The selfish heartless argument for keeping Syrians in Egypt

Mahmoud Salem
11 Min Read
Mahmoud Salem
Mahmoud Salem

Dear Egyptian readers: This article will not try to garner your sympathy over the plight and horror that Syrian refugees face in Egypt. It will not try to appeal to your humanity by informing you of the horrible conditions under which they live here, the random arrests they face or the horror that awaits them when they get deported, or even decry the media’s smear campaign against them. Nope, there are a million and one articles that detail their tragedy, and this isn’t one of them, mainly because they don’t work on you. Instead, here is a totally selfish and heartless argument for why we should keep them here, give them residencies and even welcome more of them to come, purely because it is in our best collective interest to do so.

Syrians started to come to Egypt when the Syrian revolution/civil war started in 2011, and the Syrian population now has increased to about 300,000 refugees. Those refugees situated themselves all over Egypt, with a sizeable population moving to the 6th of October City, following the footsteps of their Iraqi counterparts in 2005. Despite the fact that Egypt offered them no legal aid or residency or work permits, they- being survivors by nature- started a slew of small businesses and services that have transformed 6th of October city for its inhabitants:  new and better restaurants opened up, where the food is delicious and the customer service is exceptionally excellent and chains of car-washing businesses started where they will clean your car in 6 different ways for less than 3 dollars, to cite a few examples. I personally recommend that anyone who reads this article to go to the first or second neighborhood in 6th of October and checks those out for themselves, and tell me what they think.

Not only are Syrians improving the horrid Egyptian cuisine and cheap fast food industry, or offering superior new and innovative services to the population, they are also offering something that Egypt has lacked for a long time: a highly energised workforce who actually want to work and who have a work ethic. In case you don’t own or run an Egyptian business, let me tell you a little secret: we Egyptians don’t have an unemployment problem. We don’t even have a skilled labor problem, as development experts like to say. What we have is a work ethic problem: our work force almost entirely lacks it, and this is true on every social level.

I can regale you with the horror stories of interviews I’ve conducted with top private university graduates who: a) didn’t show up for interviews, b) showed up hours late without even bothering to call, and c) asked for ridiculous exceptions in order for them to deign to accepting employment . I had one interviewee who asked if we weren’t planning to move offices somewhere closer to her house because her mom gets worried about her, and another who informed me that since summer was coming up, that she will only work Sundays to Wednesdays because she intends to go to the north coast every Thursday to “summer”. This phenomenon isn’t only in the Egyptian upper-class; please ask anyone who does community employment fairs for low-skilled workers, and they will tell you how they almost literally have to beg the unemployed to accept jobs, who turn them down because the money isn’t enough for them to not be unemployed. Or conduct an even easier experiment: try to hail a cab for a short ride and watch him ignore you if it’s not worth “his time”. I will never forget as one American friend who experienced this firsthand asked me astonishingly “did that guy just turn down money?”, and the answer is yes, he did. It’s a thing people do here, when they aren’t accepting work that they have no intention of finishing on time or provide real effort in. The average Egyptian office worker statistically works half an hour each day, and the factory worker produces output worth slightly more than EGP 200 a month, and while demanding a minimum wage of EGP 1,200 a month. Some factories have even given up entirely on Egyptian workers here to the point that they have started hiring workers from Bangladesh. True story.

Syrian workers, on the other hand, want to work and survive. We would see a jump in productivity and services if we just legalise their status and give them a way to certify their educational credentials so that Syrian doctors, engineers and lawyers can work in their fields as well. We can even raise money by charging them absorbent fees for the certification or residency process, and, if we want to be Gulfie about it, even make a law that forces them to get an Egyptian partner in whatever new business they want to start, which, by the way, will benefit the Egyptian economy. They will accept all that and more if only we give them a path and a process, and we won’t, for a number of ridiculous reasons.

The first reason they cite is that Egyptian jobs should go to Egyptians, which is a cute notion if it wasn’t for the whole “Egyptians don’t want to work” thing, or that 300,000 Syrians equal less than a half percent of the Egyptian population, which means they won’t really affect the Egyptian unemployment ratio, but stand to affect the productivity ratio positively, mainly because of their work ethic, and hopefully because it might push Egyptian workers to up their game due to competitiveness. The second reason they cite is national security, as if those who escaped the bloody conflict in Syria would want to start it here, or as if the greatest threat for national security comes from other Egyptians. Fine, monitor them. Then the third reason has to do with some fantasy that the Syrians will come and colonise Egypt, which is the same reason the new constitution apparently forbids foreigners from owning Egyptian land. Never mind that we live on 4 % of the land of this country and could use having people investing in new cities away from the delta; this new article will severely mess with the real estate market which has benefitted greatly from foreign corporate direct investment in Egyptian real estate development or individual foreigners who used to buy properties in Egypt because it offered a great investment opportunity for them. In layman’s terms, foreign buying and owning of Egyptian lands and properties was good for investment and the economy, and we are going to stop that, because, well, racism and xenophobia. Yes, Xenophobia.

A recent worldwide study showed that Egypt is one of the top ranking countries in terms of racism and xenophobia, which is really what this whole anti-Syrian thing is about, and it’s a relatively new phenomenon in Egypt and related directly to the 1952 revolution. Before the 1952 revolution, which is considered by many to be Egypt’s golden days, Egypt was what it always was: a country of immigrants; a melting pot of different populations, who all not only integrated into Egyptian society, they benefitted it greatly. Who amongst us isn’t, or doesn’t know someone of Turkish or otherwise non-Egyptian ancestry? Who isn’t aware of the amount of investments and business that Italians, Greeks, Armenians and even Jews used to run and own in Egypt? Or their affect on our art and culture scene till this day? Asmahan and Fareed AlAtrash? Syrian royalty. Estevan Rosty? Italian-austrian. Abdelsalam Alnabolsy? Palestinain Lebanese. All were given the Egyptian nationality prior to the 1952 revolution, and the country is better off for it, because cultural diversity is a good thing, and it’s why we used to be called “The Mother of the World”, because we took everyone in. To this day, Egyptians from Italian and Greek origins have great investments and run excellent businesses, and are as Egyptian as you and me. The truth is our country is better with immigrants, which is why we have made immigration to Egypt virtually impossible. The Mother of the World no more; we are more like the world’s wicked step-mother now.

So why are we opposed to naturalizing the Syrian refugees again? The truth is because we like to always shoot ourselves in the foot. Immigration once made this country great, and it has made the US the country that it is, and we refuse to allow it, even when it directly benefits us. Stop being utter morons; stop mistreating or deporting the Syrians, and legalise their status and watch how it will benefit us on every level (economical, social, cultural), or start facing the actual truth: there is no foreign grand conspiracy against Egypt; the conspiracy is simply us.

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Mahmoud Salem is a political activist, writer, and social media consultant. His writings could be found at and follow him @sandmonkey on Twitter