The beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts working in Libya, as shown in video footage released by the Islamic State on February 12, 2015, made headlines across the world. The story was variously framed as one more vicious murder of Middle Eastern Christians by militant Islamists, one more index of chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya and one more opportunity for an Arab state, in this case Egypt, to enlist in the latest phase of the war on terror. What was left unaddressed was the deep and long-standing enmeshment of the Libyan and Egyptian economies, embodied in the tens of thousands of Egyptian workers who remain in Libya despite the civil war raging there.

There is a history of maltreatment of Egyptian migrants in Libya spanning more than 60 years. The abuses date back to the organized migration of Egyptian teachers, bureaucrats and other professionals under Gamal Abdel Nasser, and have continued with increasing brutality until the present. From the beginning, whether under King Idris, under Muammar al-Qaddafi or following the colonel’s downfall, the causes of the violence have been distinctly political, with Egyptians in Libya always vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Egyptian-Libyan state relations as well as to regional crises. The welfare of these workers has always been subordinate to strategic concerns in the calculations of both states.

Emigration to Libya Under Nasser, 1952-1970

Historically, Libya has been a preferred destination for Egyptian workers seeking opportunity abroad. The Egyptian state, longer established and more developed, sponsored much of this migration, having found that it could cater to the educational and bureaucratic staffing needs of its newly independent neighbor to the west. After Nasser and the Free Officers came to power in 1952, the Egyptian state greatly expanded the policy of secondment. Various ministries — particularly the Ministry of Education — dispatched thousands of teachers and white-collar employees to Libya, where illiteracy, according to the 1954 census, ran to 81 percent of the population. The Egyptian arrivals made up for the lack of trained manpower in the fledgling Kingdom of Libya, established only in 1951, and helped to realize King Idris’ dream of rapid modernization. Secondments increased with the discovery of the country’s petroleum resources in 1958, and the commercial export of oil, which began in 1962. By 1973 Libya hosted the largest number of Egyptian migrants in the Arab world (see Table 1). The Libyan state paid the seconded Egyptians handsomely, though they were still receiving their regular salaries: “I’ve never been so rich in my life,” one Egyptian administrator boasted to a reporter in Tripoli. “I’m seconded by the Egyptian government, which pays my salary at home in addition to my salary here. They fly me home free for my annual leave.”[1]

At the same time, unskilled and low-skilled Egyptian workers took advantage of the porous border, crossing the Western Desert in search of more lucrative employment. Like the teachers, bureaucrats and other seconded professionals, these Egyptians found work due to the relative absence of qualified Libyan laborers: By 1964, only 5.2 percent of the population had completed primary education or beyond. Initially negligible in comparison to the numbers being seconded, this form of migration increased after 1967. Skilled migration outside the Egyptian state’s secondment program would also grow in the post-1967 period. While the statistics are notoriously unreliable, by conservative estimates roughly 229,500 Egyptians were working in Libya in 1975. That number would rise to 250,000 by 1980.

Problems did not take long to arise. First came a raft of accusations that the seconded Egyptian staff were disseminating Nasserist ideas, replete with pan-Arabist, anti-Western rhetoric. These allegations appeared across the Arab world, but were particularly sharp-edged in the Libyan case. Not only was the monarchical regime essentially a British creation, and Libya home to an American air base, but Egyptians were also to be found throughout the Libyan state apparatus. Egyptians taught at primary and secondary schools across the country. The Libyan University, established in 1955, was initially staffed entirely by Egyptian professors. Egyptian professionals drafted the Libyan labor code, which was basically the Egyptian code with minor alterations. Hasan al-Maghribi, attorney general of Tripolitania, was a seconded Egyptian, as were two justices of Libya’s Supreme Court. Seconded Egyptian bureaucrats were pressing the Libyan authorities to sack Brig. Gen. ‘Abd al-Karim al-Nadimi, the Iraqi commander of the Libyan army, in favor of an Egyptian. There was evidence that many Egyptian teachers had in fact been “seconded from the Egyptian army.” [2] By 1956, the New York Times wrote, Libya was home to “large contingents of Egyptian teachers, advisers and government administrators [whose] penetration into almost every field of Libyan life has become a matter of Western alarm. For these Egyptians are also helping carry on Premier Nasser’s anti-Western campaign. There are almost 500 Egyptian teachers in Libyan secondary schools.” [3]

