Egyptian diaspora's dreams of returns filled with hopes and fears

Millions of Egyptians living and working abroad, in places as diverse as Abu Dhabi, Sydney, Washington, Amman and Riyadh are watching transfixed at what is happening at home, with many looking to take part in the changes gripping Egypt

Egyptian national Ahmed Mohammed, right, working with a colleague at an exhibition stand in the Mishref Fair Grounds in Kuwait. He says: 'You can have the same lifestyle in Egypt as you can here, but it's very difficult to find.'
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For nearly three million Egyptians, the turbulent events of the past two weeks have meant flickering images on television screens and frantic phone calls and e-mails as they attempt to contact loved ones.

Many kilometres from their native land, the vast Egyptian diaspora has watched the unfolding protests and violence with a mixture of hope and anxiety. Some are economic refugees, driven to work overseas by years of economic stagnation and corruption. Others have left because of their opposition to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak now in its 30th year.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, which works with the United Nations to monitor population movements, 2.7 million Egyptians live and work overseas.

About 70 per cent have made their homes in the Arab world. Of these, the biggest group can be found in Saudi Arabia, but there are also substantial communities in Libya, Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE.

Farther afield, several hundred thousand live in the United States and Canada, with other major communities in Great Britain, Italy and Australia.

Their skills are badly missed in Egypt. Many of those who have left in recent years are well educated and highly trained. Their potential can be measured by the remittances sent home. According to the organisation, these totalled a record US$7.8 billion (Dh28.7bn) in 2009, the most of any country in the Middle East.

Now, for the first time, many are talking openly about the possibility of return. Some want to play their part in bringing about change and reform; others hope that there will be a place for their talents in a new Egypt.

From Abu Dhabi to Kuwait City, Sydney, Washington, Amman and Riyadh, the members of the diaspora tell their stories and of their expectations and fears of what tomorrow may bring.


Mohammad Ali Mohammad, 26, arrived in Jordan in July 2006. He comes from El Mahalla El Kubra, a city famed for its textile industry, in the middle of the Nile Delta. He works as a janitor in a building in Amman and earns less than US$300 (Dh1,100) a month.

Mr Mohammad wanted to return home two months ago, but decided to postpone his plans for a couple of months until he had enough money saved. But since the protests started, Mr Mohammad said, he wishes he had not changed his mind. He wishes he were home, for in his heart, "I am with the rest of the youth now taking part in the protests.

"But my financial conditions do not allow me to return home now. I am watching satellite channels all day long."

Corruption, he said, is deeply rooted in Egypt and the reason why so many want to see "radical changes. If the situation improves and Egypt turns into a democratic and liberal country with political parties, freedom of expression, I think my life will change. As long as people insist on their position, we will have a democracy and our economy will improve instead of having a few people manipulating businesses. I think then there will be investors and this will create jobs for the youth and we have a fair distribution of income."

For the past four years and a half, Mr Mohammad has not returned to Egypt. He left it because of unemployment. "I couldn't find a job; the situation is very bad especially for the youth. I tried many times to look for a job, but I couldn't find one.

"The minimum wage is 400 pounds [Dh250]. It is not enough. I even broke my engagement last summer because I didn't have enough money. I can't afford to rent an apartment or buy a car."

More perhaps than missing Egypt, Mr Mohammad misses his family. "I haven't seen my family for four years and a half. I miss them.

"I have two sisters and one brother, all younger than me. I send them money monthly. Thank God with my job here I can support them, otherwise they will suffer."

Despite their reliance on his salary, his family wants him to return. "They tell me we want to see me. Four years is a long time. But the situation in Egypt was going from bad to worse."

He hears from friends, too, but not so much because they want him to come home. They want to leave. "Last month, my neighbour and friend asked me to find him a job. He told me he makes $70 a month. I told him in Jordan he can make at least $200 a month. He said if the situation continues like this in Egypt, he will leave."

For now, Mr Mohammad wants to return home in April. "First, I want to see if the situation will improve."

