Egypt Table of Contents

The 1986 census estimated that 2.25 million Egyptian nationals were working outside the country. Only small numbers of Egyptians, primarily professionals, had left the country in search of employment before 1974. Then, in that year, the government lifted all restrictions on labor migration. The move came at a time when oil-rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf and neighboring Libya were implementing major development programs with funds generated by the quadrupling of oil revenues in 1973. By 1975 an estimated 500,000 Egyptians, mostly single, unskilled men, were working on construction sites in Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. At least 50,000 others were employed elsewhere in the Middle East. By 1980 more than 1 million Egyptians were working abroad. That number doubled by 1982. The emergence of foreign job opportunities alleviated some of the pressure on domestic employment. Many of these workers sent a significant portion of their earnings to their families in Egypt. As early as 1979, these remittances amounted to US$2 billion, a sum equivalent to the country's combined earnings from cotton exports, Suez Canal transit fees, and tourism.

The foreign demand for Egyptian labor peaked in 1983, at which time an estimated 3.28 million Egyptians workers were employed abroad. After that year, political and economic developments in the Arab oil-producing countries caused a retrenchment in employment opportunities. The Iran-Iraq War decline in oil prices forced the Persian Gulf oil industry into a recession, which caused many Egyptians to lose their jobs. Up to 1 million workers returned home. Most of the expatriate workforce remained abroad but new labor migration from Egypt slowed considerably. In late 1989, the number of Egyptian workers abroad still exceeded 2.2 million.

The majority of Egyptian labor migrants expected to return home eventually, but thousands left their country each year with the intention of permanently resettling in various Arab countries, Europe, or North America. These emigrants tended to be highly educated professionals, mostly doctors, engineers, and teachers. Their departure caused a serious "brain drain" for Egypt. Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait were the Arab countries most likely to accept skilled Egyptians as permanent residents. Iraq, which sought agriculturists trained in irrigation techniques, encouraged Egyptian farmers to move to the sparsely populated but fertile lands in the south. Outside of the Arab countries, the United States was a preferred destination. Between 1970 and 1985, about 45,000 Egyptians immigrated to the United States.

In 1989 there were several thousand Americans, Europeans, and other non-Arabs in Egypt working on projects sponsored by foreign governments, international agencies, and private charitable groups. The United States stationed more than 2,000 diplomatic personnel in the country. The majority of these personnel worked for the United States Agency for International Development (AID), which managed the largest of the many economic aid programs in Egypt. Projects financed by AID during the 1980s included irrigation networks, rural sanitation systems, pest control, family planning, and communications development.

Since 1948 Egypt has been a haven for Arab refugees and political dissidents. The number of exiles has fluctuated in response to political developments in other Arab countries and to Egypt's relations with the different regimes. In 1989 Egypt was host to several thousand Palestinian refugees and hundreds of exiles from Libya, Sudan, and various countries of the Arabian Peninsula, especially the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). Egyptian accusations that Libya had sponsored terrorist acts against Libyan exiles in Egypt fueled tension between the two countries in the late 1970s and 1980s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress