The current economic crisis in Egypt has pushed thousands of simple and marginalized people to leave their country in search of the unknown in Libya, while ignoring the warnings of authorities. There are no official estimates for the numbers of Egyptians who left for Libya, as most of them infiltrated across the border with the help of mediators on both sides.
The last couple of months witnessed a series of incidents ranging from truck detainments, the abduction of several members of the Egyptian Embassy and the abduction of Christians and the murder of others. Militias also targeted Egyptians in Libya after the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi. This gave the impression that the [Libyan] militias wanted to put the new regime in Egypt in an awkward position.
The situation of Egyptians in Libya has always depended on warm relations between past leaders Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi. In addition, after the February 17 Revolution, which toppled the Gadhafi regime, Egyptians hoped that their situation would improve [in Libya] and that safer opportunities to make ends meet would open up. But, their dreams [quickly] turned into nightmares with the outbreak of the civil war in Libya.
With the escalation of the armed conflict in Libya, Cairo attempted to evacuate the Egyptians who were stuck at the borders with Tunisia and Algeria. However, only about 20,000 Egyptians were able to return to Egypt, according to official estimates. This is a relatively low number compared with the [number of] Egyptians in Libya, who exceed 2 million.
To tackle this, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry declared a travel ban to Libya a month ago. ... Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel Ati confirmed that the warning issued by his ministry regarding the travel ban to Libya still holds. He reiterated his warnings to Egyptians working in Libya against being present in the conflict’s hotspots. Ati also noted that there are almost daily calls [made] with the Libyan parliament to ensure the protection of the Egyptian diaspora in Libya. But, in reality, the Libyan parliament cannot control what is happening on the ground. On the contrary, its facilities are constantly being attacked by opposing groups.
Ati warned Egyptians against gathering at the Ras Ajdir crossing [with Tunisia] because it's a danger zone in Libyan territory. He pointed out that recent efforts contributed to the evacuation of about 20,000 Egyptians from this crossing, not to mention others who were taken back through the Salloum port. An Egyptian diplomatic source affirmed that the Egyptian authorities “have accurately determined the number of Egyptians working in Libya."
He said the fact that many people travel without official papers contributes to inaccurate information about the Egyptian diaspora in Libya and the spots where they reside. The source said most Egyptians working in Libya have joined big companies, especially in the construction field. On the other hand, the daily wage workers have mostly returned to Egypt.
Regarding the Egyptian stance on reopening its embassy in Libya, the source told Al-Hayat that the [number of] staff working in the embassy’s headquarters in Tripoli is limited. “There’s no intention to allow the Egyptian ambassador to return to Libya before the dust settles and security stabilizes,” the source added.
The Libyan ambassador to Cairo, Mohammed Fayez Gebrayel, told Al-Hayat that granting visas to Egyptians stopped a few weeks ago, saying, “We are making calls with Egypt about the affairs of Egyptians in Libya. It is not possible that the Egyptian government is evacuating Egyptians from Libyan territory, while we grant visas from Cairo. This is an additional burden on Egypt and on the Tunisian state, which is suffering due to the influx of displaced people to the Ras Ajdir outlet.”
He pointed out that the decision to halt visas does not apply to humanitarian and exceptional cases. When asked about the opening and closing mechanism of the Salloum port, the ambassador said that it is the Egyptian government which determines this mechanism and opens and shuts down the port based on security conditions, but what he can say is that “the Salloum port is not working all the time and is not permanently closed.”
He added that the Salloum port is commercially essential for Libya, and that there are ongoing contacts between the Libyan and Egyptian sides in order to facilitate cooperation there. He praised the daily efforts exerted by the Egyptian government in cooperation with Libya to stop arms smuggling and monitor the border.
The ambassador explained that Egypt's contribution to the establishment and training of the Libyan army has already begun, and there are Libyan soldiers studying and training in Egypt, but this will take considerable time and effort.
Ambassador Maasoum Marzouk, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said that the majority of the Egyptian community in Libya is located in areas that are far from the conflict. Egyptians have interacted with the tribes in control of those areas and have [developed] economic and often familial links and are therefore safe from the armed conflict. Marzouk stressed the need for Egypt to cooperate with Libya's neighboring countries and play a bigger role so as not to be surprised by a new Somalia on its borders.
For his part, political science professor Amr Hamzawy said there is a need to “unite efforts in a bid to save the Egyptians working in Libya and help them resume their lives.” He called for civil society organizations and relief societies to play a role, as Egyptians in Libya mainly work in farming and simple crafts. Their collective return to the homeland means the loss of savings, the loss of tangible factors of livelihood and considerable personal and psychological pressure. Hamzawy also called on the political forces and parties as well as the private sector to set up psychological and vocational rehabilitation programs, develop employment programs and create job opportunities for returnees from Libya.
The Egyptian presence in Libya has raised questions about the relationship between the Egyptians with the parties to the conflict there. A spokesman for the Libyan army, Col. Mohammad Hejazi, told Al-Hayat that the Egyptians in Libya are not part of the battle with terrorism there, and pointed out that the reports from armed brigades about the cooperation of Egyptian labor in Libya with the army against those battalions is an attempt to tarnish Egypt's reputation as a state and involve it in the conflict in Libya.
Hejazi further told Al-Hayat: “The opposite is true, as the armed brigades in Libya are working with extremist groups in Egypt in order to carry out operations against the Egyptian army and against the Libyan national army.” He pointed out that the “Egyptian forces have recently thwarted inside Egyptian territory several operations that extremists in Libya were involved in.”
Ramzi al-Romaih, the former adviser to the Cyrenaica government, said that the Egyptians are specifically distributed between Tripoli, which is controlled by the terrorist Islamic battalions, and Benghazi, which is controlled by troops loyal to Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter. He pointed out to Al-Hayat that the operations recently carried out against Egyptian Christians in Libya were sponsored by regional and international intelligence to place pressure on the Egyptian government and embarrass it to make it seem unable to protect its citizens.
Apart from the statements made by officials in the two countries, the sit-in of dozens of Egyptians during the last few days in front of the Libyan Embassy in Cairo to demand visas to Libya, while showing indifference to the enormous dangers of the trip, has clearly shown the dilemma facing the new government in Egypt. There are no quick solutions to the problem [faced by] Egyptian workers in Libya, that’s for sure. Their presence has become a source of danger to their lives, while their return raises an economic obstacle.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly