Libyans in Egypt losing hope of returning home
Cairo - When Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime fell in 2011 after months of bloody fighting with the opposition, Adel Abdel Kafi, a former Libyan Air Force pilot, was anxious to return home.
Abdel Kafi had been in Egypt since 1983 when he decided to defect. Instead of flying his military jet to strike targets in Chad, as per instructions from Libyan commanders, he flew to Cairo and has been there since.
He was hoping that Qaddafi’s downfall would give him a chance to return to Libya and participate in rebuilding a Libya in which the Qaddafi regime’s heavy-handed repression was no more.
“All Libyans were having the same dream, the dream of being part of the rebuilding of their country after Qaddafi’s downfall,” Abdel Kafi said. “With ongoing violence, however, this dream is evaporating.”
Despite the fall of the Qaddafi regime, thousands of nationals who escaped to Egypt and others who fled the violence during Libya’s 2011 bloody uprising are losing hope of returning home.
Before Qaddafi’s autocracy came to an end, thousands of Libyans, including Abdel Kafi, were already in Egypt. But when the popular uprising erupted against the Libyan ruler, thousands more Libyan citizens headed for Egypt to escape violence and bloodshed.
They were hoping to return after the situation normalised but going back seems to be an illusory notion now with rival factions fighting each other and wreaking mayhem in Libya in general.
“Some Libyans have been trying to return home from Egypt but they cannot do this while all this violence is raging,” said Mohamed al-Salak, a Libyan political commentator living in Egypt. “Most of the Libyans living here are experiencing tough financial conditions but they are stuck here and cannot do anything about it.”
About 825,000 Libyans are living in Egypt, according to Libyan political analyst Ali al-Sallabi, quoting sources in the Egyptian government. The figure is debatable and Nuri bin Saud, a Libyan rights activist, is one of the sceptics. He estimates the number of Libyans in Egypt to be much lower at 350,000.
Most Libyans are living in Alexandria, Cairo and the north-western province of Marsa Matrouh. Some live in the provinces along the Nile Delta.
When Qaddafi’s regime fell, there was optimism among Libyans who had flocked to Egypt during the months of violence that followed the uprising against the Libyan ruler.
In 2011, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (the Libyan parliament of the time) dispatched a panel of lawmakers to neighbouring countries — Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia — to convince refugees to return to Libya.
In Egypt, the panel met Libyan expatriates and assured them they would not face problems if they returned.
The Libyan Embassy in Cairo opened an office in eastern Cairo to receive refugees who wanted to return and tried to reassure Qaddafi’s supporters, in particular, that there would be no retaliation or legal questioning if they went back to Libya.
But in 2014, Libya burst into violence after Islamists lost in the legislative elections and proclaimed the General National Congress to be the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, refusing to accept the internationally recognised House of Representatives, which convened in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Now, the House of Representatives has its own military force that is pitted against the Islamist-led military force of the congress, which convenes in Tripoli. Battles between the two sides have turned some parts of Libya into no-go areas for civilians.
In December, the United Nations brokered a political agreement for a national government with a presidency council, a cabinet, House of Representatives and State Council. So far, the agreement is mere ink on paper and Libya continues to be ravaged by conflict.
In early 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS) emerged as a new military player on the Libyan scene, fighting against both forces and killing civilians as well, in its bid to overrun territory and Libya’s oilfields.
In Egypt, Libyan refugees — deprived of all types of state support because of the turmoil back home — are going through tough economic conditions, according to Salak.
“I know of people who have to sell their properties and home furniture to get money to eat,” he said.
Abdel Kafi said more than 100,000 Libyans have fled violence in Benghazi to other areas in Libya. He said the situation is deteriorating further in Libya, especially in the country’s eastern parts where schools and hospitals are out of service.
Abdel Kafi returned to Libya in early 2012, hoping to be part of the rebuilding of the Libyan Army and Air Force. When violence erupted, however, he returned to Cairo.
“You cannot rebuild a country while everybody is fighting against everybody,” he said. “I have spent 27 years in Egypt, dreaming of the day when I could return to my country, but when this day came, Libya turned into a very dangerous place.”