Exodus from Egypt: The country’s youth move on


Sitting at a table in a cozy cafe in Cairo, Mirette Michail says she wants to stay in Egypt, but the recently-engaged artist doesn’t envision the country rocked by political turmoil as a place to raise children.

“I’m not leaving. I’m staying put. Unless I have a child, in which case then it’s a different story,” she says. “Then I’d leave.”

The cafe is run by a friend, who asked her to decorate the walls with pieces of her artwork: an elegantly painted sign tells patrons to mind their head, and each chair is adorned with a winged heart. Michail and her friend, Sameh Ismail, haven’t seen each other in 10 years.

Talk quickly turns to the changes that Egypt has seen since the Jan. 25 revolution of 2011. Two years of turbulence quickly came to an abrupt halt following the ouster of Islamist Mohammed Morsi and a takeover by then-defense-minister, now-President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi. The 18 months since have seen increasing changes to the nature of life in Egypt, for supporters of the government, but even more so for its detractors.

The two begin listing their friends who have either left since 2011, or saw the changes that were taking place and decided not to return.

Ismail mentions several friends who moved to Saudi Arabia because the job prospects are better — true to a longstanding tradition of Egyptians seeking temporary work in the Gulf.

Michail has many Coptic Christian friends who left after the revolution and during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, a phenomenon that has been well documented.

Others have left too, members of the artistic community, who often came to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes as they sat on the chairs Michail had painted.

“They started leaving during the Morsi era,” she explains, in reference to former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. “They just didn’t feel it was a climate that would be helpful to them.”

But the changes brought about by Sisi haven’t brought hope to the artist community, many of whom were deeply connected to the ideas of the 2011 revolution.

“Most people are just sick of things now, as they see no change,” she says. “This is especially for people who truly believed in the revolution. They’ve lost any hope. Even some of most famous Egyptian graffiti artists left, either because they were scared or couldn’t find any hope here, so they just left.”

The infamous 2014 law that threatens nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and “threaten national unity” has had an impact on the creative community, as it has stopped the main flow of funding to some of the creative projects that artists depended on to survive, Michail says.

“After the NGO crackdown, there’s no funding any more. Things are just getting harder and harder for artists,” she says.

As a result, Michail has noticed that growing numbers of her friends have left or are trying to leave.

She gasps when asked how many. “Most of them! Some are still trying to make it happen, through scholarships or studying abroad at least. But it’s really hard to leave because of the difficulties in getting visas, you can’t just pack your bags.”

She says a few friends have managed to get visas to Sweden or the United States, and increasing numbers are attempting to go to Australia, but news of worsening treatment of immigrants there is slowly putting them off. Her own recent engagement has started to make Michail think about the challenges of raising a child in Egypt.

“It’s not safe and it’s not healthy. Nothing is healthy here: the environment, social problems, education — everything,” she says.

The Egyptian Population Council estimates more than 1.6 million Egyptians under 35 have legally emigrated from the country as of 2014. Research from the International Organisation for Migration suggest the events of January 2011 pushed more of the country’s youth to emigrate, often in the hope of finding jobs.

Given that the main demands of the revolution were “bread and freedom,” this isn’t surprising. In 2011, 90% of Egypt’s unemployed were under 29 years old.

Some Egyptians hope the many economic reforms brought about by Sisi will spur job growth. For others, it will take more than better job prospects to make them stay. A string of high profile arrests of activists, particularly after the 2013 law cracking down on public protests, has cast a dark shadow over Egypt’s youth.

Cases like that of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist who was recently transferred from prison to a military hospital after months of hunger strike, and Mohamed Soltan, another imprisoned activist on hunger strike, have begun to serve as a warning. The consequences of being political in public have changed dramatically since 2011.

“From talking to those that have left, I know they hope to come back if things change. But our country now is going in one direction, and we can’t turn back. For them, coming back at all means risking arrest,” says Nageeb, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

Nageeb is a student from El Badrashin, a town that is known to house many supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization. The Brotherhood are now labeled a terrorist organization in Egypt. Following the ouster of Morsi in June 2013, the new government cracked down on the organization, storming a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Raba’a Adawiya Square in August 2013, leading to at least 817 deaths.

After the Raba’a massacre, Nageeb noticed the village population was dwindling.

“You’d wake up one day and see on Facebook that people had left for Turkey or the Gulf,” he says. “Some were neighbours, some were friends, some were just people from the village where we’d visit each other to say hello. Suddenly, they were gone.”

Nageeb estimates that 10 families from his village left. He says they either feared for their families’ or their own safety, or simply took a job elsewhere as a good excuse to leave immediately. He himself is hoping to follow suit.

“I hope to leave this country, but yet I also hope that somehow something will get better. I love this country —unfortunately,” he says, laughing nervously.