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Cairo looks to Egyptians abroad to boost economy

Nabila Makram, Egypt's minister of immigration and expatriate affairs, discusses her recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, where she sought to get Egyptian expatriates to invest in certificates that will help the Egyptian economy.
Egypt's Immigration Minister Nabila Makram Ebeid talks during a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, February 29, 2016. Egypt launched a new scheme on Monday to encourage millions of Egyptians living abroad to pour their dollar savings into special certificates, as it tries to ease an acute shortage of foreign currency that has hit the economy. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih - RTS8KYQ

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi named Ambassador Nabila Makram as head of the Ministry of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs in September 2015. This ministry had been shuttered decades ago, and until Makram’s appointment, immigration affairs were under the purview of the Ministry of Manpower. The revival of this ministry comes as part of Cairo’s plan to benefit from Egyptians living abroad and work with them to address their problems.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Makram spoke about how the ministry will use the Central Bank’s recent decision to unify the Egyptian pound-US dollar exchange rate to encourage Egyptians abroad to invest in their homeland. She also spoke about her most recent trip abroad and immigration legislation.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Can the Ministry of Immigration take advantage of Cairo’s decision earlier this month to float the Egyptian pound to encourage Egyptians abroad to remit money through Egyptian banks?

Makram:  We will seek during the next phase to further promote the US-denominated certificates called Biladi certificates (Arabic for “my homeland”) in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, our embassies, federations and coalitions abroad. We will also encourage Egyptians to participate in national projects, especially now that the main reason that discouraged Egyptians abroad from investing or buying Biladi certificates has vanished — and I mean here the existence of two foreign exchange rates [the official and the black market rate]. Indeed, we started to take actions. The Egyptian expatriates in Australia and New Zealand formed work teams to promote Biladi certificates and they are achieving great results.

Al-Monitor:  What has been the outcome of your visit to Australia and New Zealand last month?

Makram:  My recent visit to Australia and New Zealand was an excellent opportunity to meet with the Egyptians there. I was the first [Egyptian] state official to visit Australia and New Zealand last year and meet with the Egyptian expatriates there, representing around 3,000 people. The accompanying delegation included representatives of the Ministry of Housing, the Customs Authority, the Central Bank, Bahia Cancer Hospital, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Investment. Each of these representatives had a specific task. For example, the representative of the Housing Ministry explained to the Egyptian expatriates the details of land and real estate properties projects offered by the ministry to Egyptians abroad, the representative of the Central Bank presented the US dollar Baladi certificate and the representative of the Investment Ministry explained the new investment law. The representative of the Customs Authority talked with the Egyptian expatriates who want to export charitable products to Egypt but face problems with customs. The representative of Bahia Hospital highlighted that there is a nonprofit hospital in Egypt that has succeeded in achieving a high degree of professionalism. The representative of the Defense Ministry talked about the Egyptian army and issues related to military enrollment.

Al-Monitor:  How did Egyptians in Australia react to your offer of an Australian dollar-denominated Baladi certificate?

Makram:  Egyptians in Australia had a very positive reaction. The offer of Australian dollar-denominated Baladi certificates collected around 450,000 Australian dollars. Here I would like to assert that my visits, tours and meetings were not made only for collecting money but also to solve Egyptians’ problems. I always say “Egypt is not begging for money,” since the dollar Baladi certificate benefits Egyptians in Egypt and abroad, because it gives its owner a high interest rate and at the same time contributes to solving Egypt’s [foreign] reserves shortage crisis. Baladi certificates restore confidence between Egyptian citizens abroad and their state, which is keen on guaranteeing profits for the certificate owners. These certificates were first launched last year, and were offered in the US dollar; then Egyptians in Europe called for euro-denominated certificates and we fulfilled this request. Likewise, Egyptians in Australia also requested Australian dollar Baladi certificates. The state facilitates all procedures for citizens abroad to obtain Baladi certificates through the internet, and we guarantee them that we will send them their due dividends to their respective country within a certain period of time after solving the [foreign] reserves crisis.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think the illegal migration law approved by the Egyptian parliament in October will be successful in curbing illegal migration?

Makram:  The illegal migration law is quite different from the migration law. The former was drafted by the National Coordinating Committee on Combating and Preventing Illegal Migration, while the former Manpower Minister Nahed al-Ashri started drafting the migration law and that I will continue working on it. This law will define the migrant and his or her duties. The illegal migration law is an important law and its issuance was delayed; it sees the migrant as a victim and sanctions whoever transports or facilitates his or her illegal travel. It also imposes heavy sanctions on the smuggling boats owners and brokers up to life imprisonment and a fine higher than the profit earned by these illegal smugglers.

Al-Monitor:  What about the migration law that the ministry is preparing?

Makram:  The migration law defines migrants, permanent migration and temporary migration. Also, a supreme committee representing all sectors of the state has been formed with a view to organize the diaspora and the health insurance of migrants.

Al-Monitor:  Will the migration law deal with attempts to set up some migration offices for Egyptians interested in migration?

Makram:  The law will put migration offices under the umbrella of the ministry to protect Egyptians wishing to migrate from scams. … This will help preserve citizens’ rights.

Al-Monitor:  You stated that Egyptians abroad have a negative perception of Egypt. Why do you think that is? And what are you doing to deal with this perception?

Makram:  Indeed, the Egyptians in Australia have a negative outlook on Egypt because of the impression that social networking sites give, reflecting frustration and making it look like the country is a hopeless place. But I think that through frankness and clarity I managed to change this impression. I met with several expats while on tour and I conveyed to them with frankness the challenges and problems facing Egypt. I did not tell them “everything is perfect back home.” Egyptian expats are well aware of the problems plaguing their country, and they realize the importance of the projects that the state is seeking to implement. In all my travels, I can feel the expats’ interest in the news related to the Egyptian army and its heroic stories, which clearly reflects their patriotism.

Al-Monitor:  Can you give us details about your proposal to exempt Egyptian expats from customs on cars?

Makram:  A committee was formed of people from the customs authority, the Industry Industry, the Trade and Industry Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Central Bank, and we decided in a meeting to exempt expats from customs on one car per family once in a lifetime. We benefited from the experience of Arab countries in the field as we held a meeting with representatives of the embassies of Morocco and Tunisia, and we announced the idea. But it still needs a legislative amendment, and it will be submitted to the Cabinet and then the parliament. Expats suggested making a US dollar deposit, but we asked them to make their transfers through legitimate channels and national banks.

Al-Monitor:  Can you give us details about the Egyptian Scientists Abroad conference being prepared by your ministry for mid-December to take advantage of Egyptian expatriates’ expertise?

Makram:  The Ministry of Immigration aims to take advantage of the Egyptians and our scientists abroad. We have been recently cooperating with important TV shows that pay attention to Egyptian scientists abroad, such as the “Egypt Can” program by Ahmed Faiq, a distinguished media figure who is making a remarkable effort. And a protocol of cooperation has been prepared with Al-Nahar TV, where the program is broadcast, in the presence of Faiq, the chairman of the channel’s board of directors; Alaa al-Kahki; and the head of the channel, Albert Shafik. All of the scientists were invited to the conference and were given a copy of the state’s projects in order to benefit from their experience. The Suez Canal will be the first item on the agenda of this conference, to be held on Dec. 15-16 with the participation of 32 Egyptian scientists living abroad.

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