* Suha Philip Ma'ayeh


Ahmed Mohammed came to Kuwait City for the same reason most Egyptians come here: to find good work, a good salary and an attractive lifestyle. "You can have the same lifestyle in Egypt as you can here, but it's very difficult to find," said Mr Mohammed, 28, a consultant for an IT company.

"When I was living in Cairo with my wife, I was lucky enough to have a decent job with decent pay, but it's not like what I have now," Mr Mohammed said.

He moved to Kuwait four years ago, attracted by the low level of crime and of good government services such as health care. And the roads. The roads and the buses back home are cramped and uncomfortable compared to those in the Gulf. "If you go out with your family in Egypt, you won't find parking or a place for your children to play.

"In Egypt, you will pay more and gain less; here, you will pay less and gain more."

The last time Mr Mohammed travelled home was in December. He stayed for one month. "I'm considering going home if the situation becomes more stable. If Egypt decides to start real development, then many Egyptians living abroad will want to participate in that. If the government treats people like animals, then we will stay away."

He said it did not matter to him if Mr Mubarak remained in power, but he wanted to see change. "We need more democracy; we need better relationship with the government. There hasn't been a development plan for such a long time; we don't see the road ahead."

Mr Mohammed said his family was not keen on the idea of his moving back because "they believe the future is here: my parents and my wife - all of them." His wife hopes to join her husband one day in the Gulf, where she believes the economy is stronger and they will have a more secure future.

"But if I had a good situation and good money - even if it wasn't as much as I make here - and a good home, I would prefer to go back."

A return to Cairo would mean a smaller, more affordable car and a return to paying taxes. "I'm not sure if my standard of life would improve or not. It depends how things go, but if it goes well, many people will start thinking about going back.

"If you have a bad time when you return, you will miss everything in the life you left behind. But if your home - Cairo, your family, the streets and the Nile - treats you well, you will be happy."

* James Calderwood

United States

Mohamed Hafez has been in the United States since he was nine years old, when his father moved the family from Egypt because he saw America as offering "better opportunities".

"I think he felt that Egypt wasn't as conducive for that as living in the United States was," said Mr Hafez, 27, an IT systems administrator who is considering returning to Egypt.

He said his parents had left the decision up to him.

"They want it to be a decision based not just on the heart, but based on the mind … [that] I have valid reasons to go back, not that I want to go back just because I want to."

"I grew up between being in the US and being in Egypt. I have come to call both countries my home," he said. "I am really a dual national in the [greatest] sense of the word.

"I see both the US and Egypt as my home. I grew up over there and I've lived here for 17 years. So my loyalties lie to both," he said.

He does not expect to give up the comforts he has become used to in the US if he returns to Egypt.

"I know that everyone thinks that Egypt is not as comfortable an environment to live in. I disagree," he said. "Places like Alexandria and obviously Sharm el Sheikh are places that are more like vacation spots than anything.

"What I would be giving up would be the wealth and the breadth of opportunities that are available here that are not available over there. I would be giving those up for sure."

But Mr Hafez thinks returning to Egypt to do his part helping the country move forward would be worth it because so much of his family is there - aunts, uncles, cousins.

"It would certainly be a very nice environment to live in. Being around family and your countrymen ... and going back to your identity, going back to your roots would make it worth it, as well as … I feel like I would be a highly contributing member" [of society] over there," he said.

"The knowledge and experience that I have gained here could be very useful over there. I feel like I could actually be very helpful, as someone who lives in that country, to do good over there and to contribute."

* Michael Hernandez


Omar Mostafa, 34, from Cairo, works in media in Sydney. He moved to Sydney four years ago after meeting and marrying an Australian woman in Egypt. "She does not speak Arabic and I speak four languages, so we decided to move over here. I've been back home once or twice a year since then," he said.

