First Person

Egyptians Migrants Fear Libyan Escalation

Thousands of Egyptian economic migrants caught up in the Libyan revolution are streaming back into Egypt, worried that the violence across the border is going to get worse.
  • Some of the thousands of Egyptian migrant workers who fled the Libyan violence. (Photo: Lina Atallah)

We got to the border with Egypt at around 2 pm local time on February 24. It was very crowded with thousands of Egyptians flocking from Libya into Egypt, particularly Egyptians who live in cities like Benghazi and Tobruk - no rescue planes could be sent because there’s no airport in the east of the country.

They decided to take the risk of driving 500 kilometres to the border. In fact, they said that they found the road to be safe and under the control of the popular committees and revolutionaries. These latter cheered them when they found out they were Egyptian. They said that what had inspired them had been Egypt’s revolution and that they saluted every Egyptian – it was very heart-warming.

This border crossing - a one kilometre-long stretch with passport control in the middle and vehicles waiting to pick up travellers on either side – is always bustling with traffic. Normally it’s heading towards Libya. But now there were only a few people heading in that direction – mostly foreign journalists. I was the only Egyptian.

Most of the more than one million Egyptians in Libya are economic migrants, and many people I spoke to said that although their departure meant they would lose their income, they were very proud of the Libyan revolution.

At the border crossing, crowds of people - a lot of single men, but also young couples, pregnant women and some children - were trying to get their possessions (household goods like blanket, fans, even televisions) into Egypt. Some said they were ready to return to Libya once the situation was stable but others were clearly reconciled to the fact that they were coming back for good, happy to embrace new opportunities and curious to see how the revolution had changed their country.

It was very easy to get across into Libya, although some of the Egyptian security personnel tried to dissuade me, warning that it could be dangerous. I didn’t see any Libyans trying to leave; there is still a sense of jubilation and people are trying to hold on to the territory they have won.

I didn’t sense any panic, although people were talking about the atrocities they had witnessed or heard about at the beginning of the uprising. Some had seen mercenaries loyal to Gadaffi kill Libyans and there were reports that underground prisons had been discovered where detainees had been held in complete isolation for many years.

People said the violence was confined to a 48 hour period after the first protests on February 17. After that, they described a festive atmosphere in the east because the revolutionaries took over and were maintaining complete control.

People said that in Benghazi, despite the communications blackout, they had even managed to set up an FM radio station called the Voice of Free Libya.

But the Egyptians heading home told me they were leaving now because they expect an escalation. They were afraid that Gaddafi would and could do anything, especially after the speech he gave earlier this week, and that he would not allow the eastern part of the country to remain out of his control for much longer. More bloodshed was likely they told me.

And they were concerned about the Libyans who they said had offered them a lot of protection, especially after Gaddafi targeted Egyptians in his speech, saying they were giving drugs to young Libyans to make them act in this way. The Egyptians were extremely worried about what would happen to Libyan friends they have left behind. 

Lina Atallah is an Egyptian journalist.

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