Anticipation, relief and fear at Cairo Airport as Egyptians fleeing Libya return

Zeinab El-Gundy , Wednesday 4 Mar 2015

Ahram Online speaks with Egyptians returning from Libya about their experience in the war-torn country

Egyptians landing on Egypt's air port back from Libya (Photo: Ashraf Elhadidi)

At Cairo International Airport's terminal one, a small group of people, mostly from outside Cairo, waited anxiously for hours in the small arrival Hall 2. Mostly men, they moved around the hall asking airport officials when their relatives returning from Libya would come out of the gate.

They were relatives of Egyptian workers returning from Libya through Tunisia. It was the third flight that day from Djerba in Tunisia where Egyptian expatriates located in west Libya are transferred after arriving at the Ras Ajadir border crossing between Libya and Tunisia.

As soon the captain of the Egypt Air flight appeared in the arrival hall, he was surrounded by worried relatives asking whether their relatives were on his flight.

Calming them down, the captain politely told them that he could not remember all the names of the 250 passengers but they would return home eventually.

Nearly 5,600 Egyptians have arrived home from Libya through Tunisia with average of 800 Egyptians per day over the past two weeks.

Umm Mohamed, a mother in her early 20s, came from Sharkiya in the Nile Delta with her two children and two cousins to await the return of her husband, a construction worker.

"He called me earlier today and told me that he arrived in Tunisia at 12pm and he would come back home tonight," she told Ahram Online.

Umm Mohamed's husband Hassan was working in the city of Misrata when he decided to come back to Egypt in fear of his life. "It took him three days to travel from Misrata to Tunisia," she said.

"He could not stay there anymore, it was dangerous after what happened to the Egyptians in Sirte," she said.

In February a militia affiliated with Islamic State group in Libya published an extremely graphic video showing the beheading of 20 Egyptian Christian workers kidnapped 45 days earlier in the city of Misrata, the bloodiest attack of its kind against Egyptian expats in Libya.

In retaliation, Egypt conducted air strikes against the IS-affiliated group in the city of Derna while the Egyptian regime expressed its full support for the Tobruk-based government, describing it as a "the only legitimate government" in Libya.

At the same time Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ordered the evacuation of Egyptian expats in Libya to ensure their safety.

On 19 February, Egyptian authorities began to transport Egyptian expats in western Libya who had crossed the border into Tunisia.

Since then Egypt Air has transfered Egyptian workers from Djerba Airport, the closest one to the Ras Ajadir border crossing.

Naguib Ali, the manager of Djerba airport, said: "We do not have a fixed schedule for the flights to Cairo as they are arranged by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Tunisian authorities according to the number of Egyptian expats arriving at Ras Ajadir.”

Tunisian press has already stated that the authorities from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia agreed that not more than 1,000 Egyptians would be allowed to travel though the airport, to avoid overcrowding.

On the other hand, more than 27,000 Egyptian expats have returned from eastern Libya through the Salloum border crossing since 14 February, according to Egyptian officials.

Ahram Online approached one of the expats who had arrived on an earlier flight to ask him about his trip, about what he saw and the situation of other Egyptian expats in Libya, but he refused to speak. "Sorry I won't speak, I do not want to cause them [Egyptian expats in Libya] any trouble," he said, despite other men urging him to speak to the press.

Other expats were openly speaking about their experiences over the past two weeks.

Osama and his wife arrived on the morning flight. Looking tired, the couple waited for their friends coming on the next flight. "I have worked and lived in Libya since 2005, the people are good there," Osama said. The man in his early thirties is originally from Sohag, Upper Egypt and worked in a shop in Tripoli.

"There are other Egyptians staying and they do not want to come back. They are fine and there is no threat to them," said Osama.

After waiting for almost two and a half hours the Egyptian expats began to show up in groups carrying just a few possessions.

A rumour spread that four injured men from Minya were on the flight. "The militants shot them while they were leaving the country but they are fine now," an expat told the people waiting outside.

"It was like hell there over the past three weeks," Ayman Rashad, a 32-year-old expat from Assiut governorate, Upper Egypt told Ahram Online

Ayman used to work in a ceramics factory in Tajoura, north-west Tripoli.

Egyptian expats work in different fields in Libya but recently there has been a huge demand for workers in the construction sector. Thousands of Egyptian workers, especially from rural Upper Egypt villages, work in the construction sector in the war-torn country. 

Describing how he and other Egyptian workers suffered from harassment after the killing of the workers and the Egyptian air strikes, Rashad believes that the Egyptian government should have found a way to bring back all the workers from Libya as soon as possible.

"The building where I was staying with other Egyptians was once raided by militants searching for Christians but the building owner refused to hand them over," he said, recounting similar incidents taking place in the Egyptian community gathering places in the past few months.

Rashad and 50 other expats were detained by Fajr Libya [Libya's dawn] troops for three days while on their way to Tunisia but they were released after negotiations with Egyptian intelligence, he said.

Following the Egyptian airstrikes on Sirte, the Islamist led-militia Fajr Libya, which controls Tripoli and a number of western Libya cities, warned Egyptian expats to leave the country.

"The danger does not only come from Libya Dawn forces because other militant groups set up checkpoints on the roads forcing us to pay money to pass," he said, describing how he paid already nearly LE1,000 to return to Egypt.

Emad Fahmy and his cousins Mohamed and Alaa Abdel Kawy were in El-Zawaya, Tripoli. The young men were working in a bakery when they had to leave.

While putting their few belonging in a taxi to hit the road to their hometown of Beheira, Nile Delta, the three young men told Ahram Online that they did not want to leave.

"We were earning good money there as bakers and people were nice and nobody harassed us but we had to return because our family is concerned for our safety," Fahmy told Ahram Online.

"The nagging did not stop until we returned after one hell of a trip from Tripoli to Tunisia where we lost our documents and mobile phones," said Mohamed Abdel-Kawy angrily. "I wonder if we can find a job now in Egypt," he said.

That concern about finding a job is echoed by other expats.

"I am a father of four children, I passed an exam to become a low-ranking police officer but they [the government] never appointed me so I travelled to Libya enduring all the hardships but now I am back with no job," said Ayman Rashad.

"There are thousands of Egyptians in Libya who refuse to leave because of money. The government should help us," he added.

Egyptian Minister of Manpower Nahed El-Ashry said in an official statement issued last month that the Egyptian government will provide 30,000 job opportunities for expats coming back from Libya. Earlier this week the ministry stated that the expats will be compensated financially.

There is no official number for Egyptian expats in Libya as many of them travel illegally, but according to officials at the Ministry of Manpower the numbers range between 800,000 and 1,000,000.

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