When a group of students from Kazakhstan traveled to Egypt to improve on their Arabic language skills, the last thing they could have expected was to land up in a Cairo jail.
The almost two-week ordeal of a group of six students finally came to a close this week when the Foreign Ministry sent a protest note to Egypt about their detention, which still remains a complete mystery.
“In the nearest future, they will return to Kazakhstan. The reasons for their detention … have not yet been disclosed,” foreign ministry spokesman Anuar Zhainakov said on Facebook on August 2.
Zhainakov said Egypt has promised to provide an explanation at some later date.
The Foreign Ministry said the students were detained by Egyptians security service agents on the night of July 19. Relatives only learned about their disappearance on July 24, when they began to worry about their inability to get in touch with the young men.
Two people in the group have been named as 23-year old Kanat Berik and 22-year old Yelaman Zhazylhan, post-graduate students of Turkish and Arabic at Almaty’s Kazakh Ablai Khan University of International Relations and World Languages. They flew to Cairo on July 11 for language courses and had moved in to an apartment with four Kazakhstani acquaintances, according to RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service.
Zhainakov said the names of the other four students have not been disclosed as their relatives have not been in touch with the Foreign Ministry.
While Cairo is remaining mum on the cause of the detentions, Zhainakov linked them to the heightened security restrictions brought in with the state of emergency imposed following a series of terrorist attacks.
The Ministry for Religious Affairs has taken a cautionary stance, noting that young people going abroad for their religious studies are particularly prone to falling under the sway of extremist Islamic groups.
On July 27, Bakhytzhan Kulekeyev, an advisor the minister for religious affairs, said that the issue of Kazakhstanis going to study in foreign faith institutions is something worrying authorities in Astana. Around 300 Kazakhstanis are doing religious studies abroad at the moment, mainly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, he said.
“You have to understand that there is a complicated situation in these countries right now. The antiterrorism and migration regime there has been intensified. So even if you are not a follower of a radical movement, but you study in some dubious center for religious and language studies… you will come to the attention of the local security services and police, with all the consequences that implies,” Kulekeyev said.
Berik and Zhazylhan’s relatives are adamant that the young men are not only not radical-minded, but they are not in fact even not especially devout.
“We have no fanaticism,” Berik’s uncle, Arman Isabekov, told RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service.
If anything, the episode comes as a fortuitous development for Astana, which watches with anxiety at signs of its youth being drawn to ultra-orthodox Islamic currents from abroad. A swift, sharp shock may deter many others from attempting the same trip.