As country of origin, transit, and destination, Egypt lies at the heart of regional migration processes in North Africa and the Middle East. An overview of past and present migrations and the state's attempt to manage these flows.
Modern Egypt provides unique insights into the management of cross-border mobility in the broader Middle East and North Africa, including diverse labour migration flows, multiple diaspora communities, as well as numerous forcibly-displaced populations seeking refuge within its territory. Beyond its position as an important country in terms of Middle East and North African politics, Egypt’s centrality in regional migration processes is undisputed: Egypt is the Arab world’s largest country – with a population of about 100 million in 2019, while over half of its citizens are under the age of 25. Egyptians are highly mobile, with a tradition of mass labour emigration both to the Arab oil-producing countries as well as the West going back to the early 1970s. Second- and third-generation Egyptians have created vibrant diaspora communities in Europe, North America, and Australia. At the same time, the country’s location at the crossroads of Africa, Western Asia, and Europe has contributed to Egypt being a migrant transit state as well as a destination country for hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers.
Labor Migration as Development
There are two broad phases in Egyptian labour migration, most of which has occurred within the broader Arab world. The first phase included limited high-skilled emigration throughout the 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries, as Egyptian scholars and professionals travelled the Arab world and contributed to the development of neighbouring areas that remained under Ottoman or colonial rule. The rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser at the beginning of the 1950s lent an additional political hue to this short-term labour emigration process: the Nasserite state saw in this a unique foreign policy opportunity, and recruited, trained, and dispatched thousands of professionals across the Arab world throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Once abroad, many Egyptians disseminated rhetoric of anticolonialism and anti-Zionism across Africa and the Middle East, which mirrored Nasser’s discourse at home. The background to this was that Nasser placed anti-colonialism and pan-Arabism – the political unity of the Arab nations under Egyptian leadership – at the centre of his foreign policy. In effect, Egyptians abroad became an integral part of the state’s soft power strategy and contributed to diverse processes and therefore to Egypt's rising political importance within the region – from African decolonisation to the North Yemen Civil War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This type of mobility was the exception to a restrictive labour emigration strategy under Nasser: leaving Egypt was nearly-impossible for most Egyptians during the 1950s and 1960s, a strategy that was both political (as the Free Officers regime sought to prevent the escape of political enemies – most notably, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ikhwan) as well as developmental, as policy-makers worried about the potentially devastating effects of “brain drain.”
The second phase of Egyptian labour emigration was characterised primarily by low- and medium-skilled labour outflows to oil-producing Arab states. It started in the early 1970s in the context of Egypt’s devastating defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and a deterioration of state finances during the second half of the 1960s. In response, Anwar Sadat, successor of Nasser (who had died on 28 September 1970), engaged in a massive project of economic liberalisation – known as the “open-door” policy or al-Infitah. This included lifting any obstacles to citizens’ emigration, which would come to constitute a socio-economic “safety valve,” tasked with tackling the country’s chronic unemployment and overpopulation problems, as well as securing valuable economic remittances. Once allowed to emigrate, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians pursued employment opportunities in Arab oil-producing countries, taking advantage of the shared language as well as destination countries’ sore need of foreign labour. Figure 1 demonstrates how, since the early 1970s until the beginning of the 1990s, Egypt has considered economic remittances to be a key source of income, which now constitute – once again – a significant share of its gross domestic product (GDP). Given that money transfers are also conducted via unofficial, untraceable channels, the economic importance of migration for Egypt is even higher.