"I'm hoping to go back to Egypt to live. There are so many things I miss about my country. I miss the people; I miss the warmth; I miss the nightlife; I miss the humour; I miss my family. We've had one regime after another stealing the treasures of this country, and yet it's still so rich, in its people and its culture and its beauty. I see myself going back there to live in the next couple of years, but I also want to go back there right now for a visit, maybe even next week if it's possible. Obviously it's difficult, with the curfew and the airport closing. But I want to support my fellow Egyptians in their struggle. I want to be with them in Tahrir Square, to stand alongside them, and I can tell you that most of the people I know here would like to do the same thing."

Mr Mostafa said his family would support him in whatever he decided to do. "If I say I'm coming, they'll be waiting. My family don't want to come over here, they prefer living in Egypt. But if I decided to go back right now, it would warm their hearts a little."

Life, he imagines, would be good back in Egypt, mostly because his family circumstances are different from many of those who are protesting on the streets.

"I'm from a good family and I had a well-paid job in Cairo: I was assistant to the general secretary of the German University in Egypt. My material comforts didn't change when I moved to Australia; actually I was much better off in Egypt. If I went back home, there are things I would have to give up.

"I love Australia as a country, I love the people here and I would take back very good memories. I'm going to miss the ocean, the waterfalls, the mountains, the bush - we don't have much bush in Egypt. But nothing in the world compares to your homeland. I don't love anything else in my life as much as Egypt.

"I can't say whether I would leave again if things didn't work out. Egypt is where I want to be."

* Kathy Marks


Mohamed Ganou, 52, is from Mansoura, Egypt, a city of about 420,000 people 120km downriver from Cairo. Like Cairo and Alexandria, it has been the site of protests for the past two weeks.

"I was put in prison in 1995," Mr Ganou said. "The prisons in Egypt are very bad."

It was politics that put the former banker behind bars. Egypt was about to go to the polls for parliamentary elections. "My friends and I were supporting a good man, an Islamic man." The problem was, the candidate was not a member of Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

"A very big officer came to my home with around 20 police and said, 'Come with us for 10 minutes'." Mr Ganou's family did not hear from him for the next 26 days. Prison, he said, was a nightmare. "There was no sun, no place to wash." He and his friends were fed only twice a day. "Foul," the Egyptian dish of mashed fava beans. He said the word with disgust.

The worst part was the torture. "They hit us, they used electricity and sexually abused some of us. I have no evidence of this; they did not keep a record."

Mr Ganou's pay continued despite his absence from the government bank where he worked. According to official records, he did not miss a day of work. "My manager came to the police to ask why they were holding his employee. They said, 'Shhh, don't ask'." After the elections, Mr Ganou and his friends were simply released.

In 2003, Mr Ganou was made redundant. Now he is contracted to teach English and Arabic in the UAE every few months. "I'm a banker, but I now do anything to make a living.

"I am not escaping, I live in Egypt." He was forced, however, to find work abroad. If change came to Egypt, "the circumstances would be better. I could maybe work".

"I hope for a better future for my children. I spent all my money to educate them in a good school, hoping that they would be polite, educated and handsome - thank God they are."

Mr Ganou said all Egyptians wanted was peace, and peace, he said, was what was denied to Egyptians because of the West's support of Mr Mubarak. "From the first day, [the US president, Barack] Obama could have thrown him out, but he supported him because of Israel.

"If America supports [Mubarak] and he stays, Egypt will not forgive. We will hate the West."

The protests, Mr Ganou said, must succeed. "Many have died, we cannot go back."

* Sean McLain

Saudi Arabia

Every time Reem Ossama and Mohamed Gebriel went home to Egypt for vacation, the Riyadh couple saw the downward drift: the deteriorating education, the inadequate hospitals, the pollution.

"We Egyptians outside of Egypt see actually how the country has gone down more than the people inside," Ms Ossama said. "Everyone was feeling bad about the corruption, no dignity."

Most of all, they said, they were alarmed by the growing divide between rich and poor. "The marriage between authority and wealth - that has been the tagline of Mubarak's rule," said Ossam's husband, Mohamed Gebriel, a project management consultant. Both of them are in their 30s. They asked not to be photographed because of the situation back home.

