Egyptians in Libya - to flee or to stay?

By Tom Westcott

IRIN Contributor 

The roundabouts in the Libyan capital of Tripoli have long been a place for Egyptians to find work. Every day, carpenters, builders, plumbers and decorators sit and wait, each man carrying the tools of his trade to make it easier for prospective employers.

Nowadays there are no Egyptians. Last week the Islamic State (IS) in Libya released a video showing the beheading of 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Ghanaian. Since then, over 25,000 Egyptians have returned, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while hundreds of detained irregular migrants have been released from jail. Egyptians have reported an uptick in attacks – at one roundabout, a Libyan man was shot dead for trying to prevent a group of men harassing Egyptian workers.

But for some, the prospect of returning to a life in poverty in their home country makes staying on in Libya’s warzone a risk they are willing to take.

Revenge and revenge again

Libya is split between two rival parliaments and governments – the internationally-recognised ones in the eastern towns of Tobruk and Beida, and rival breakaway institutions, led by the Libya Dawn movement in the capital Tripoli. 

The situation for Egyptians is worse in the west. The prime minister for the Tripoli-based government Omar Al-Hassi has urged all Egyptians to leave Libya, according to the state news agency LANA, admitting his government’s security authorities are unable to guarantee Egyptians’ safety. There are no firm figures for how many Egyptians are in Libya, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to over 100,000.

Bricklayer and tiler Hisham, who has lived in Tripoli for 23 years, said some 75 percent of the Egyptians he knew in the city had left since the release of the video. “It could have happened to any nation but now it has knocked at our door,” he said. “We have seen atrocities committed in Syria and Iraq and now we feel the same.” 

The brutal IS killing is believed to have taken place on the outskirts of the central town of Sirte, 280 miles from Tripoli, which is currently occupied by a group of Islamists who have declared loyalty to the so-called Islamic State (IS). The group has murdered Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq.

In retaliation for the killings, Egyptian planes bombed Derna - the first Libyan town overrun by IS forces. Egyptians of all religions in the country fear the move could provoke another wave of violence against their countrymen.

“There is a genuine fear of revenge and retribution and we know Libyans are under the same pressures as Egyptians, with warring factions,” Hisham said. “The fear of revenge is one of the reasons why many have left.”

Advocacy group Amnesty International warned in the aftermath of the IS video: “Civilians in Libya are in mortal danger as retaliatory attacks by all sides spiral even further out of control.”

The minister of Tripoli’s Anglican Church, the Reverend Eban Baskra Vasihar, said the release of the video had sent shockwaves through the whole Christian community, as well as ordinary Libyan families. “Most Libyans are very gentle people and are very upset about what happened.”

A few Egyptian Coptic Christians are among those choosing to stay. The last Coptic church closed last year, so its former congregation either worship in private or attend services in the other churches in the capital.

Among them is Amoun, who attends one of the three churches still open in Tripoli. He said he would not be scared away easily. “I have been living here for eight years, working in the oil industry, and the situation is good for me,” he said. “I have had no problems and I will stay here, although family and friends back home are putting pressure on me to leave.”

Those Egyptians who remain in the capital are keeping the lowest of profiles and Hisham said he would consider leaving if the situation got much worse and the supportive community in which he lives flees. The pre-revolution days of Qaddafi’s Libya are a fading memory. “We were the largest non-Libyan community here before the revolution,” he said. “But now we have become another minority, one under threat from many sides.”

Eastern towns, such as Tobruk, are considered slightly safer by Egyptians, who say there is little evidence of IS forces in the region. Hisham explained that, even as the Egyptian government encourages its citizens to return, hundreds of Egyptians continued to illegally cross the border into eastern Libya. “The reward of wages is still very tempting, especially for poor manual labourers,” he said.

The Egyptian economy has struggled since a 2011 uprising led to ongoing political chaos. While Libya, too, has been hit by chaos, wages are far higher in the oil-rich nation. “I’m not going,” said Ahmed, a fruit-seller in the eastern city of Benghazi. “Nothing is harder than living in Egypt with no money, food or shelter.” While fighting has raged in the city for the last six months, he has kept his stall open. “There is no life for me in Egypt,” he said.

Detention centre deal

Many Egyptian workers in Libya enter illegally. Those who do so risk being stopped at checkpoints from where, if they have no paperwork, they are taken to holding centres and undergo blood tests for Hepatitis and HIV. Those who test positive or who cannot produce adequate paperwork are transferred to one of the country’s 19 overcrowded detention centres, where conditions are grim.

One former detainee, Mohamed, said up to 90 migrants were crammed into one room in a centre where treatment “depended on the guards” and there was no medical care for those who fell sick. After visiting nine government detention centres last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said two should immediately be closed, citing torture, abuse and dire sanitation conditions. 

Yet in recent days the Tripoli-based government agreed to free Egyptians who had been detained for entering the country illegally.

When IRIN visited the Krareem detention centre in a former school on the outskirts of Misrata, hundreds of migrants sat cross-legged, cramped into a sandy courtyard. They were separated into two groups: 63 Egyptian detainees who were about to be freed, and several hundred Sub-Saharan Africans, who were not. Nervous about publicity, despite their imminent repatriation, some of the Egyptians waiting to board the coach hid their faces from cameramen, wrapping their heads in scarves.

“None of these men had visas, so they are illegals,” one guard explained, gesturing over the heads of the seated men. “But for the Egyptians, their government is taking them back now. Their government asked for them, after the video.” The coaches, funded by the Libyan authorities, would pick up more Egyptians from other centres en route to the Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jadir, he said.

“We have already transferred 250 people in co-ordination with the Egyptian embassy in Tunisia, from five detention centres in the west of Libya, including 26 women,” head of public relations for the department of illegal immigration in Tripoli Mabrouk Rajab told IRIN. “We want to transfer all Egyptians who are detained in centres here.” 

Egypt’s repatriation programme has offered detainees an escape route from an otherwise uncertain period of incarceration. But it is not known how many more are held in unregulated prisons run by militias across the country.

* Some of the names in this story have been changed for security reasons