The teachers were arguably the most numerous of the early Egyptian migrants to Libya, and their political activity was closely watched by the regime. As one eyewitness put it in 1959:

The presence of Egyptian teachers explains why so many classrooms show the influence of Egyptian propaganda. Pupils do crayon drawings of Egyptian troops winning victories over Israel or Britain. In Benghazi, Libya, a complete course in Egyptian history is given to secondary school students. A display in a high school art exhibit showed pictures of the leading rules of Egypt; on one side were the “bad” rulers, on the other the “good” rulers. The bad rulers began with the Pharaoh Cheops, who enslaved his people to build the pyramids, and ended with Farouk. The good rulers began with the idealistic Pharaoh Ikhnaton and ended with, of course, Gamal Abdel Nasser. [4]

Sir Alec Kirkbride, the British ambassador to Libya, reported in 1954:

The most damage to British interests is being done by the considerable number of Egyptian teachers who are employed in the Libyan schools. These people are in a position to poison the mind of the rising generation of Libyans against the Western powers in general and against Great Britain in particular. [5]

Such reports alarmed the Libyan regime as well as its Western allies. British records describe how, in June 1965, King Idris arranged for secret police to be deployed to secondary schools across the country. Planted among the students, the spies soon reported back that the Egyptians were indeed teaching revolutionary ideas and spouting Nasserist propaganda. By early July, some 200 Egyptian teachers were deported, their contracts terminated. The plan, the king declared, was to end the contracts of all Egyptians and replace them with Libyan graduates who would have to teach “as a type of ‘national service’” before they could obtain other government jobs.

The plan never came to fruition, for a few years later, in September 1969, King Idris was overthrown while undergoing medical treatment abroad. The newcomer Col. Muammar Qaddafi, regarding Nasser as a role model and a great pan-Arab leader, at first pursued policy of reconciliation with Egypt. The resulting close cooperation between the two states allowed the Egyptian migrant community to thrive: Libya abolished entry visa requirements in 1971, allowing Egyptians into Libya with a mere identity card, and the two countries prepared a union with Syria in order to create the Federal Arab Republic. Egyptian workers, skilled and unskilled, flocked in their thousands to Libya, taking advantage of the fact that most Libyans continued to work in agriculture, rather than construction or services (see Table 2). Qaddafi was also delighted at the political aspect of the migration, believing that the free movement of labor constituted a necessary step toward “the unification of all Arabic-speaking people.” [6]

Egyptians in Libya During the Sadat Era, 1970-1981

The death of Nasser and subsequent rise of Anwar al-Sadat, however, contributed to the deterioration of bilateral relations and renewed turmoil for Egyptian migrants in Libya. Sadat, on the one hand, was convinced that Qaddafi was mentally ill — he did not hesitate to call the colonel a “lunatic.” Partly to check Qaddafi, he drew closer to Sudan’s Jaafar al-Numayri, which the Libyan leader perceived as a hostile act. Qaddafi, on the other hand, found it increasingly hard to hide his contempt for what he saw as Sadat’s lackluster management of the 1973 war with Israel. Then the two majors on the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council whom Qaddafi had sent to Cairo to observe the war, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im al-Huni and ‘Umar ‘Abdallah al-Muhayshi, defected to Egypt, adding to the disgruntlement of the Libyan leader. Qaddafi’s willingness to welcome a number of Egyptian political dissidents to Libya made matters worse: Hikmat Abu Zayd, who under Nasser had become Egypt’s first female minister, holding the social affairs portfolio from 1962-1965, moved to Libya in 1974 and became a vocal opponent of Sadat’s policies from her post at the University of Tripoli. Following the April 1974 attempt on Sadat’s life, which the Egyptian president blamed on Libyans, Egypt abandoned plans for the Federal Arab Republic and summoned home the Egyptian pilots and training staff who had been working on Libya’s air defense system.

In turn, that same month, Libya deported hundreds of Egyptian migrants, many of whom were tortured and unceremoniously dumped at the border. Sadat responded by announcing that Egyptian civil servants were forbidden to travel to Libya for any purpose. It was a clear effort to starve the Libyan state and educational system of manpower. Sadat’s announcement also marked the beginning of the use of Egyptian migrants as bargaining chips in bilateral relations — a pattern that would be repeated often in the future. Yet Sadat did not interfere with the status of Egyptians employed in the construction sector, or those in social services, such as doctors, nurses and welfare workers, who had become the largest group of Egyptians within Libya, and who would come to bear the brunt of the violence meted out by the Libyan regime.

