CAIRO, Egypt — It’s easy to spot Egyptians returning from Libya at the Cairo airport. They come through the doors of the arrival hall almost at a run, one carrying a plastic bag, another a small backpack, eyes down, not scanning the crowd for a familiar face. Most are from Upper Egypt or the Delta region and their families are a long way from the capital. Some arrive in groups from the same village or town in Egypt, and many wear the long brown or gray cotton robe commonly worn in rural areas, dusty after days spent on the Libya-Tunisia border.
Libya’s two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, have seen heavy fighting among rival militias in the last few weeks, and daily life has “stopped,” according to an official at the Libyan embassy in Cairo who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Over the last 11 days the Egyptian government has sent 47 planes to the Tunisian border with Libya, sometimes up to seven flights per day, to bring back thousands of Egyptian workers stranded there fleeing the fighting near the Libyan capital. 11,500 Egyptians have been airlifted back to Cairo from Libya’s western border and thousands more have crossed over land near Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi. Despite these large numbers, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bader Abdel-Ati has called for calm: “We are not asking them to be evacuated,” he insists, but “we are asking them to be cautious.” He says the government is bringing “only those who are not comfortable” back to Egypt.
According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2010 there were anywhere from 330,000 to 1.5 million Egyptians in Libya, although that number has likely declined since then due to the deteriorating security situation. Most Egyptians go to Libya to pursue job opportunities, particularly in its large oil sector, and money from these jobs in the form of remittances flows into Egypt.
With a crisis on its eastern border in Gaza as well, Egypt is eager to minimize disruption and avoid panic. “Can you imagine one million people? To move all [of them], it would be a humanitarian disaster,” says Abdel-Ati.
Returning Egyptians report a harrowing scene at the Libya-Tunisia border where those who want to leave Libya wait, sometimes as long as 10 days, for a flight home. Though the migrants report that the International Red Cross is present to provide some relief, the Libyan authorities, they say, provide no food or water to those waiting in the scorching summer heat.
Clashes erupted on Aug. 1 when a large group of Egyptians and other migrant workers tried to storm the border and enter Tunisia. Ahmed Salim, 23, said that the Libyan authorities shot into the air and near the feet of Egyptian migrants. He also described an incident in which they drove a car at a group of Egyptians to frighten them.
Returning migrants report that those who were able to leave first were those who paid bribes on the Libyan side, anywhere from 90 to 200 Libyan dinars ($72-$160), and that their phones and other valuable belongings were often taken from them.
An official at the Libyan Embassy disputes these claims, asserting that all is well at the border, which he says is jointly administered by the Libyan army, representatives from the Libyan foreign ministry and Egyptian and Tunisian officials.
But France 24 captured a chaotic scene of the Aug. 1 attempted breach of the Tunisian border. The video shows men in uniform as well as in civilian clothes wielding weapons. Several Egyptians who have come back say that cameras are not allowed.
When asked about the ill treatment, Abdel-Ati said, “The good news is that they’re here; they came home alive.”
Abdelrahman Mohamed Ali, 40, who is from the Southern Egyptian province of Sohag, has worked in Libya on and off since 1992. He says that in the last month the treatment of Egyptians in Libya in general has gotten much worse.
“They insult us and say, ‘go back to your country,'" he says in a strong Upper Egyptian accent, adding that he was even pulled out of a line at a bakery by some local residents where he was waiting to buy bread.
He said it was not only the security situation that caused him to leave. The employment opportunities, which drew him to Libya in the first place, have almost all dried up.
“I’ve come back because there’s no work. There’s no security and there’s shooting in the streets … and even the banks are closed,” said a man from the Delta town of Mansoura who declined to give his name.
Egyptians are not the only ones fleeing Libya’s instability. In recent weeks hundreds of Thai, Bangladeshi and Vietnamese workers, as well as those of other nationalities and Libyans themselves, have been evacuated or fled.
As the violence has escalated, "how to survive in Libya" has become a new Internet meme with the hashtag #lysurvivaltips. Libyan Twitter users share suggestions such as “do not carry an ID showing your city of birth while driving,” in case you are stopped by a militia from a rival area, and “if you are caught in the middle of a gunfight, do not hide behind cars. Bullets can easily pass through doors.”
As the security situation worsens and work dries up, the economic toll will likely be felt in Egypt, a country already staggering with an official unemployment rate of 13.4 percent, while unofficial estimates are almost twice that number. Meanwhile its largest industry — tourism — has plummeted since the 2011 uprisings that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“Remittances have traditionally been ranked as third after the Suez Canal and tourism in Egypt as a contribution to overall GDP … [with] a lot of it coming from Libya,” says Tarek Radwan, associate director for research at the Rafik Hariri Center in Washington, DC.
Radwan says that though strong family and community networks will likely mean that Egyptian migrants returning home will have some support, “a number of these families were actually relying on the money that those people were bringing in and so … that’ll put additional stress on particular families.” He adds that in conjunction with the removal of subsidies and an increase in the price of gasoline and basic commodities, the influx of unemployed workers is likely to “increase a level of desperation.” And the problem may get worse before it gets better.
For the moment, Abdel-Ati says, he does not think there are any more Egyptians waiting at the border. But he says that is is very possible, if the violence in Libya continues, that more people will decide to leave, increasing the pressure on Egyptian families already struggling to makes ends meet.