By Charlie Cabot
CAIRO: Tourist visas have long been the easiest way for foreigners to live in Egypt, but with increasing unemployment and fears of unregulated immigrant labor, the age of the long-term tourist is drawing to a close.
The immigration department has rejected all recent requests to renew tourist visas, leaving many long time Egypt residents without a legal reason to stay.
“There is some logic to this, if you look at it from their perspective,” said Hayk Hakobyan, who has lived in Cairo for four years under work and tourist visas. “But the way they are doing it I don’t think is very wise.”
The changes have come about in face of a March study revealing that 30 percent of workers in Egypt are foreign, even though the allowed amount in any given institution is 10 percent.
Later in March, Minister of Labor and Immigration Ahmed Hassan El-Boraey announced that work permits would no longer be issued for unskilled foreign workers. However, it seems that many have evaded the process by continuing to work under tourist visas.
But many foreigners who are not stealing labor from Egyptians are getting caught in the crossfire.
“People like me are not supposed to be targeted by this,” said Hakobyan, who has worked in business development. “It’s like they’re shooting birds with a cannon — they’ll kill a number of birds but not necessarily who they wanted.”
Hakobyan has mutiple Egyptian tourist visas in his passport, but when he went to the Mugamma to get another extension in early June, he encountered difficulty.
“There is a new rule,” a police officer told him. “You have to have a reason to stay. You’re either working here or studying here or married here.”
Hakobyan was considering leaving Egypt anyway for a few months due to the struggling economy and personal reasons, but the unwelcoming attitude of the ministry cemented his decision.
“When they started not renewing my visa, I said ok, well, that’s it,” Hakobyan said.
Others have tried to find ways around the policy, either by securing student visas or work visas. Both have become increasingly difficult to obtain.
“If you’re going to be here to study Arabic, you have to go to a national university and enroll,” the ministry told one American woman, denying her student visa request.
The same woman, who is going to the United States for a few weeks in August, told Daily News Egypt that she is considering getting a new passport just to hide her previous Egyptian tourist visas.
The student visa policy is particularly devastating to the numerous private language schools in the city, which no longer can provide their students with legal reasons to stay.
“Those kinds of schools and programs are going to die,” said James Yakscoe, an American working in Cairo. “The smaller schools don’t stand a chance.”
Yakscoe, as well as most of the expat community, is aware that he is on rocky ground. His company, which specializes in outsourcing and labor, saw two employees get their work visa renewals turned down this past month.
“We’re reapplying and seeing if anything changes,” Yakscoe said. “I’m not exactly hopeful.”
The policies have left many foreigners with the impending choice of staying illegally, and risking trouble when they depart, or leaving.
“It’s possible that I’ll just call it quits and head back home,” Yakscoe said.
The situation is worrisome for the expatriate community as a whole, which exists primarily on tourist visas and which many see as an integral part of the Cairo economy.
“We pay higher rent, we eat at more restaurants — we definitely contribute to the economy,” said one expat, whose tourist visa renewal was denied in May. “And I feel I’m being pushed out.”
In addition to being bigger spenders, skilled foreign workers argue that they provide services to Egyptian companies that cannot be replaced by Egyptians.
“I reach out to a lot of international donors,” one foreign employee said. “To try to transition those relationships [to an Egyptian] would be difficult.”
“I want to see more Egyptians qualified and having these jobs,” she added. “But they don’t need to take this extreme approach.”
Others have echoed the frustration with the harsh policy.
“It’s frustrating because there needs to be some transition between the system then and now,” Yakscoe said. “To simply cut [the expat community] off is kind of worrisome.”
“Don’t just cut off tourist visas,” another added, suggesting a system more akin to the Gulf countries. “It’s probably going to hurt Egypt more in the long run.”
Although most agree that the new system is imperfect, the ministry shows no signs of backing down. In the meantime, foreigners wait with expiring visas and no clear plans for the future.
“We’re just hoping when we do leave that we don’t get detained at the airport,” one American said. “I think all of us are just waiting to see what happens.”