Out of Egypt

Egypt’s 2011 uprising has triggered an emigration wave, which could have perilous social and economic outcomes.

The traditionally agricultural nature of Egypt’s economy and the attachment to the land that it had fostered in Egyptian culture entrenched the idea, in the Egyptian as well as regional psyche, that Egyptians hardly ever emigrate, that the country can always draw on its immense pool of talent.

But in the last half-century, two very significant waves of emigration out of Egypt took place. The first, in the period from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s—the heydays of the country’s first republic—was led by Egypt’s top industrialists and financiers, the bulk of the country’s Jewish community, and a significant percentage of the upper crust of Egyptian Christians. These groups were not mutually exclusive; and in their intermeshed fabric, represented some of the most powerful and conspicuous driving forces in the Egyptian economy. Their exodus from Egypt in that period was a direct result of the socialist policies that President Gamal Abdel Nasser had affected in the early 1960s. Also many of them, correctly, expected the Nasserite variant of Arab nationalism to get entangled in a severe confrontation with the West, one that they shrewdly envisioned would close many economic opportunities for them as well as threaten existing interests. This wave of emigration cost Egypt some of its brightest, most entrepreneurial, and best internationally connected capitalists.

The second wave was exactly the opposite. The 1970s’ oil boom and the dramatic riches it endowed the Gulf with gave rise to an unprecedented demand (in the Arab world) for developing—and in some cases building from scratch—the services infrastructure of that region. Between the mid 1970s and the late 1980s, the Gulf, and mainly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, absorbed over four million Egyptians in sectors such as education, public administration, health services, accounting, and low-end banking. The vast majority of those who opted to immigrate to the Gulf in that period belonged to the lower segments of the middle class, ones whose socioeconomic circumstances had not allowed them a great exposure to the richness, openness, and tolerance of Egypt’s liberal age from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.

This wave of emigration coincided with a severe retraction in Egyptian competitiveness across several industries as well as a series of large fiscal deficits that later compelled President Mubarak to accept a difficult financial and budgetary reform program. The reform measures and the weakening competitiveness diluted the economic power of segments that had traditionally formed the backbone of the country’s middle class, at a time when the purchasing power of the Egyptians in the Gulf was increasing considerably. Medium level salaries in Kuwaiti Dinars or Saudi Riyals resulted in relatively large spending power in Egyptian pounds back at home.

Slowly but decisively, the structure of the Egyptian middle class was being transformed, with an accompanying change in social norms: rising religiosity, more conservativeness, and a shift in cultural orientation from Europe and the Mediterranean to the Gulf. These new values were increasingly conspicuous in Egypt’s cultural production (cinema, TV series, and theatre—the country’s main expressions of soft power in the Arab world) in the 1980s and early 1990s.This second wave of emigration had arguably enriched the country economically (especially in terms of job creation and linking Egypt to one of the most dramatic experiences of wealth accumulation—the Gulf), but its social consequences continue to shape Egyptian politics to this day.

Egypt’s 2011 uprising has triggered a third emigration wave, which could have perilous social and economic outcomes. Credible numbers are difficult to come by, but according to the testimonies of several Egyptian community leaders in the Gulf and Western Europe, there is an exponential increase in the interest and numbers of Egyptians moving out of the country over the last year and half, seeking to settle in these societies. But unlike in the previous two waves of emigration of the past half century, this one cuts across the board. Leading business people with considerable experience and assets in the country have been quietly restructuring their economic interests with the objective of moving to places such as Dubai and London.

Thousands of young successful professionals in the fields of finance, engineering, telecoms, informatics, and health services (including many promising doctors) are applying to highly skilled migrant worker schemes in Europe, the U.S., and Australia. And there is considerable concern within wide segments of Egyptian Christians regarding, what they see as, the ascent of socio-political Islam and its implications on Egypt’s social milieu and their personal freedoms. Stabilisation in Libya would re-open this country’s labour market to Egyptians, especially low-income workers. That this wave of emigration spans different and economically-active segments is a grave danger to the availability of talent in Egypt as well as to the overall competitiveness of the economy.

Socially, the more internationally well-connected young Egyptians opt out of their country, the poorer the overall society—and almost certainly, the less open-minded and tolerant it will become. This will have direct implications on Egyptian politics, but crucially it will gradually strengthen the social polarisation Egypt has been witnessing in the last few years. Social disconnect will emerge, not just between the political elite and the rest, but among different social segments. Not only political religiosity and liberalism will clash. More importantly, communities will become less dynamic, and we could start seeing social divergence—in terms of values, ways of living, and even the ‘feel’—of different places in the country’s major urban centres such as Cairo and Alexandria.

The most important social development in Egypt in the past three decades has been the almost doubling of the population from roughly 45 million in the mid 1970s to circa 90 million in the second decade of the twenty first century. This development continues to have transformative impacts on Egyptian politics, economics, and culture. If this is coupled with the emigration of the best of that generation, the Egyptian society would lose a lot of its potential.

Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak. He has published articles on Egypt and the Middle East in leading international newspapers.

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