arab Spring uprisings that emerged ten years ago have sunk into violence and repression.
“You can carry a camera to Turkey. It’s beautiful actually, ”said Hassan. “Here I walk and I feel free.
“I feel there is a government. I see the police, but I’m not afraid, it’s not like Egypt. I have the impression that there is a law here.
But life is also hard. Hassan says that, to him, Turkey looks like a watermelon with bright red, attractive flesh.
“But when you bite into it, it’s salty, not sweet.”
Place of exile
“There is no Arab city like this, with large populations from different parts of the Arab world having these tools of cultural and political expression, like Istanbul at the moment,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Al Jazeera.
Ali said this trend emerged for the first time from soft power policies led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party), in power since 2002, which sought to expand influence and Turkey’s relations in the region through greater diplomacy, investments and educational projects.
It was aided by popular culture as Turkish TV series also became very popular across the Middle East and often glorified Istanbul and glorified its Ottoman past.
“Look at Turkey before Erdogan, [it was not] at the heart of the Arab world as it is now, ”Ali said.
The trend of Arab exiles to travel to Turkey accelerated sharply with the fallout from the Arab Spring.
Turkey is now home to around four million refugees – mostly Syrians – as well as activists, journalists and politicians from countries in the Arab world.
Istanbul’s neighborhoods have been transformed by an influx of Arab communities and businesses, with the city’s Arab population likely to be well over one million. Turkey is home to around 700,000 Iraqis. More than 500,000 refugees, mostly Syrians, live in the town of Gaziantep in southern Turkey.
Turkey has broadly supported the Arab Spring uprisings, particularly as a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a supporter of the short-lived Egyptian government linked to Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Istanbul has become an important hub for the Muslim Brotherhood, especially after the overthrow of Morsi by the army led by General-turned-President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi in 2013.
Islam Akel, an Egyptian journalist and television presenter, nearly died in August 2013 after being shot and a bullet lodged in his lung during the pro-Morsi sit-in in Rabaa Square in Cairo, in which at least 1,000 people were killed. were killed by the security forces. forces.
He escaped to Lebanon, then spent time in Sudan, before going to Turkey in 2014. He now works as a presenter on Watan TV linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Istanbul. Akel praised Turkey for welcoming the exiles.
“As an Egyptian Arab Muslim, being in Turkey was not a difficult thing for me, because being in a country where I hear the voices of muezzins praying and finding mosques in front of me in every street is a matter of comfort, connection and integration, ”he said.
Hamza Zawba, a former spokesperson for Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party, arrived in Turkey in 2014 and now hosts a show on Mekameleen TV channel.
“Turkey has accepted us to live here in exiles, no one else has done that,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that Turkey has provided them with a living space to challenge the account of el -Sissi.
“[The show] is a place to express my point of view and give an analysis, to face media claims about the coup and to raise awareness of what is going on, ”he said.
Egyptian liberal reformist politician Ayman Nour also moved to Istanbul and set up his own TV channel, Al-Sharq TV.
The Istanbul Arab Media Association has more than 800 members. Exiles from countries like Libya, Yemen and Syria have also created media, think tanks, schools, charities and NGOs. Istanbul has also become a place where some LGBTQ Arabs feel more secure and can live more open lives.
But while some exiles prospered, others struggled, and Turkey’s role as a refuge changed over the decade.
Bassam Alahmad is the Executive Director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, a non-profit organization that documents rights violations by all parties in Syria. He arrived in Turkey from Syria in 2012.
“It was a good atmosphere for us to act and work,” he said.
But he said the atmosphere had become more restrictive over time, especially after Turkey’s first direct military intervention in northern Syria in 2016, and he felt he was not no longer able to publish some of the human rights violations he had documented. He says he was questioned by Turkish security services about his work in 2018.
He was also threatened by someone who he said is linked to al-Assad’s security forces, but claims that although he reported it to the police, they took no action. The killings of prominent activists in Turkey have also baffled some exiles and undermined the country’s reputation as a safe haven.
A Turkish government media spokesperson said they would not respond to Alahmad’s specific claims, but provided a statement from a senior Turkish official who said: “Turkey is providing safe haven for nearly 4 million Syrian refugees. We take all necessary measures to make asylum seekers feel at home and safe. “
Alahmad also said that attitudes in Turkey have become more resentful, hostile and racist towards Syrian refugees over time. Many Syrians also struggle to access services and education, can rarely acquire citizenship and are often exploited in informal jobs.
“We felt it was a shrinking space,” Alahmad said. He and his wife succeeded in obtaining asylum in France and settled there in 2019.
“Here you can say or write anything.”
Hassan praised Erdogan and Turkey for its generosity in hosting so many refugees and dissidents, but he also mentioned anti-Arab racism as a significant issue.
“When they hear you speaking Arabic, things get weird. People look at you and treat you differently. Sometimes when I’m with my friends, we don’t speak Arabic on public transport, ”he said.
Some exiles have also changed while living in Turkey.
Mustafa Menshawy, postdoctoral researcher at SEPAD Project, Lancaster University, told Al Jazeera that many grassroots members of the Muslim Brotherhood have become less conservative in their views or even quit the movement after being exposed to a more socially climate. liberal. in Turkey.
But he also said the Brotherhood was becoming less hierarchical and more open to debate than it was in Egypt.
“The fact that Turkey, which is authoritarian in the way it treats its own media, allows the members of the Brotherhood to have a voice, and how much this is democratizing, is a little paradoxical”, he said. he declares.
“Turkey gives a voice to individuals who have not been heard by either the organization itself in Egypt or the regime, and that is very revitalizing.”
But Menshawy characterizes the group’s relationship with Turkish authorities as a “marriage of convenience,” and he and others say Turkey’s status as an Arab hub is vulnerable to changing political trends.
The next decade
“I see it [Arab] also useful presence to project power and put Turkey in the lead as a major actor in Arab politics, ”Ali said.
But he said that welcoming so many Arab dissidents can become a problem and “very limiting for Turkey’s options” if it decides to pursue the rapprochement with al-Sisi or al-Assad, who now appear entrenched in power, while by proving to be unpopular at the national level.
He also said Turkey’s role as such a strong Arab hub depended heavily on Erdogan’s retention in power.
“This Arab presence and this Arab experience ends with Erdogan,” he said.
Akel said exiles like him are most concerned about “political vicissitudes and fears about the rise of nationalists” at the expense of the AK Party.
Meanwhile, while Hassan has many Turkish friends, most of his deepest friendships are with people back in Egypt.
“I still feel lonely in Turkey,” he said.
It is also grappling with the economic problems that beset the country, including high inflation, low wages and lack of job opportunities. He hasn’t been able to get permission to shoot scenes for a documentary he’s making, and says he will try to leave for a western country when the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
“I can’t stay here any longer, it’s become more complicated, it’s not easy to photograph sensitive subjects. And everything is going so slowly, I feel like I’m not stable. But it’s better than Egypt.