In terms of destination countries, neighbouring Libya was the primary destination for Egyptian migrants until the mid-1970s. From the mid-1970s onwards, as Egyptian-Libyan relations deteriorated, most Egyptian migrant workers headed to the Gulf region, taking advantage of Egypt’s increasingly strong relations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. However, the post-1979 decline in oil prices has contributed to a steady fall in Egyptian recruitment in the oil-producing Arab countries. At the same time, Egyptian regional emigration to the Gulf has slowed since the 1980s due to host countries’ shift toward the recruitment of Asian migrant labour. The decision of some Gulf Cooperation Council member countries to get more of their nationals into the labour force, from the early 1990s onwards, has also adversely affected Egyptian migration flows. At the same time, the prohibition of permanent migration across the Gulf has made circular movement common, although Egyptians tend to stay in these countries for many years. This phenomenon has also increased the appeal of traditional transit migration countries – such as Jordan – which now host large populations of Egyptian migrants (see Table 1). Beyond economic changes, war and high politics have also affected Egyptian labour migration: for example, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait led to the exodus of the entire Egyptian community in 1990. Libya effectively ceased to be a major country of destination following the 2011 overthrow of the Muammar al-Gaddafi regime and the country’s ensuing descent into civil war.
Table 1: Egyptian migrants in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), 2016
The Egyptian Diaspora as an Opportunity – and a Threat?
Millions of Egyptians have also emigrated to Western countries, particularly once the Nasser-era ended and obstacles to emigration were lifted. In particular, the resurgence of political Islam in Egypt and the broader Middle East from the early 1970s onwards led to the emigration of large numbers of Egyptian Copts to the West. Copts have created vocal diaspora communities, particularly in North America, that have sought to defend the interests of Christians in Egypt. Since the mid-1970s, in the face of increasingly strict immigration controls across Europe, Egyptians have attempted to cross into Europe via the Mediterranean, creating large communities of low-skilled migrants across Southern Europe (see Table 2).
Table 2: Egyptian citizens and descendants living outside the MENA Region, 2016
According to Law 111 (1983) on ‘Emigration and Sponsoring Egyptians Abroad,’ the Egyptian state treats any citizen living in Arab countries as a “temporary worker,” while anyone in Australia, Europe, North America, or elsewhere constitutes a “permanent migrant”. This has contributed to a multi-tier emigration policy that prioritises Egyptians in the West at the expense of those residing in Arab countries. Gradually, Egypt developed a diaspora policy to accommodate the needs and wishes of its “permanent emigrants:” policymakers view the diaspora as well-off, educated, and successful, and have developed instruments within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other agencies to harness its potential, promote return migration, and reverse the phenomenon of brain drain. In the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution, Egypt granted expatriates the right to vote from abroad in parliamentary elections.
However, the government’s relationship with the diaspora has also been fraught, as Egyptian communities in the West have not hesitated to organize protests against government policies. That said, groups’ divisions along many lines (social class, political, ideological, religious) and the wish of Egyptians abroad to be able to return to their home country without fear of arrest or reprisal generally prevented mass mobilization. A major shift occurred in the context of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, when diaspora organizations multiplied and held vocal protests across the West, seeking to contribute to Egypt’s (short-lived) attempt at democratization: After the end of the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood won the parliamentary and presidential elections 2011/2012. This democratization attempt ended in 2013 with the army's ousting of President Mohammed Morsi and the formal return of the Egyptian military to power, which led to another wave of emigration, this time of members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) that sought to avoid persecution by fleeing to Turkey and Qatar, in particular. The 2013 military intervention produced a deep political polarization in the country that has been mirrored abroad, as Egyptian diaspora communities continue to be divided on the legitimacy of its rule. At the same time, reports of harassment and arrests of Egyptians abroad are increasing, particularly in the Gulf: most recently, Kuwait arrested and extradited eight migrants who purportedly belong to the Muslim Brotherhood to Egypt in July 2019, where they currently await long prison sentences.
Managing Immigrants and Refugees
A sharp contrast exists between the regulation and institutionalization of Egypt’s emigration and diaspora policies and that of its refugee and immigration policies. Although Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organization for African Unity Refugee Convention, the country’s implementation of related obligations has been ad hoc. Formal policies regarding migrants and refugees are generally absent or, even when regulations exist, the government may turn a blind eye to informal practices that contravene them: many refugees, for instance, are able to find employment informally across various sectors, including domestic care, agriculture, or services; community-based organisations founded by migrants or refugees are also common (such as Tadamon – the Egyptian/Refugee Multicultural Council, an independent, nonpolitical civil society network working to promote the welfare of marginalized refugees) even though they are not officially registered with state authorities. All too frequently, the fate of refugee communities is subject to shifting political exigencies.
