Egyptian workers queue up for Libyan rebuilding

Giovanna Dall'Ora, Sunday 26 Feb 2012

Thousands of would-be workers are flocking to Libya's embassy in Zamalek but new security and health checks are making it tougher than before to secure visas

Egyptian workers
Desperately seeking employment (Photo: Reuters)

When the Libyan embassy in central Cairo was besieged by crowds this time last year it was in the form of bitter protests against the brutal four-decade rule of the country's eccentric dictator.

Now, after a nine-month civil war that ended with Muammar Gaddafi in a desert grave and Tripoli in the hands of NATO-backed rebels, the crowds have returned to stand vigil outside this colonial-era villa in the upscale enclave of Zamalek. 
But this time would-be workers have replaced demonstators. 
As the rebuilding of Libya begins, thousands of Egyptians have joined the queues as they try to garner permission to work in their country's western neighbour.
Around 8,000 Egyptian passports currently sit inside the embassy, their owners waiting for a vital visa stamp that could determine their economic future and that of their families.
"Many of these people are supporting families back home in Egypt, so they are also helping the domestic economy," said Mr Ali Ali, a Libyan businessman in the Zamalek crowd. He had flown to Cairo to arrange visas for his Egyptian employees.
Before the Libyan uprising, around 1.5 million Egyptians lived and worked in Libya, according to estimates from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which claims they sent home annual remittances worth around $33 million.
With official unemployment at 12.4 per cent -- and the real figure no doubt much higher -- Egyptians need all the jobs they can get. Libya, like the Gulf Arab nations, has traditionally helped soak up part of Egypt's labour force, providing jobs in the oil, manufacturing and service industries. 
For the most part, it was a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Egyptian labour has become indispensable for Libya, carrying out essential roles in the Libyan economy,” Pasquale Lupoli, regional director IOM told Ahram Online last year.
Although reliable figures have been hard to come by, less than half of Egypt's workers in Libya are thought to have fled, even during the worst of the fighting. 
During the battle for Tripoli in late-August, Egyptians helped man the few hotels open to journalists; while in the partially-levelled city of Sirte in December, Ahram Online met Egyptian labourers who had remained in the city throughout its bombardment.
As early as September 2011, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Egyptians were returning to work there, IOM said.
It's a different story with migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom were evacuated and whose return is unlikely given the treatment meted out by victorious rebel forces. 
With the fall of Tripoli, the capital's remaining black Africans found themselves accused of being Gaddafi-paid mercenaries by rebel forces. Many were rounded up and held in makeshift prisons, in actions roundly condemned by Amnesty International.
Egyptians may traditionally been the single-biggest migrant worker group in Libya but they are now the most likely to suffer from a new set of rules that complicate the granting of visas.
Applicants from Egypt now have to take health tests and submit to security examinations at the Libyan embassy before they can qualify of a visa with one month validity. Once in the country, this can be extended up to six months by their future employer.
Health exams are relatively straightforward; it is the security checks that show how Libya has changed.
With Gaddafi-loyalists still operating in parts of Libya, the country's ruling National Transitional Council, wants to make sure its foreign labour force has no connection to the old regime.
Workers with origins in the Egyptian governorates of Minya and Fayoum are reportedly coming in for special investigation, following claims the regions have ties to the Gaddafi tribe.
But those who do eventually qualify for a Libyan visa stand to gain a great deal, with average labourer wages in this oil-rich country having surged in the aftermath of the war, in what may be a bid to tempt back wary workers.
"Before the revolution, the daily wage was an average of 10 dinars ($8)," businessman Ali Ali said. "Now it is more like 50 dinars ($45)." 
Many employers are now buying return tickets for their workers as an added incentive, he said.
In short, Egyptians may face added checks before they can once again work in Libya, but their outlook looks better than for others who aspire to work there.
Seif, another Libyan businessman queuing at the embassy, said that Libya's insecure borders meant that workers from sub-Saharan Africa were likely to return, albeit illegally if they were unable to get permission.
Like many other Libyans, Saif spoke of a great affinity with his Arab neighbour, a country whose ousting of Hosni Mubarak helped inspire their own uprising just a week later.
"We and Egyptians -- we feel we are one country," he said. "They are reliable and we have the same mentality."
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