Skip to main content

Egyptians in Libya choose 'bread' over life

Thousands of workers in Libya now face the daily question of whether to leave or stay in a country sinking deeper into chaos
Recruiters are having a tough time finding workers for Libya since Islamic State issued a video showing the brutal beheading of Egyptian Christians there (AFP)

CAIRO - Applicants flocked to and filled the rooms of Suhail, one of many firms in Egypt's middle-class neighbourhood of Dokki recruiting citizens abroad. The queuing men mostly sought jobs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and even Europe, but none wanted to work in Libya, a country Suhail claims to be among the few firms recruiting for.

"The last application we had for Libya was around two months ago," said Ahmed, one of the firm's employees escorting mostly unemployed Egyptians to supposedly greener pastures abroad. "Before that, we had dozens of applications [for Libya] per week."

The abrupt halt to Suhail’s business in the restive country came around the same time news broke of Egyptians being abducted by the Islamic State (IS) there. On 15 February, the militant group issued a video showing the brutal beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts.

Since then, the Egyptian government has gone to lengths to bring back citizens from its war-torn neighbour. Thousands have made it back safely. Authorities even banned citizens from going next door. However, even while new abductions have allegedly taken place in Libya, many more Egyptians refuse to come back home.

With unemployment in the double-digits in Egypt, reaching 13.1 percent in the latest official figures, and inflation hovering around 10 percent, thousands of Egyptians prefer to stay in Libya where the average income per person is almost four times the value at home.

This, as well as the abundance of working opportunities, has kept the oil-producing country an attractive destination for those hunting for jobs, even as it has sunk deeper in violent chaos that began with the 2011 revolution against its long-serving leader Muammar Gaddafi.

'Life or bread?'

Through all of the violence, Egyptian worker Mohamed Abduljawad refuses to leave Libya.

"I'm faced with two options: one where I make a good living until I get killed, which may not happen; and the other where I safely live but with no job and cannot find bread to eat," Abduljawad told Middle East Eye.

"So between life and bread? I choose bread."

The house painter of 27 years first arrived to Libya in 2013, and although he lives in the central coastal city of Sirte, where the slain Egyptians were kidnapped, he says it is best to stay.

IS, which has large patches of Iraq and Syria under its control, is one of many armed groups that have found a foothold in Libya.

The crisis began when armed tribes who helped bring Gaddafi down demanded more power and larger stakes of the country's oil. Mutiny snowballed into a civil war, where two opposing governments fought over power amid rampant violence and swelling extremism.

The Islamist cabinet based in the capital Tripoli along with some of the armed factions accuse Egypt of backing a renegade general who took on the fight against militant extremists. General Khalifa Haftar is an ally of the internationally recognised government in Tobruk, and Egypt's stand has made it a target of attacks by militant groups such as IS.

In November, an explosion near the Egyptian embassy did little damage. Then, on 21 February, multiple blasts killed six Egyptians and injured 36. IS, claiming responsibility for the attack, said it was in retaliation to Egyptian air raids on the group’s stronghold in the eastern city of Derna following the release of the video.

More money in war

Abduljawad explained that there are countless opportunities for the thousands of Egyptians remaining in Libya, and that the war has created even more jobs.

"When I first arrived, the rate for painting one meter was two Libyan dinars (11.7 Egyptian pounds). Now, it's four," he said. "This means that a labourer could work on one house and go on sabbatical for a year."

"And now, with the destruction, many homes need rebuilding or fixing and fewer hands are available to do the work. Who leaves all this and flees?"

Free movement across Egypt-Libyan borders, secured by agreements signed in 1991 following a period political standoff between the neighbours, meant Egyptians only needed a valid ID card for the trip. This helped thousands of them, mostly farmers and low-skilled workers, to freely go back and forth, depending on their needs.

The limited constraints at the border crossing encouraged illegal immigration from Egypt and, along with Libya's inadequate efforts to keep tabs on its foreign community, exact numbers of Egyptians who have crossed the borders are unavailable.

Official statements have put the current number of Egyptians in Libya to be anywhere from 1.5 million (according to the State Information Service) to 250,000 people (a rough estimate given by the head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics to the local al-Masry al-Yaum newspaper).

Evacuation

Throughout Libya's years of unrest, Egypt had at times intensified measures to evacuate citizens vying to escape, either through the Salloum border crossing, or via Tunisia, Libya's western neighbour.

Egypt, among other nations, pulled its diplomatic mission from Tripoli over the summer. On 31 July, an emergency airlift was set up between Tunisia's Djerba International Airport and the Cairo International Airport. According to reports, 40,000 Egyptians workers came home via Tunisia in 2014.

On the wake of IS's video, thousands more have returned. Phone calls made to the spokesperson of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior to confirm reported figures went unanswered.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel Aty told Middle East Eye (MEE): "Egyptians are asked to take caution at all times, stay in safe areas, and only those facing real threat are asked to leave."

To many Copts, the taped murder of 21 men was a clear message to run.

Malak Shukry, whose brother Youssef was among those slain, said Christians he knew had all returned. Thirteen out of the 20 slain Copts were from his impoverished village of al-Our in Upper Egypt.

"Youssef tried to come back but couldn't make it. What happened made everyone from here, especially Christians, stop at nothing to return," Shukry told MEE.

Abduljawad agreed. Describing how his mornings in Sirte often included parades of dozens of SUV vehicles carrying countless masked IS fighters, or the arrival of convoys of fighters belonging to Libya Dawn, another armed faction, he said all Christian workers had left.

"But for us, as long as the [fighters'] attitude hasn't changed, we're staying," he added.

Egyptian Copts have also fled even the relatively calmer capital, which has been under the control of Libya Dawn since August 2014.

Mohamed Fawzi, who works as a storekeeper in Tripoli, says a church nearby has shut down.

'Egypt is not much better'

Fawzi also refuses to leave, despite Libya Dawn giving Egyptians 48 hours to leave "for their safety". Noting that his salary in Libya is about 10 times what he earned in Egypt, he also said Egypt's security situation is another reason for him not to return.

He explained that Libya Dawn fighters check papers of any Egyptians they come across, and only those with incorrect papers get in trouble. Walking alone without the company of a Libyan is also unsafe, he said.

Opposing Egypt's airstrikes against militias in Libya, Fawzi said the government "took sides in a war it had nothing to do with, risking Egyptians' livelihood and lives."

"I won't lie and claim I'm not scared. But let's face it: Egypt's security situation is not much better," he said from Tripoli.

Fawzi said he's a hardcore fan of Egypt's Zamalek football team and could have been one of over 22 Egyptians who died in a stampede as they waited to attend a game, a week before IS released its video. Egypt's security forces are accused of being involved in their deaths.

"If I die here I'd be honoured by my government and treated as a martyr. Those who died in front of the stadium were dubbed thugs and accused of treason," Fawzi said.

He explained that his mother's fear for his safety may be the only reason to consider returning home. But he quickly added: "Had I been one of those Zamalek fans who died, she would've dealt not only with my death, but also my unjustly smeared reputation."

"It could've been me," said Fawzi. "I could be among those who died back home."