Political and economic upheavals in Egypt over the past few years have sparked a spike in emigration among many Egyptians in the prime of their lives. Seeking their fortunes elsewhere, these young people are leaving in droves and taking with them skills, experiences, and ambitions that are much needed at home.
Several years ago, the situation in Egypt was quite different. The 2011 uprising, which ended the three-decade-long presidency of Hosni Mubarak, initially left many young Egyptians in a state of euphoria and generated a wave of optimism about the country’s future. Within only a few years, however, the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood-led presidency, the subsequent ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, and current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s authoritarian rule ushered in an atmosphere of uncertainty, frustration, and despair.
The resulting political turmoil has led to a slew of human rights abuses under the pretense of restoring stability. This chaos has also taken a toll on Egypt’s already ailing economy. Rates of unemployment, poverty, and the standard cost of living, have all increased. Caught between these crushing pressures, many young Egyptians have felt alienated from society and have decided that leaving the country is their only option for a brighter future. Since most of these individuals are highly-skilled professionals, their departure has sparked a massive brain drain, depleting the country of essential human capital.
Although there are no reliable figures for the exact number of Egyptians leaving each year, there has been a sizeable and noticeable exodus over the past few years. According to a report published by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) in November 2016, Egypt is witnessing its third wave of mass migration, following two preceding waves in the 1950s and ’70s when large numbers of individuals left the country.
The scale and composition of the current wave is different, however. Whereas, in earlier decades, many who fled Egypt were political dissidents, those leaving now span the political spectrum. And though many have been driven away for fear of falling victim to Sisi’s authoritarianism, they also have economic reasons for departing.
Crackdown on Freedoms
Among those who have packed their bags is software engineer Muhammad Adel. His post-2011 hopes for a better life were shattered in July 2013 when the military ousted then-President Morsi and initiated a second era of military rule. He officially decided to leave Egypt only a month later, shortly after the 2013 Rabaa massacre, when his wife was pregnant with their first son.
Given the government’s growing trend towards authoritarianism at the time, even before Sisi took office, he believes if had he stayed in Egypt, he would have exposed himself or his son to the threat of arbitrary detention or even death at the hands of the government.
“Things became clear in my mind that I won’t come back except for vacation every now and then because this isn’t a safe place to raise up my child. This is a sick society, intellectually and morally,” Adel told Muftah.
Since 2013, the Egyptian government has been intensely criticized by international human rights advocates for abducting, torturing and forcibly disappearing thousands of activists and political opponents. Around 60,000 political prisoners have been jailed in Egypt since the military ousting of Morsi in July 2013, according to a report published by ANHRI in September 2016. Since 2013, The regime has also introduced new laws to limit freedom of expression and assembly, including blocking over sixty websites.
Facing this state of affairs, leaving was an easy decision for Adel. As he told Muftah, “I can’t live in Egypt any more. People in general think that if I am not an Islamist or a well-known political activist, then I am safe or if you minded your own business then you’re safe. But I see that even this isn’t realized in Egypt. Nobody is safe in Egypt.”
Now residing in the Netherlands, Adel says that no matter what changes, nothing would make him think of returning to Egypt.
Compounding the political situation, the turmoil and security concerns triggered by the 2011 uprising have deterred tourists and investors from coming to Egypt, causing an economic slump. Despite substantial financial aid from Arab Gulf states and a three-year $12 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund, Egypt’s economy remains stagnant. Austerity measures and painful reforms, such as subsidy cuts and floating the currency, have only further stifled economic recovery and left many Egyptians suffering the consequences.
According to official numbers, 27.8 percent of Egyptians lived below the poverty line in 2016, while the unemployment rate stood at 11.98 percent in the second quarter of 2017. Of those unemployed, 79.6 percent were aged between fifteen and twenty-nine, making youth unemployment particularly dramatic.
These statistics are troubling to many, including Baher Ibrahim, now a PhD student in history and public health at the University of Glasgow. Baher holds a medical degree from Alexandria University and a master’s in community psychology from the American University in Cairo. He could have gone into the medical field, but, as he told Muftah, he “did not want to be a doctor in the miserable conditions that doctors are subjected to in Egypt,” such as being severely and routinely underpaid. A doctor straight out of school only earns around 1,200 Egyptian pounds (about $78) per month.
Facing these dismal prospects, Baher looked toward the West and did not hesitate to move abroad when the opportunity arose. Though he expressed fears about losing his family and social connections, and felt “a sense of isolation and loneliness” abroad, he believes leaving was the right choice.
