Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Third Exodus in Modern History: Why So Many Egyptians Are Leaving Home?

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Egyptian protesters in downtown Cairo during a clash with police after the security forces dispersed protesters from a demonstration organized by human rights group “No Military Trials for Civilians” in the first unauthorized protest staged in the capital since the adoption of a law that regulates demonstrations. November 26, 2013. Photo AFP

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has used migration concerns to convince the West to support him politically and financially and turn a blind eye to his brutal human rights record. Since he came to power in a military coup in mid-2013, tens of thousands of Egyptians have fled the country to escape the widespread state-sanctioned abuse.

In an interview with Portuguese Television in November 2016, al-Sisi said, “The population of Egypt is 92 million, which is more than the population of Syria, Iraq and Libya combined. So, imagine if things get out of control and imagine the size of illegal immigration and the number of victims who will suffer locally and globally as a result.”

He repeated this warning at every opportunity, including during meetings with Western leaders. He even used it to threaten Italy after the murder of researcher Giulio Regeni, allegedly by Egypt’s security services, heightened tensions between the two countries.

What al-Sisi has failed to mention is that his policies have been a major contributor to the exodus. In July 2018, the South Korean government decided to scrap visa-free entry for Egyptians and introduce a pre-entry visa following a dramatic increase in the number of asylum applications from Egyptians. According to the Ministry of Justice, more than 40 per cent of asylum applications filed between January and May 2018 were from Egyptians, a figure only surpassed by Pakistanis and Chinese. The ministry added that most of the applicants were men in their 20s and 30s.

One of these asylum seekers is Ahmed Samir, who arrived in South Korea in February 2016. “I was arrested from my house in Cairo and after a period of enforced disappearance inside the premises of one of the security services, the public prosecution charged me with protesting and joining the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt. The police said that they arrested me from the site of a demonstration staged by the group demanding the return of President Mohamed Morsi,” Ahmed explained.

“I was temporarily released on remand. Less than a month ago, I stood before a passport officer at Borg al-Arab airport in Alexandria, north of Cairo, where I explained to him that I was travelling to complete the arrangements of my marriage with a Korean lady, and I made up the name of the Korean lady and her Facebook account using pictures by a Korean artist. Also, I made conversations with her to introduce her to the officer. In addition, I showed the officer some of the gifts that I bought, including a woman’s nightshirt that I took out of the bag and showed to the officer, who let me leave without caring about my identity.”

After arriving in South Korea, Samir said he was sentenced to five years in prison in the same case. “Despite that bitterness, I felt comfortable in Korea and thought that I would live a new life here. However, after a while I felt that a large part of me is still in Egypt and I wanted to return to Egypt again, especially after the Korean government stepped up harassment against asylum seekers and deported many of them, and after other asylum seekers started to flee to other countries out of fear of deportation to Egypt.”

Another young man named Khalil (not his real name) fled to the United Kingdom, where he was granted political asylum in London. He said he left Egypt because he was a leading member of a political movement. “I was arrested twice in December 2015 in anticipation of my participation in one of the demonstrations, and in April 2016 I was arrested during the demonstrations objecting to ceding the Egyptian islands of Tiran and Sanafir [to Saudi Arabia],” he said. “As a result, I was dismissed from my job, and after attempts to set up my own project, security services closed it down although it was my only source of income.”

He added, “I went out of Egypt in March 2017 to one of the Arab countries in search of safety and a decent living, but the Egyptian embassy requested that I be deported to Egypt, which resulted in the cancellation of my official residence permit. So, I fled to Europe in search of safety, because I was afraid of returning to Egypt where I expected to be put in prison for a long time, and recently my asylum application for England was accepted.”

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 3,061 Egyptians were granted asylum in the United Kingdom between 2013 and 2018, compared to 535 between 1988 and 2012.

Activist Hind Nafi fled to the United States after being sentenced to 25 years in prison for participating in a demonstration. She first took part in a sit-in in front of the parliament building in December 2011. The demonstration was dispersed by the army. Hind was dragged along the ground and assaulted with sticks and other objects. She was then pulled by her hair into the building of the Shura Council where she was tortured with electric shocks and threatened with having her faced disfigured with a knife and forced to make a confession. Photos released after the ordeal showed Nafi’s body covered in bruises and other injuries.

She was then charged with around 230 other young people with ‘attacking security forces with bricks and Molotov cocktails, burning the Scientific Complex, destroying public property, provoking riots and chaos on the street and possessing weapons’. In February 2015, she was sentenced to 25 years in prison. This was when she fled, using the fact that Cairo airport does not have the names of everyone with a preliminary court ruling to get past border control. She first flew to Lebanon before settling in the United States. She hopes she will be able to return to her homeland one day.

In an interview with Fanack, Ibrahim Haji, an Egyptian researcher resident in Italy who works for a non-governmental organization concerned with immigration and refugee assistance, said, “There are too many Egyptians who have fled Egypt since al-Sisi came to power, and many of them were thinkers and creative people who were fully prepared to build Egypt but preferred to leave it for fear of their lives and security.”

He said that many Egyptians in Italy returned to Egypt after the January 2011 revolution but have since left again to escape the oppression and poor economic conditions. “They would rather live in the inferno of Italy than in the paradise of Egypt in the era of al-Sisi.”

He added: “I have been working in this field for a long time, and the main nationalities known for their applications for political asylum in Italy are those coming from Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia. Later, the number of Syrians and Libyans increased, but since mid-2013, Egyptians have become one of the biggest nationalities seeking asylum in Italy, and we have started to allocate large places within refugee camps for Egyptians, including Islamists and non-Islamists who are interested in politics, and for Christians too.

Moreover, entire families came to seek refuge from the economic hell in Egypt. Surprisingly, Italy agreed to grant them humanitarian asylum, and Italy’s airports became an outlet for asylum seekers in transit, including some whose asylum applications were rejected in Korea and others who fled from Egypt directly. Many others came under the pretext of studying. Although Italy is known for its poor quality of education, studying there was one of the means used by young people to travel to Italy and seek asylum there.”

According to the UNHCR, 9,079 Egyptians were granted asylum in Italy between 2013 and 2018, compared to only 585 between 1980 and 2012.

A study prepared by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information on the Egyptian diaspora after the January revolution described recent events as the third exodus of Egyptians in modern history, the first occurring after the 1952 coup and the second under the late President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. The third exodus followed the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, was extended during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and has been severely aggravated by al-Sisi.

Khalid Fahmy, an Egyptian historian, described the exodus as a form of exile: “With the passage of time and the consolidation of the concepts of patriotism and citizenship, it has become illegal to issue verdicts of banishment or exile against the Egyptians. Even successive Egyptian constitutions have categorically prohibited exile. It is saddening to see exile de facto being practised against the Egyptians in the present time.

Such dangerous transformation has not taken place as a result of constitutional amendments or the enforcement of laws that allowed for what had been prohibited in the past, but rather the outcome of the state’s recent practices with the clear purpose of placing restrictions on the public, confiscating political action and raising the cost of practicing politics.”