13 March 2011
When the Libyan revolution started Seif al-Islam Muaamer al-Qaddafi threw the blame for the unrest on the Egyptians and Tunisians, and threatened them with outright war. This sparked panic among the Egyptians in Libya, especially after the attacks and drove thousands of them to head home to Egypt.
The land road to Salloum, the frontier town on the Egyptian Libyan border, was the obvious choice of many heading home. The shortage of fuel, however, posed a major problem. Those who were able to secure passage through coaches reached the no man’s land between Egypt and Libya and had to continue by foot or taxi—if and when available—to Salloum. Once there, the Egyptian authorities had made provision for transportation to Alexandria. The Egyptian Armed Forces set up a number of field hospitals and lodging camps near the border for the benefit of the homecoming Egyptians.
Most Egyptians arrived at Salloum in the evening, since they had to leave the eastern cities in the early morning for fear of the shooting that goes on there all night. Having fled Libya in a rush, they had had to leave behind most of their belongings. “Terror was written all over their faces,” one border official said.
According to the figures of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, 3 million Egyptians were earning a living in Libya before the revolution, but only one million were registered with the Egyptian Embassy there. Apart from those who fled Libya through Salloum, Egyptian authorities arranged with their Tunisian counterparts to allow Egyptians access to Tunisian soil so that those on the western parts of Libya may be able to leave through Tunisia. It was also arranged with Greek and Italian ships to pick up Egyptians wishing to go home from Libyan ports.
Egyptians unable to reach border points were asked to keep to the [relative] safety of their homes.
Riding the storm
Back home in Egypt, each had a story to tell. Emad Wissa, an oil industry technician in his thirties, told Watani, “When it became obvious there would be unrest for some time to come and that, as foreigners our situation was precarious, many of us decided to leave. We needed to go to the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli, which was in itself a feat since the street the embassy is in was besieged.
“We then headed to the airport where we found some 3000 Egyptians waiting their turn to leave. We were told we wouldn’t be able to leave before a week, so we went back home where large numbers of us huddled in one flat seeking security and reassurance in numbers.
“A few days later we were able to leave through the Tunisian border. By the time we reached the border,” he said, “we had been stripped of all money, cell phones, and personal belongings at the Libyan customs. But in Tunisia, he confirmed, we were received very cordially and treated well by the Tunisian authorities and people. We were offered food and shelter until we boarded, free of charge, the EgyptAir flight which took us home.”
It was some seven years since Wissa first made it into Libya. “After I graduated in Egypt and spent two jobless years, I came to Libya together with my brother to seek a better livelihood. Until we were able to work we, like countless Egyptians, found refuge in the Coptic Church in Libya, which accommodated us and helped us find jobs. It must be said the Church there plays a very active role in welcoming newcomers and helping them find jobs.”
Wissa, who was working for seven years in an oil company and felt he had been well established in Libya, said he was not looking forward to joining the ranks of the unemployed in Egypt, especially given the current economic situation. Like many of his Egyptian friends in Libya, he said, he had been willing to ride the storm there, but the concern of and pressure by his family in Egypt made him rush home.
Nothing to do
“Libyans are very kind and warm hearted”, said Bahaa Wissa, Emad’s brother who was working for seven years in the garment trade in Tripoli, and owns a shop there. Bahaa Wissa told Watani that Libyans are very honest people and that old Tripoli, where he used to live and work, was so safe that at times he could leave his shop open and go. He said he had to sell his shop in a rush and leave. He left the remaining merchandise and account list with a Libyan neighbour for him to handle any loose ends. “Now I am back in Egypt, with nothing to do but sit under the shade of my grandfather’s tree, waiting for my mother to call me in for lunch”, he lamented.
Mohamed Diab another Egyptian who had lived and worked in Libya said that there was absolutely no security there any longer. Now that all communication was cut, he explained, Egyptians in Libya live in constant terror, especially after it was rumoured that Egyptians were killing Libyans. “We have taken off the Egyptian licence plates from our cars,” said Diab. Tripoli Airport is the only airport that receives EgyptAir flights, and reaching it is very hazardous, he explained.
Until Watani International went to press, some 167,000 Egyptians had returned from Libya.