Outside the Georgian Embassy in Cairo, a group of young Egyptian men, mostly Christian, discuss their dreams of forging new lives for themselves in the tiny Eastern European state.
Back in April, Egyptian state news agency MENA reported that a staggering 90,000 Egyptian Coptic-Christians had moved to Georgia against the backdrop of mounting fears of sectarian strife, civil unrest and a struggling post-revolution economy.
“I saved some money and plan to travel to Georgia and open a small business there. I’ve been engaged for a year and a half and cannot get married because I cannot afford to buy an apartment,” Alfred Gamil, a Coptic graphic designer in his late 20s, tells Ahram Online as he waits for his visa appointment.
He adds: “I want to dream; I cannot dream in Egypt.”
The Egyptian Ministry Foreign Affairs subsequently denied news reports that thousands of Egyptian Copts had migrated to the former Soviet state.
Abeer Habib, media spokesperson at Georgia’s mission in Cairo, confirmed that the reports had been “false.” She said that, between the start of 2011 and March 2013, only 5,950 Egyptians had travelled to Georgia, 4,606 of whom had since returned home.
Only 643 Egyptians had been granted temporary residence permits, Habib clarified, while 12 were given permanent residency – considerably less than MENA’s 90,000 figure.
Nevertheless, Habib admits that the majority of those applying for visas are Christian, although she was unable to confirm the exact percentage.
“It’s a strange phenomenon… maybe it’s because the majority of Georgian citizens are Christian and Coptic Egyptians want to live in a country in which they can freely perform their religious rituals,” she said.
Habib believes Copts are increasingly afraid to live in Egypt, particularly after April’s Al-Khosous incident – in which six people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians – and subsequent clashes outside Cairo’s Abbassiya Coptic-Orthodox cathedral.
Incentives for Christians
“Six months ago the Georgian embassy told all Egyptian churches that they want Egyptian Copts to travel to Georgia,” says Mark Maher, a 35-year-old Christian civil servant who is planning to move to Georgia. He would not elaborate on how the Georgian mission had articulated this wish, but added that the Orthodox Christian country was encouraging Coptic tourism and financial investment in the country as a way of bolstering its flagging economy.
There has been encouragement from the Egyptian side as well: Maher’s local bishop in the satellite city of 6 October not only recommended Georgia as a suitable destination but helped him make the move. Maher received advice from his neighbourhood cleric on how to get permanent residency, information about Georgia’s culture and language, and tips on where to invest.
Joseph Ramy, a 55-year-old Copt who works for a private US company and frequently travels to Georgia on business, believes the official numbers on Coptic emigration are far too conservative.
He describes hearing Egyptian Arabic spoken on the streets of Georgia’s cities, along with a rise in the presence of Egyptians in the country since last December.
“Coptic congregations frequently turn to their church to ask for advice, like about job opportunities in foreign countries,” continues Ramy, although he stresses that the church would never directly ask congregants to leave Egypt.
Gateway to Europe?
Back at the Georgian embassy, Egyptians in the visa queue look with bewilderment at the Cyrillic characters of the Georgian language while discussing Egypt’s post-revolution politics.
In the unstable transition period, they say, mounting civil unrest has encouraged both Christians and Muslims to leave.
“My son is a doctor and was attacked by thugs. He received severe head injuries on a normal weekday in a main street,” explains 60-year-old business owner Osama Shehata. “Just give Egyptians one thing – security – and they will never think of leaving their country.”
Travelling to Georgia is also seen by many as a potential gateway to the riches of the West.
“It’s one of the only countries that offers permanent residency to Egyptians with few conditions, unlike the United States,” Gamil says. “A certain segment of Egyptian society can afford to emigrate to the US or Canada. Others, like us, can only afford Georgia.”
Ahmed Mohamed, in his late 40s, talks of moving to Georgia because he believes that “by the first of July, the country will join the European Union.”
He wants to travel to Germany, but, like many, cannot meet the stringent financial conditions needed for a European visa. He is therefore applying for a Georgian visa, which he sees as a possible gateway to the Eurozone.
The danger of travel scams
The desire to move to the Eastern European state, the Georgian embassy spokesman Habib says, has led to another worrying trend: travel companies promising Egyptian clients good jobs and citizenship benefits if they move to Georgia.
Georgia only offers tourist visas or permanent residencies to business owners looking to invest. “We are not Canada; we don’t offer citizenship,” Habib asserts.
This means Egyptians are unable to secure the additional passport, education and healthcare services that they are reportedly promised by scam travel companies.
“The tourist agencies make them sell everything they have. We find these people wandering the streets, which gives Egyptians a bad name,” Habib explains to Ahram Online. She added that there had been several recent cases of desperate Egyptians illegally crossing Georgia’s borders.
The embassy has subsequently tightened its visa policy, with visitors now required to provide a paid receipt for their hotel accommodations and plane ticket.
Nevertheless, it is still easier for an Egyptian to travel to Georgia than to other parts of the world, say the tourist agencies that are capitalising on the new trend.
“You don’t need a bank account or an appointment with the embassy to get the tourist visa,” explains John Simon, owner of a tour company working for the embassy.
He asserts that it costs only $1200 in total for two people to stay in Georgia for one week: “I will get you the visa. All I need is your passport, a photo and a photocopy of your national ID.”
Although Simon admits it is hard to find jobs, many visitors buy land for construction or for agricultural purposes.
“My advice is to travel for one week, explore the country, and then decide whether or not to invest,” he concludes.
Shubra-based tour company owner Saif Abdul-Nour told Ahram Online that he had noticed “an explosion” of advertising for trips to Georgia, despite the fact that he had yet to see any significant demand.
“Domestic tourism is not making money, so people have thought of a new way to generate revenue,” he adds. “I’ve noticed Christian as well as Muslim offices have started promoting Georgia.”
Despite promises of a better life, renowned Coptic activist Suleiman Shafiq – who has travelled to Georgia – believes leaving Egypt “is fool’s gold.”
“Egypt offers a better quality of life,” he told Ahram Online. “Post-Soviet Union and after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia is still very much a developing country.”
Nevertheless, many Egyptians still entertain hopes of a brighter future in Eurasia’s Caucasus region.
“In Georgia, I will attain my dreams. I will have an apartment and be able to raise kids,” says Gamil, smiling at an advertisement for Georgian tourism in front of the embassy. “I will open my business, which will give me and my wife a better living than we can make here.”
Source : Ahram