While Egyptians continued to flood into Libya, daily life for them grew harder — sometimes including unpleasant encounters with Libyan military personnel. As al-Ahram noted on August 28, 1974, the wife of an Egyptian doctor in Libya traveling back to Egypt was stopped in Salloum, where “a Libyan customs officer inspected her suitcases and tossed her underwear provocatively before his companions. When she upbraided him, he beat her, broke her glasses and insulted her with words of abuse that outraged some Egyptian soldiers who happened to be there at the Customs House. The two sides might have clashed.”

A few months later, on April 1975, Qaddafi expelled a few hundred more Egyptians. Mufrih Nasr Isma‘il, a migrant from Fayyoum, died in an incident of police brutality in Derna. In Cairo, at the Arab Socialist Union and Peoples’ Assembly, deputies demanded the withdrawal of all 200,000-300,000 Egyptians then in Libya. At the same time, Sadat affirmed his conviction that Qaddafi was “100 percent mad.” [7] On April 24, the Cairo-based Middle East News Agency reported several instances of “barbarous” Libyan torture of Egyptians, including sleep deprivation and beatings with “sticks, whips and pipes.”

The Sadat regime never framed the maltreatment of Egyptians in Libya as a human rights violation. In fact, official media downplayed the extent of the abuses in order to avoid shutting down the valuable route of labor export. Musa Sabri, an al-Ahram journalist and confidant of President Sadat, wrote on April 24, “Really, I do pity [Qaddafi], and I am worried for the Libyan people…. The members of the Libyan Revolutionary Council should have searched for a way to treat their sick brother.” Instead, the regime treated the expulsions as a distinctly political issue, approaching other Arab countries that might host the workers who had left Libya. Following a visit by Sadat to Saudi Arabia, al-Ahram reported on April 24 that the kingdom “was ready to absorb all the Egyptian migrants working in Libya who now wish to leave,” though without spelling out the details. The key was to project confidence — Egyptian newspapers made sure to mention that foreign governments’ requests for manpower “exceed the number of Egyptian workers in Libya.”

Similar statements came out in March 1976, when Libyan authorities began denying admission to Egyptians carrying only identity cards and expelled more than 3,000 such migrants. Again, the Egyptians were driven to the border and simply left there. The Matrouh governorate in Egypt declared a state of emergency, while Sayyid Fahmi, the Egyptian minister of interior, directed additional trains and buses to the border for the migrants’ pickup. Akhbar al-Yawm reported on March 20 that at least one worker died, while a second, Yunis ‘Abd al-‘Al, was completely paralyzed and left unable to speak as a result of head injuries. At the same time, there were several reports of male Egyptian migrants being forced to enter the Libyan armed forces — later evidence showed similar attempts to press-gang Egyptians in Iraq — or to renounce Egyptian citizenship in favor of becoming Libyan. On October 5, 1976, al-Ahram reported that some 2,500 Egyptians were arrested in Derna and sent to recruiting stations. The men were subsequently tortured before being released to the Egyptian border authorities at Marsa Matrouh. Sadat continued to gloss over the abuses themselves, repeating instead that Egyptians working in Libya could be employed in other Arab countries. In an interview on March 26 with Der Spiegel, Sadat argued that he didn’t “take the situation so seriously. We are ready to absorb our workers; they can find work here, or in other Arab countries.”

In January 1977, Egypt, Syria and Sudan announced a Unified Political Command, a move heavily criticized by Qaddafi, who also did not take kindly to the Egyptian troop buildup along the border. The inspection of these forces by the Egyptian war minister on March 27-28 was followed by a Libyan declaration, in early April, that “Sadat, in his behavior, intends to oblige us” to act against Egyptian workers. Libya stopped issuing new visas and proceeded to expel Egyptians en masse. Orders were given to deport all Egyptian farm workers immediately, and the governor of Marsa Matrouh prepared to receive about 10,000 returnees per day. While these workers returned safely, some were reported to have sustained injuries from riding in open-backed trucks filled to capacity. In May, Libyan Prime Minister ‘Abd al-Salam Jalloud toured Eastern Europe, searching in vain for replacement labor.

