Economic realities see southern Egyptian workers return home
Cairo - Rampant poverty and a lack of employment opportunities forced Mohamed Khaled to leave his home in the southern province of Aswan three years ago to seek employment in Cairo, almost 800km away.
In Cairo, Khaled found a job at a plastics factory for a salary of $315 a month, an amount that inflation has decreased in purchasing power to $159 but is much higher than anything he could have received in Aswan.
Six months ago, however, Khaled said he decided to return to his hometown when a relative pointed him to a job with a local company constructing a solar power plant in the province.
“I packed up immediately and took the train to Aswan, applied at the company and was hired a week later,” Khaled said. “This was actually a dream coming true: To find a job near my family home and not to have to stay hundreds of kilometres away.”
When he started working at the plant, Khaled, 28, discovered that many of his new co-workers had similar stories. They had worked in Cairo and Alexandria but were glad to return home when the opportunity came up.
Aswan, which depended on tourism for decades, is diversifying its economy, particularly because of the tribulations of Egypt’s tourism sector, which has not returned to pre-2011 levels.
The new flow of investments to southern Egyptian provinces such as Aswan and the projects that are being established there aim to reverse a domestic migration trend that made Cairo one of the fastest growing cities in the world.
Millions of workers from the southern provinces relocate to Cairo and the coastal provinces in northern Egypt to seek work, amid extreme official neglect, poverty and unemployment. Now, some of those people are returning south, with their home provinces receiving more attention from lawmakers in Cairo.
The government is specifying more funds for development and drawing up ambitious development plans in provinces outside Cairo.
Egypt does not have much to spare for development projects with foreign debt and the salaries of its 6 million civil servants eating up two-thirds of its budget.
Nonetheless, 37% of the $7.6 billion specified for development projects in the 2017-18 budget were allocated for southern provinces. This increased focus on development, economists said, can create new realities in the provinces at the socio-economic and security levels.
“The whole development plan in the southern provinces depends on the attraction of investments,” said Egyptian economist Reda Lasheen, “but you cannot attract investments without infrastructure and this shows the importance of the funds specified for these provinces in the government’s budget, even as they are still minimal.”
Poverty — 27.8% at the national level with most of it concentrated in southern provinces — and unemployment turned the provinces into a fertile soil for radical organisations.
In Aswan, the poverty level is 39% and more than 15.3% of the workforce is unemployed. Most Aswan residents who are employed work outside the province.
“Nonetheless, these are realities that will change very soon with the province coming back to the attention of economic planners,” Aswan Governor Magdi Hegazi said.
Over the next five years, Aswan is to see development projects worth tens of billions of dollars, Hegazi said. These projects, he said, would turn Aswan into an economic powerhouse for the entire African continent.
The projects include industrial zones, major power plants, mining activities and a land crossing on the border with Sudan.
The solar power plant that Khaled works for is one of 40 planned to be constructed in Aswan over four years. The plants should generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity that will raise Egypt’s overall electricity capacity.
More importantly, thousands of workers are needed for the construction of the plants, a process that will require $5.1 billion in private-sector investment. Thousands more workers will be needed to operate the plants.
This is only one of many projects planned for the province that gives hope to workers like Khaled. His monthly salary of $227 at the power plant is enough for him to live on and save up for marriage.
“I still cannot believe that I am finally working in Aswan, a dream that seemed impossible to realise a few months ago,” Khaled said. “I am looking forward to a future full of hope, something that used to absent itself for many years in the past.”