“I don’t regret leaving, but I sometimes ask myself if the price I paid in terms of cutting myself off from any social and family life I’d ever known and completely uprooting myself was worth it. Rationally, I know it was worth it. But you sometimes need to remind yourself of that,” he said
Baher considers his move final and has no intention to return to Egypt: “I really cannot think of anything that would persuade me to return. A sense of belonging or ‘home’ would not; because I think if it were powerful enough it would have dissuaded me from leaving in the first place.”
Alienation and Limited Opportunities
Baher and Adel reflect a growing trend among young people, who, frustrated by the country’s conditions, have decided to abandon their home.
Hadeer Aldoh is another recent emigrant. Poor work conditions, sexual harassment, and the deteriorating political situation all contributed to Aldoh’s feeling of alienation. Despite holding a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, she felt discouraged by her job prospects and changed careers. She now works as a cabin crew member for Emirates Airlines and has lived in the UAE since 2015.
Watching many of her friends leave Egypt, Aldoh felt compelled to depart too. Though leaving behind her life, and especially her family and friends, was difficult, remaining in Egypt “was too depressing.” As she told Muftah, “we felt like we were stuck. We couldn’t grow in Egypt and we felt helpless and limited.”
“I felt like the people close to me and I were living in our own bubble completely isolated from the rest of the society and all we talked about was leaving,” Aldoh said.
Missing Egypt’s chaos and laid-back atmosphere, Aldoh still has a soft spot for her home country, and will probably return at some point to live in Egypt again for her parents’ sake.
Feelings of alienation have pushed away many others, including Omar Hashem. Initially worried he would graduate from college only to join millions of Egyptians idling in coffee shops, Hashem chose to study engineering at Cairo University, believing it was one of the few majors that actually promised a decent future in Egypt. The university atmosphere turned violent during his time there, however. As Cairo University became the scene of clashes between students and security forces in 2013, Hashem believed his promising future was at risk.
“I left because the political situation was very depressing, seeing everything we worked for in 2011 and 2012 just go to shit then seeing the violence first hand was the final straw for Cairo university, and for Egypt as whole,” Hashem explained.
Being a dual citizen of Egypt and the United States, Hashem could leave Egypt easily. Now living in the United States, he no longer makes his decisions based on economic variables and is currently studying Journalism, his field of choice.
But, as Hashem experienced, packing up one’s life in a couple of suitcases and leaving everything behind comes at an enormous price. “It was easy in a sense that I had no other option. [But] I hated leaving my brother and family behind, all my friends, everything I’m used to…I feel heartbroken about leaving, but I don’t regret it,” Hashem told Muftah.
A Blessing in Disguise?
In the past ten years, Marwa Badra, an Egyptian national and certified member of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), has witnessed firsthand the trend in emigration from Egypt. Over the past three years alone, she has seen the number of emigrants substantially increase.
As Badra told Muftah, in 2005, there was “an ultimate increase in the demand [for] immigration but it was more of a back-up plan, an alternative if something happened, not a real desire to relocate or leave the country.” She added that the demand decreased right after the 2011 uprising, but increased again following the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. During that period of uncertainty, people were “worried [about the future] and felt they had to leave.”
“From 2013 until now…demand [has] increased heavily. It’s no longer a back-up plan, people are very serious,” Badra told Muftah. She acknowledges that the exodus stems from the same reasons detailed by Baher, Aldoh, and others: uncertainty about the future, deterioration in the quality of life and education, and a weak economy.
Through her work Badra has noticed that inquiries about resettlement now mainly come from working professionals in the 23-40-year-old demographic, marking a major change from what she’s witnessed before. Previously, older generations were the ones most interested in leaving. These younger professionals “are concerned about their future,” she explained. And though “they’re trying hard [and] very motivated” to build better lives for themselves in Egypt, “they are also restricted by the circumstances.”
Despite this apparent brain drain, Badra still remains hopeful for the future. She believes most Egyptians remain tied to their country even when they are abroad and noted that, whenever Egyptian emigrants see an opportunity to return and benefit their country, they do. She believes that international exposure and experience may inspire young professionals to develop new ideas for combating the very problems that pushed them away.
Despite Badra’s positive outlook, if the protracted obstacles do not improve in the near future, the emigration phenomenon could accelerate. Egypt would experience irreversible intellectual loss, as a result, and be irreparably deprived of much-needed skills and innovation. As Badra conceded, “until there’s an opportunity in Egypt that makes them return, they’ll be on stand-by, getting recognition and education” elsewhere.