Egyptian-Libyan relations reached their lowest point when a four-day border war broke out between the two countries from July 21-24, 1977. Border skirmishes escalated to limited Egyptian air attacks on Soviet-built installations within Libya. While tensions persisted for months afterward, by November Libya had begun issuing entry visas to Egyptians once more, ushering in a few quiet years for Egyptians there. Even then, however, the Egyptian minister of education, Mustafa Kamal Hilmi, pointed out in the People’s Assembly that the majority of Egyptian teachers in Libya had requested an early end to their secondment, and had applied to return to Cairo. A total of 6,909 teachers were sent to Libya for the 1976-1977 academic year. Their numbers fell steeply as relations between the two states deteriorated and violence against Egyptians continued. By 1983, the Ministry of Education’s secondment program in Libya was effectively terminated. [8]

Mubarak and Egyptian Emigration to Libya, 1981-2011

Sporadic incidents occurred in the ensuing years, but no more mass deportations occurred — perhaps the economic embargo imposed upon Egypt by the rest of the Arab world in the aftermath of the Camp David accords deterred Qaddafi from further unilateral action. It was only in 1985 that the Libyan regime, facing severe economic problems given the slump in the price of oil, decided again to dispense with the “huge army” of “non-productive” foreigners. At least 20,000 Egyptians were deported over August and September of that year, with some estimates putting the number of deportees as high as 100,000 out of a community of 250,000. [9] The Egyptians were allowed to take only half their earnings, and were “stripped of their electrical appliances and often even household goods at the border.” This mass expulsion followed a raft of measures against foreign laborers, including as pay cuts and cancellation of contracts. Egyptian and other Arab workers were allowed to remit only 300 dinars per person per year, as opposed to the 90 percent of total income they had been able to send home in 1975. In fact, foreign workers in Libya were not permitted to make any financial transfers at all during the first half of 1985.

Egyptian President Husni Mubarak challenged Qaddafi to admit that he had “exhausted his country’s wealth on adventurism and terrorist acts which he [took] pride in supporting and financing everywhere.” Libyan state radio, the Voice of the Great Arab Homeland, issued a sharp rejoinder: Egypt rejected the establishment of a united pan-Arab state. Its citizens, therefore, were foreigners, and the Libyan state was by no means responsible for finding them jobs. Qaddafi denounced as “monkeys” the Arab heads of state who had “sold themselves” to Washington. The deported Egyptian workers were complicit because they had refused to become Libyan citizens and transferred their savings out of Libya, thereby bolstering the Egyptian regime and the Camp David agreement. [10] The expulsion of Egyptian workers was, again, part of a broader confrontation between the two regimes that included an Egyptian troop mobilization along the border and the Libyan hijacking of an Egyptian airliner in 1985.

By 1989, Egypt had re-normalized its relations with the Arab world, and a new rapprochement emerged with Libya. Libya agreed to reopen its labor market to Egyptian workers, and in August 1989 alone, about 70,000 Egyptians were reported to have crossed into Libya. By March 1990, Libya agreed to reimburse the previously deported Egyptians for financial losses, allotting $6 million to Egypt, $4 million of which was to be given immediately to 6,000 expelled workers. (There were 18,000 complaints on file with the Egyptian Ministry of Labor.) In the spirit of cooperation, Libya was happy to take in additional Egyptian laborers who had been forced to flee the Gulf amidst the turbulence of the 1990-1991 Gulf war (see Table 5). This process culminated in the December 4 signing of ten “integration” (takamul) bilateral agreements on economic matters. The warming of relations, however, was only temporary: By 1995, some 7,000 Egyptians were again expelled, this time in retaliation for the strengthening of Egyptian-Israeli relations. [11]

For the remainder of Mubarak’s rule, deportations continued intermittently, but on a small scale. Most deportees were Egyptian fishermen picked up in Libyan waters, who would be imprisoned for a few days, then released to Egypt, with the cycle often repeating. But the Egyptian community in Libya remained stable, due to some extent to Qaddafi’s shift from Arab nationalism to pan-Africanism, whereby he dropped his pretension of speaking for the Arab world.