Like most of the 923,000 Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, the couple have been glued to their television and Facebook, the social-networking website, sometimes until 4am, watching the drama in their beloved homeland.

"I have witnessed in the last nine to 10 days one of the worst periods of my life and some of the best periods of my life," Mr Gebriel said, describing his changing moods as he witnessed the ups and downs of the news.

In an echo of Tahrir Square, there is democracy in this household in that all views get aired.

Mrs Ossama believes it is time to stop protesting and give Mr Mubarak a chance to make good on his promises. "If everybody is willing to sit down and talk, we are going to have ways of reaching real democracy … I think we should all go home and continue our lives.

"I don't like for Mubarak to go out like some criminal," Mrs Ossama, a mother of three, added. "He's a military man. He's over 80 years old. We will be unjust to say all the 30 years were bad. He should finish his term … and step down as an ex-president with all the dignity."

Her husband agreed at first, but changed his mind after the attacks on the Tahrir Square protesters by pro-government mobs on Wednesday night. "If people go home now, [pro-regime demonstrators] have succeeded," he said.

Both, however, are optimistic about the future.

"Even in giving birth to a baby, it's painful," Mrs Ossama said. "But after this all goes away, you have this beautiful newborn life. So I think all this will go away sooner or later and …"

"We'll have a newborn Egypt," her husband finished her sentence.

And if not, if politicians in the future backtrack, if they fall into their bad old ways, well then there is always something for the people to grab, something that now is forever part of Egypt's history, Mrs Ossama says. "We have Tahrir Square!"

* Caryle Murphy

One who returned

As a political tsunami washed over Egypt, Tamer Gouda could not stay away. The 36-year-old father of three felt the tug of something far bigger than himself.

So, against his friends' advice, he hopped on a Cairo-bound plane on January 28. He dropped off his bags and made his way to a mosque downtown for the midday prayers.

Three times, he recalls, the congregation interrupted the khutba with applause as the imam made clear that his sympathies lay with those demanding change.

"That's when I first thought the regime was finished," said Mr Gouda, sitting in an overstuffed chair in his Riyadh living room.

As the worshippers left the mosque to walk three kilometres to Tahrir Square, "everybody was proud and full of love to his country", Mr Gouda said.

But in the end, he did not make it all the way to Tahrir; there was tear gas. Too many people. Over the next few days he helped neighbours protect his parents' street from would-be looters and made another attempt on Tuesday - this time successful - to enter Tahrir Square.

Now back in Riyadh, Mr Gouda said he was happy he went. "They were the most important days of my life," said the engineer. "I will be very proud that I have been there for the rest of my life … For the first time in my 36 years I found a way to explain my rights, express myself and my feelings."

Mr Gouda's wife, Ghada Reda, said the events surprised even Egyptians themselves. "For a long time, we have this feeling that Egyptians will never have a revolution and they will accept what's happening to them," she said. But the couple fears that events could spiral out of control if Mr Mubarak is forced to step down immediately.

"I'm afraid of the mess," Mrs Reda says.

Mr Gouda. however, said: "What happened is good for the people, to change and learn how to say 'No,' But for people who don't understand what is democracy, you'll find people fighting left and right."

Mr Gouda is also worried, he said, that the leaderless protest movement would lose its positive direction if it went on for days or weeks demanding more and more from the government.

"Not having a leader is very important," he said. "It gives this uprising a very big potential: That nobody can stop it. But also nobody can end it, and that's the problem."

Mr Gouda believes that the government "knows that 100 per cent they are going" and that the army should handle the transition.

"The army in Egypt is very loyal to the country and they want a peaceful transfer of power," he said. "We have to trust the army; the army now is handling everything."

Even before recent events, the couple had been exploring the possibility of leaving Saudi Arabia, where they have been for five years, and moving home with their three children.

* Caryle Murphy