Inspired by the revolution, diaspora Egyptians to return

When Ihab Fouly, 45, learned of the popular uprising in Tahrir Square on 25 January from his home in Kuwait, he made an admittedly bold decision.  He booked one-way tickets on the next available flight to Cairo for himself, his wife, and two kids. He left what he considers “a perfect life” to be part of the revolution in the country of his birth.

Fouly was in Tahrir Square from 29 January until 11 February, the day former President Hosni Mubarak resigned, at which point Fouly turned to business – his forte. He withdrew his assets from other ventures, and now invests in seven fledgling Egyptian companies.   

At a time when security concerns and political uncertainty have led to a decline in tourism, investment, and overall economic activity in Egypt, Egyptians like Fouly see the perfect opportunity for a brain drain reversal.

There are no estimates on the number of expat Egyptians returning to Egypt since the beginning of the revolution due to the unofficial nature of the migration.  But networks of expat Egyptians inevitably lead to stories of educated, experienced, and successful members of their communities who have decided to leave behind comfortable lives abroad to contribute to the development of post-Mubarak Egypt.

Ahmed Lotfy, 31, will be bringing his wife and son to Cairo from New Jersey on 28 July. Lotfy, who protested the Mubarak regime in New York City, plans to grow food and raise livestock on a piece of land he inherited along the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road. His farm will be a center for learning about local, organic, and unprocessed food – Lotfy’s passion. 

“We are definitely looking for a food revolution in Egypt,” he said.       

Hanna Elhattab, 22, is another US-based Egyptian scheduled to return next month. During the revolution, she rallied Egyptians in the Washington D.C. area to protest the Mubarak regime. Once in Egypt, she plans to contribute to election monitoring, women’s empowerment, and developing civil society in general, either by volunteering or through working at a non-partisan NGO focused on democratization.

Ayman Zohry, an expert on Egyptian migration, believes that expat Egyptians like Fouly, Lotfy, and Elhattab can contribute positively to the nation's development. 

“Of course the country could benefit from their return,” he said.  But he worries that a move back to post-revolutionary Egypt will bring daunting challenges. He is concerned that Egypt’s current infrastructure, work norms, and institutions will be impediments to success and reintegration.  “It will be a shock,” he concluded.   

In a study on the Egyptian diaspora published last year by the International Organization of Migration, co-authors Zohry and Priyaka Debnath noted that over 85 percent of Egyptians abroad have earned at least one university-level degree, compared to only 9.6 percent of Egyptians in Egypt.  Furthermore, 97.5 percent of Egyptian survey respondents in the West say they have acquired new skills while abroad. The lower figure of 44.3 percent for Egyptians in Arab states is related to the fact that most Egyptians there are laborers on temporary work contracts. Nonetheless, with relatively high education and skill levels, expat Egyptians have the potential to contribute to development in ways other than remitting earnings, which is their primary contribution today.                   

A World Bank report estimated that US$7.6 billion were remitted to Egypt in 2010, a major source of foreign income representing approximately 3.5 percent of GDP. The percentage has decreased recently largely as a result of the global economic crisis; the 2008 figure was 10 percent. 

Remittances contribute to the wellbeing of Egyptian families, development of the banking sector, and have multiplier effects that reverberate throughout the local economy. But Zohry noted in his study that 75 percent of remittances are used on daily household expenses, so there are limits to the development capacity of these funds.

Asked whether expat Egyptians can better contribute to the country's development through remittances or return, Zohry says, “They have more knowledge and experience than money.”

To facilitate a successful return and minimize the “shock,” Zohry advocates that each sector of Egyptian society should have a government office to match and connect expat Egyptians with individuals or organizations of similar specialties. Before moving back, Zohry believes that expat Egyptians should spend one to two months each year in Egypt for a few years, acquainting themselves with the Egyptian equivalent of their sector abroad.   

Of the estimated 7-8 million Egyptians abroad, Zohly believes that the percentage interested in returning will increase due to the revolution. The figure in his last study was 60 percent. 

“They are attracted to the post-revolutionary atmosphere,” he said.

Lotfy recognizes the immediate challenge of settling into Egypt with his young family, but reasons, “That would be the case anywhere.” 

As to his reasons for not returning to start a farm before the revolution, he said, “You had to be a corrupt person to get anywhere.”  He understands that cultural shifts take time. “Things haven’t changed yet, but they are changing.”     

Elhattab has kept up with events in Egypt since she left five years ago. She is confident that she can reintegrate and tackle political issues like accountability and transparency, and social issues like sectarian strife and sexual harassment. 

“There will be frustrations and challenges at times, but it’s part of the process," she said. "Democracy and freedom come with a heavy price.”

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