While pre-1952 Egypt was a welcoming home to foreigners – including thriving communities of Greek Egyptians, Italian Egyptians, and Syrians – the wave of nationalism that accompanied the 1952 Free Officers Revolution contributed to the decline of cosmopolitan Egypt and reduced immigration throughout the Nasserite period. The sole exception was an influx of Palestinian refugees: although they were not granted protection by formal UN institutions, Palestinians in Egypt enjoyed the support of the Nasser regime, fitting its anti-Zionist and Arab solidarity narrative. By the end of the 1970s, the situation had shifted considerably, as President Sadat normalised relations with Israel via the 1978 Camp David Accords, a bilateral piece agreement with Israel. As a consequence of the rapprochement with Israel, Palestinians in Egypt lost a number of rights, including legal residency, employment, and property ownership. This became a problem for Palestinians without Egyptian citizenship (primarily acquired via marriage to Egyptian nationals), who retained their refugee status. Today, roughly 300,000 Palestinians live in Egypt. Egyptian–Israeli cooperation has sustained the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007, once Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) assumed power. Ever since, Egypt’s strict border controls at the border city of Rafah have prevented Palestinians from reaching Gaza for weeks or months on end.
Egypt’s relations with Israel also affected its approach to sub-Saharan African refugees: tacit intelligence and military cooperation with Israel has aimed at preventing Africans crossing Egypt – notably Sudanese, Ethiopians, and Eritreans – from reaching Israel to seek asylum. In fact, the fate of the Sudanese community in Egypt has historically been tied to politics. Until 1995, Sudanese nationals enjoyed visa-free entry into Egypt and unrestricted access to social provisions, including employment, education, health coverage, and property ownership. These rights were secured by the 1976 Wadi El Nil bilateral agreement, which aimed to strengthen cooperation between Egypt and Sudan. Yet, the 1995 assassination attempt on Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak – allegedly by Sudanese Islamists – led to the agreement’s repeal, and with it a gradual rise in human rights abuses against Sudanese in Egypt. Since 1995, just a fraction of Sudanese arriving into Egypt have been able to register as refugees with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while the 2004 bilateral Four Freedoms Agreement granting freedom of movement across the shared border as well as the right to residence, work and property has not been fully implemented by Egypt. As a result, measuring the size of the Sudanese community in Egypt has been very difficult: estimates range from 750,000 to four million.
Finally, Egypt is also home to a sizeable Syrian refugee community. In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring events and start of the Syrian civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood government welcomed Syrians, who were exempt from entry visas and allowed to enter on three-month tourist visas and register with UNHCR. Once the military resumed power in mid-2013, Egypt toughened its stance, requiring Syrians to obtain a visa prior to arrival and register with the government once their visa expired. As of June 2019, nearly 132,000 registered Syrians lived in Egypt, though the government estimates that the total number is 300,000.
Overall, the examination of Egyptian migration policy points to the sheer complexity that exists in the management of diverse forms of mobility across the Global South. Foreign policy pressures interact with domestic economic needs within a shifting geopolitical context, where legacies of the past continue playing an important role. A common thread that runs across Egypt’s policies (or, in certain aspects, non-policies) is the instrumentalization of migration – be it for purposes of soft power, bilateral cooperation, or economic or domestic political gain.
Dr. Gerasimos Tsourapas is Associate Professor in Middle East Politics at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the politics of migrants, refugees, and diasporas in the broader Middle east. He is author of the book The Politics of Migration in Modern Egypt: Strategies for Regime Survival in Autocracies (Cambridge University Press, 2019). His second book, entitled Migration Diplomacy in the Middle East – Power, Cross-Border Mobility, and the State is forthcoming with Manchester University Press.