Egyptian Emigration After the Arab Uprisings

It was only in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s ouster and Libya’s descent into civil war that the situation of Egyptian migrants began to change dramatically. The Transitional National Council that nominally governed Libya from late 2011 through mid-2012 did little to intervene in the labor market. In early 2013, the General National Congress that had been elected the preceding summer began deporting Egyptian workers en masse on a variety of pretenses, including expired residency permits and fraudulent or improper documentation. The “visa crisis” escalated, as members of the Coptic community in Libya, in particular, were arrested on illegal immigration charges. On March 13 the Middle East News Agency reported the arrest of 50 Copts, guilty of illegal entry into Libya but also accused of proselytizing, as “they were found in possession of a quantity of Bibles, texts encouraging conversion to Christianity, and images of Christ and the late Pope Shenouda.” Four Copts were jailed on the proselytizing charges, and one of them, ‘Izzat ‘Atallah, died in custody. As Egypt’s assistant foreign minister denied that Egyptians faced any discrimination, news broke that over a hundred Egyptians, all of whom had reportedly paid 3,000 Egyptian pounds each to purchase employment visas, had been deported on a single day. By late March, the Libyan authorities were deporting over 400 workers daily. [12]

Again, Egyptian workers were pawns in a chess match between the two states. Between 2011 and 2013, Egypt had become a safe haven for affiliates of the Qaddafi regime seeking to avoid prosecution, and the General National Congress sought Cairo’s compliance with its extradition requests of 36 ex-regime members. The Egyptian government delivered a number of Qaddafi-era officials to Tripoli, including the colonel’s cousin and close aide Ahmad Qaddaf al-Dam al-Qaddafi and the former ambassador to Egypt. Twenty-three others were to be arrested and extradited. On March 20, 2013, al-Hayat noted the quid pro quo: “The Libyan authorities also promised to open their market to Egyptian workers if all of the figures taking refuge in Egypt are handed over.” Cairo’s cooperation with Tripoli’s extradition requests aborted the mass deportations. The Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Migration extolled the state of bilateral relations, going so far as to claim that Libya was ready to receive “millions of Egyptians.” [13]

It is wishful thinking, for the Libyan economy barely functions and the Libyan state is in flux. Two separate quasi-governments, one based in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk, lay claim to the fragmented Libya of today, while the heavy presence of militias further impedes any political compromise. Nonetheless, in testament to the deepening economic hardship in Egypt itself, Egyptians continue to migrate to Libya in search of a better future. In doing so, they risk death, with little hope of protection from any state or set of powers that be. Indeed, in keeping with the 60-year pattern, the authorities in both countries are seeking to exploit the latest suffering of Egyptian workers in Libya for political gain. On the one hand, in response to the beheadings, Egypt launched a number of airstrikes upon Libyan territory that did little or nothing to safeguard Egyptian citizens and did more to demonstrate anti-terrorist bona fides to patrons in the Gulf and the West. The Libyan deputies in Tobruk, on the other hand, have begun to view Egypt’s military involvement as an opportunity to deal a blow to their political rivals in Tripoli. They inveigh against the Islamic State to attract international support and conflate their opponents with terrorists. Egyptian workers in Libya are, as ever, caught in the middle.


[1] Sunday Times (London), March 28, 1958.
[2] Times (London), November 25, 1958.
[3] New York Times, May 25, 1956.
[4] W. Wynn, Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity (Clinton, MA: Colonial Press, 1959), p. 137.
[5] National Archives (Britain), FO 371/108687, 1954.
[6] J. K. Cooley, Libyan Sandstorm (London: Holt, 1982), p. 101.
[7] Ibid., pp. 115-116.
[8] Suzanne Messiha, “The Export of Egyptian School Teachers,” Cairo Papers in Social Science 3/4 (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, July 1983), p. 3.
[9] New York Times, August 18, 1985.
[10] Ibrahim Fawat, “Libya: Economic Crisis, Political Expulsions,” AfricAsia (1985), pp. 32-34.
[11] Gil Feiler, “Migration and Recession: Arab Labor Mobility in the Middle East, 1982-1989,” Population and Development Review 17/1 (1991).
[12] Al-Jumhuriyya, March 18, 2013.
[13] Al-Ahram, June 7, 2013.

How to cite this article:

Gerasimos Tsourapas "The Politics of Egyptian Migration to Libya," Middle East Report Online, March 17, 2015.

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