The release of Egyptian prisoners from Israeli jails is being hailed as a success for diplomatic intervention, but the performance of Egypt's embassies abroad is wanting, reports Doaa El-Bey
In a widely-circulated press release, the Foreign Ministry this week appealed to the estimated one million Egyptians living and working in Libya to regulate their status by completing all the requirements for legal residence and work permits. A similar message has been communicated by the Egyptian Embassy and Consulate in Libya.
Libya, which for years allowed Egyptians to enter without visas has now revoked this policy and Egyptians currently resident in the country need to regulate their status by 21 February.
Foreign Ministry sources say the appeal addressed to Egyptians in Libya is part of a wider campaign encouraging all expatriates to regulate their status.
Meanwhile, negotiations to release 26 Egyptian prisoners from Israeli jails bore fruit early this month when 11 prisoners were freed. According to Assistant Foreign Minister for overseas Egyptians Mohamed Meneisi, of the 56 Egyptian prisoners in the Israeli jails 32 have now been released. Negotiations for the release of an additional 15 are ongoing, leaving nine prisoners, all accused of smuggling either weapons or drugs, to complete their prison sentences.
While the release of Egyptian prisoners held in Israel is seen as a success for Egyptian diplomacy, diplomats at Egypt's foreign missions have been repeatedly criticised for doing too little to help their compatriots abroad and for failing to provide legal support when necessary. Egypt's embassies, many complain, act as little more than passive mediators, passing the complaints of citizens abroad to officials in Egypt.
They are charges Meneisi denies. Embassies, he says, attempt to deal with all complaints but can do so only in accordance with the laws of the host country. And while he concedes that currently the Ministry of Finance provides no budget to cover legal aid for expatriates, "we are in the process of establishing a complementary department that will guarantee that embassies and consulates provide legal support when it is needed."
Ibrahim Yousri, former head of the Foreign Ministry's Department of International Laws and Agreements, argues that one way round the problem would be to ensure that the consul, or another member of each mission, be a law graduate who could then provide legal advice to any citizen needing it.
Yousri says the problem is compounded by Egyptians agreeing to work abroad in the absence of a legal contract and work permit and then failing to register with the embassy. "How can the embassy interfere in cases where Egyptians enter the host state country illegally? Sometimes diplomats can arrange for the illegal worker to be deported but that is all."
Registration, says Meneisi, is essential. "Each embassy's staff allocation is determined by the number of Egyptian citizens living in the host state and if the majority of those citizens are unregistered then the number of employees will be less than is needed to attend to the problems likely to ensue."
Egyptians in Gulf states, where the sponsor system places them at the mercy of their sponsors, are among the most vulnerable of expatriate workers.
"The sponsor system is part of the domestic laws of some Gulf states and embassies cannot do anything to change it or protect Egyptian citizens from its impacts. If a worker accepts to work in one of these states he should also accept all its internal regulations," Yousri says.