CAIRO: A large Egyptian flag being carried into a conference hall by a group of young boys and girls. Singer Sherine’s patriotic lyrics playing in the background: “Did you drink from its Nile? Have you tried singing to her [Egypt]?
This was how the Sixth Conference for Egyptians Working Abroad was inaugurated Monday, with a song called “Yeb’a Enta Akeed fi Masr (Then You’re Surely in Egypt) and a flag procession led by the second generation of Egyptian expatriates.
After the slightly off-beat ceremony, officials got right down to business, talking about remittances and addressing issues of concern to Egyptians who live and work abroad.
Remittances, one of the top three revenue earners for the Egyptian economy, reached a five-year high this past fiscal year, according to Ministry of Investment statistics. Egyptians working abroad sent home $8.5 billion in 2007/2008, most of which was spent on consumption and not investments.
Egypt came in the first place on the list of the top 10 remittance recipients in MENA in 2007, according to the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2008. Recorded remittances sent home by Egyptian migrants reached $5.9 billion in 2007, compared to $5.3 billion in 2006.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif gave the keynote speech at the two-day conference titled “Communication, Consideration and Development, organized by the Ministry of Manpower and Migration.
“We have to be honest with ourselves, there is no clear strategy for migration [in Egypt], which has led to the deterioration of [our] ability to meet the needs of the international labor market, and this includes Gulf countries, Nazif said, attributing the decline to a drop in the quality of education.
As an example, Nazif said Egypt’s share in the Gulf labor market declined from 72 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 1995. More recently, “Asian labor has replaced Egyptian labor in several Gulf countries, he added.
“It takes 15 to 20 years to train and develop skilled labor, so Egypt has to exert a lot of effort to make up for what it lost in the Arab labor market.
In her speech, Manpower Minister Aisha Abdel Hadi said that “protecting Egyptian working abroad, as well as Egyptians living in their homeland, is one fundamental responsibility of the government.
Room for improvement
Several concerns were raised in the media recently from Egyptians living abroad, who have complained of the apathy of Egyptian embassies.
Some participants of the conference said it was poorly organized. Zarif Bacilious is an Egyptian who has lived in the US for several decades and is the Dean of the School of Education and Human Service at St. John’s University in New York. “I’ve been trying to get the agenda for a while now and it’s not an easy task, he said.
Mahmoud Abdallah, chairman of the Insurance Holding Company, which falls under the umbrella of the investment ministry, said the conference is important, and can improve in time with “better preparation, more focused groups, more organization.
“Egypt benefits from a meeting like this, but I do think it can be better, he added.
Attending the conference was also Enan Galaly, founder and chairman of Helnan International Group, who had a positive outlook on Egypt’s business environment. “If we look at the number of new cities, communities, tourism [projects] and industrial zones now in Egypt, we can surly say there is a good investment climate.
Mostafa Abdallah, who has been living in Austria for the last 40 years and serves as bureau chief of Al-Ahram, referred to one problem he faces in importing medical devices and medicine to Egypt, where some supplies were held in customs for months. “We were asked to pay grounding fees and taxes, he said, adding that “any contribution from Egyptians abroad should take the shortest route [in reaching the local market].