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Free Flights Save Egyptians in Libya From Violence — And Provide Cheap Vacations

The Egyptian government is providing free flights to thousands of Egyptians living in Libya. Many are fleeing oppression, though some look at it as simply a cheap way to get home.

by Eric Reidy
Mar 31 2015, 10:37pm

Photo by Eric Reidy

Standing in line at the airport in Djerba, an island just off the Tunisian coast that's a popular discount destination for European tourists, Mohammed Mossad pointed to his collarbone. "One of the militiamen hit me here," the 31-year-old told VICE News. "The bone is broken."

Mossad was one of about 250 Egyptians who filed into the check-in hall of Zarzis International Airport, otherwise deserted except for a small group of off-season tourists. The Egyptians came pushing luggage carts packed high with suitcases and bags. Aside from the occasional injury like Mossad's, however, there was little evidence that the Egyptians were fleeing a war zone. A low din of conversation filled the hall as people milled around talking to friends and others waited in line to receive their tickets home.

The group was the most recent to descend on the airport in an ongoing evacuation of Egyptians from Libya that began days after a video emerged on February 15 showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptians by the Islamic State in the Libyan town of Sirte.

Related: Suicide attacks, airstrikes, and political turmoil rages on in Libya

"Of course that is one of the reasons, but it is not the only reason [for the evacuation]," said Tamer Mamdouh, an Egyptian diplomat in Djerba coordinating the evacuation. According to him, general insecurity related to ongoing conflict in Libya was the overall motivation for the evacuations.

There has also been a recent backlash against Egyptians in Libya following airstrikes by the Egyptian government in the wake of the beheadings. "The evacuation is the consequence of the airstrikes," Moalla Ghazi, a Tunisia-based analyst on Libyan affairs, told VICE News.

Since the evacuation began, more than 10,000 Egyptians have made their way along Libyan roads controlled by militias to the Ras Jedir border crossing between Tunisia and Libya. Once on the Tunisian side, buses chartered by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs take the evacuees on the two-hour trip to the airport in Djerba, about 300 miles from Tunis's Bardo Museum, site of the March 18 militant attacks that claimed the lives of 21 people. From Djerba, they board free flights to Cairo.

More than 20,000 Egyptians have also returned to Egypt via the country's western border with Libya. There is no official tally of how many Egyptians remain in Libya, but Mamdouh says the number may be as high as 500,000, most of them people who traveled to the country in search of better economic opportunities than exist in Egypt's tepid economy.

This is the second time in a year that instability has prompted a mass exodus of Egyptians from Libya. In August of last year, fighting between rival militias following the rejection of election results by Libyan Dawn, a coalition of Islamists and anti-Gaddafi militias, resulted in the division of Libya. Now, Libyan Dawn controls more than 60 percent of the west of the country, according to Ghazi, and forces loyal to the anti-Islamist general Khalifa Haftar control most of the east.

Egyptians crossing the border at Ras Jedir are coming from the territory under the control of Libyan Dawn.

"At the beginning, our relations with the Libyans were good," said Mossad, the man with the broken collarbone. He went to Libya in 2013 to work as a day laborer. After the fighting last August was followed by the airstrikes, he said, the situation for Egyptians started to deteriorate. They faced increasingly poor treatment from their employers, and shop owners would refuse their business or overcharge them.

Egyptians wait at the Zerzis International Airport in Djerba. (Photo by Eric Reidy)

The security situation also grew worse as militias began kidnapping Egyptians and demanding ransoms. "We were living without safety," Mossad said. "We couldn't go out of our homes." His collarbone, he says, was broken by a militiaman who assaulted him because Mossad was Egyptian.

Zaineb Mansour, an Egyptian born in Libya, was also at the airport. Her husband had already returned to Egypt, and now she was going to join him with their five children. She had never been to Egypt, but she decided to leave Libya, she says, after her valuables were stolen. She says she was targeted because she was Egyptian.

That said, many of the Egyptians at the airport said they had few problems during their journey to the border, in large part because they paid for an insurance policy of sorts for when they encountered militias.

"On the road we didn't have any problems because we were with a Libyan who was taking us," explained Mohammed Nessem. "If we had gone by ourselves, we would have been robbed and sent back."

At the border, Libyan officials often demanded bribes before letting the Egyptians pass.

"Everything was for money…. This was supposed to cost 60 dinar ($44)," Mossad said, pointing to an exit stamp in his passport. "There were people who paid 100 ($74) or 120 ($89) dinar." He said he was also forced to give a militiaman the SIM card from his cellphone.

Egyptians' opinion of the security situation in the western part of Libya appeared to depend at least in part on their socioeconomic situations in the country.

"It's actually safe," Ayman Abd Elfatah, 40, who has lived on and off in Tripoli for 22 years, said of the western part of the country. "There are isolated incidents just like in any other place." Elfatah is a shop owner and maintained business relationships with several Libyans.

"People… took the opportunity to go back to Egypt on a free flight," he said. He was going home to spend time with his family before returning to Libya after Ramadan in July. Another man said he'd planned on going home to Libya in two or three months with the hopes of getting married, and so had merely moved his trip up to take advantage of the flight. He, like Elfatah, planned to return to Libya in a couple of months.

Related: Watch 'Migrant Prisons of Libya'

The Egyptian government has said that it will provide free flights as long as there are Egyptians in Libya who wish to flee the country, where there appears to be no end in sight to the fighting.

"As soon as I arrive in Egypt, I will thank god that I returned from Libya safely," Nessem said. "I won't go to Libya again, and I hope to god for the safety of the Egyptians still in Libya."

Follow Eric Reidy on Twitter: @Eric_Reidy