Chaos cuts cash lifeline to Egypt

With the banking system in Egypt effectively shut down, UAE expatriates are scrambling to keep up the flow of remittances so vital to their families at home.

Ahmed El Didi at the Marina Walk in The MArina in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on Thursday, Feb. 03, 2011. Photo: Charles Crowell for The National
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DUBAI // Until two weeks ago, Ahmed Samir, an Egyptian chef from Cairo's Dokki neighbourhood, was sending home most of his monthly pay.

It was crucial income for his family in Egypt. But the ongoing political unrest there, as demonstrators demand an end to the 30-year rule of the president Hosni Mubarak, has temporarily cut the family lifeline.

"I was sending them money, but when I found that banks might be robbed, and everything was closed down, I got scared," said Mr Samir, 29, who was sending Dh3,000 of his Dh4,200 monthly salary to relatives in Egypt.

His predicament is familiar to the nearly 200,000 UAE members of the Egyptian diaspora.

With banking networks unavailable for much of the past two weeks, remittances have been held back, sharply reducing the flow of money to Egypt.

Even now, as banks are reopening, Egyptian expatriates say service is still unreliable and patchy. Many worry that it is not safe for their families to go to the banks to withdraw money.

Some are turning to friends who are travelling back home to deliver crucial supplies and cash.

Sudhir Shetty, the chief operating officer of the money-transfer service UAE Exchange, said services were still not fully functional, and instant money transfers continued to be irregular. "Now it has been resumed but it is not in full swing," he said.

Mr Shetty said that as soon as banking services return to normal, all the funds entrusted to the company will be wired to Egypt.

Mr Samir said he worries about sending money back home.

"The country is not secure," he said. "If a member of my family goes out of the house, he might be harmed." He said he had seen videos of protesters being run over by police cars.

"The economy and tourism have been hurt, but these are legitimate demands of course," he said of the protests. "I hope God helps the country and the people are safe."

Ahmed El Didi, an Egyptian project engineer based in Dubai, said he sends about Dh7,000 back home every two months to build a home.

When the protests flared up, his bank told him he could not send the money as all branches were closed.

"I asked what I should do since I have commitments, and I was told that was my problem, basically, but not to worry since the entire country was closed down," he said.

Though banks have now reopened, Mr El Didi said, a bigger problem is that relatives back home are running out of money.

"There is a curfew and there is no money in the ATMs," he said.

He decided against sending money to his family because there was no guarantee it would actually reach them.

He said he may "have to look at other options" such as sending money back with travellers to Egypt.

Rachel McArthur, a half-Egyptian UAE resident, said several of her friends were sending money to family back home this way.

"Lots of people are not trusting sending money via banks or places like Western Union, for example, purely due to the fact that we do not know whether these places would be open in Egypt," she said.

It was also difficult to find people going to particular locations, she said.

Egyptians did not have enough cash ahead of the protests because they did not expect looting. Also, since the banks have reopened, there has been a rush to withdraw money that has depleted the banks' available cash.

Most ATMs are still empty, and a lot of big supermarket chains, which accept credit or debit cards, are closed or have been vandalised, she said.

Ms McArthur regularly sends money back home, but said her family does not need immediate cash.

She is planning, however, to send money to Egypt with a cousin who is travelling there from London.

Prices are also rising in the country as shortages take hold, creating even more distress for poorer families and the unemployed.

"I can't begin to imagine what it is like for those who are unemployed or taking care of family members who are very sick," she said.