Since the beginning of the year, 4,154 Egyptian migrants have arrived on the shores of Italy. This represents a threefold increase compared to the same period last year. Confronted with an economic crisis and wide-spread repression at home, they consider leaving Egypt by boat as their only option.
Beginning in the spring, small boats loaded with migrants started arriving in Italy almost every day. Rescued off the coast of Calabria, Sicily and Lampedusa for the most part, these new arrivals take enormous risks to reach Europe by crossing the Central Mediterranean, one of the world's deadliest migration routes.
According to the Italian interior ministry, 26,652 people arrived in Italy by sea between January 1 and June 27, 2022. Egypt comes in second after Bangladesh as the top nationality of people arriving irregularly in Italy. It was even the first nationality represented among the arrivals up until May.
The distance from the Egyptian coast to Italy is considerable: for example, more than 1,500 kilometers separate Alexandria from the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily.
Of the total number of people disembarked in Italy this year, 4,605 were Bangladeshi (16%) and 4,154 were Egyptian (15%). This is a threefold increase compared to 2021, when 1,543 Egyptian nationals were counted.
The European Commission has called this "a spectacular increase", and in an internal note dated June 15 and consulted by the media Euro Observer, it pledged €80 million to the Egyptian government to prevent people from taking boats toward Italy.
Of this amount, around €23 million will reportedly be handed out this year for "maritime border surveillance equipment." The remaining €57 million will be doled out next year "for further equipment to be identified," the document stated.
The note further stated that increased controls of the Egyptian border with Libya and Sudan are also to be expected, but without further details.
A 271% increase on the energy bill
The factors pushing Egyptians to leave for Europe via irregular channels seem to be rooted in the dire eonomic constitution of their country.
For several years now, Egypt has been mired in a serious economic crisis from which it is struggling to extricate itself. In 2016, two years after Abdel Fattah al-Sissi became president, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released an initial bailout loan of 12 billion dollars. The government then planned to implement austerity measures while encouraging the development of an inclusive economy driven by the private sector, necessary to create jobs and reduce poverty.
"Only half of this plan was implemented," says Timothy Kaldas, researcher at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. "Austerity has become the reality for millions of people. The state has cut subsidies for oil, natural gas and even electricity. For Egyptians, the bill has been hefty: the amount of money spent on electricity by the poor and the middle class has increased by 271% between 2011 and 2017-2018."
As a result, the poverty rate in Egypt has skyrocketed. According to official figures, it now stands at 29.7%, two points more than in 2015. The World Bank issued an even grimmer outlook in 2019, declaring that 60% of the Egyptian population was very poor or vulnerable.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have dealt the final blow to an economic situation that was already moribund. Before the Russian offensive, Egypt was one of Kyiv’s main clients, importing 30% of its wheat imports from Ukraine. The remaining 60% of Egypt’s wheat imports came from Russia. This situation of almost total dependence makes the threat of a food shortage in Egypt all the more likely, the consequences of which would be disastrous for the population.
Faced with the scarcity of imports and the price of food increasing by 17.5% in February, the Egyptian government has been struggling to continue subsidizing the traditional Egyptian "baladi" bread, which has fed 70% of the population for decades.
Already in 2020, the Egyptian authorities had made the population pay for their poor economic management. To maintain the price of bread at the subsidized level of 5 piastres, or around €0.0027, the government reduced its weight. From 110 grams in 2016, it went down to 90 grams in 2020. This represents a departure from the years 1988 to 2013, when Egyptians could buy a 130-gram flatbread at a steady price.
More than 60,000 prisoners of conscience
For Timothy Kaldas, "the authorities constantly accuse foreigners as the source of all the evils in the country. But Egyptians have been fighting daily for a long time. Many young adults who cannot afford to move out live with their parents to spend as little as possible. So after several years without improvements, and faced with a constellation of problems, it’s logic that they seek opportunities elsewhere.”
In this context, many Egyptians are turning to the informal sector for work, which is certainly easier to access, but also more precarious. Some also choose entrepreneurship, a seemingly faster and easier way to earn a living. "But even starting your own business, the last resort for many people who cannot find work, is complicated. It is not uncommon to see the military arrive overnight in your offices, and close everything, if your activities do not suit them," says Kaldas.
The lucky ones are reprimanded. The others are thrown into prison. According to Amnesty International, Egypt currently has more than 60,000 prisoners of conscience, including "peaceful activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, academics and journalists detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association". For Bahey Eldin Hassan, an Egyptian pioneer of human rights exiled in France, the Egypt of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is comparable to the "Syria of Bashar al-Assad" or "the Sudan" of former dictator Omar al-Bashir, as he said in an interview with TV5monde.
On April 27, the Egyptian president made concessions. That day, more than 3,200 detainees were released, on the anniversary of the "liberation of Sinai", a peninsula occupied by Israel from 1967 to April 25, 1982. The presidential pardon will not resolve eight years of restrictions, threats, and censorship. For Egyptians in search of a better life, it is difficult to imagine a future in a country with a leader who could technically remain until 2030, due to a revision of the Constitution carried out in 2019.
"I fear that migration has become the inevitable fate of thousands of Egyptians", says Hassan Abdel Rahman, a researcher. "The dream of a better future in Europe has become the main objective for many."