As Egypt’s popular uprising to oust President Hosni Mubarak entered its 12th day yesterday, the Sri Lankan government maintained an official silence.
While External Affairs Ministry Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe refused to comment on the Egyptian situation, this country’s ambassador in Cairo told the Sunday Times that Sri Lankans living in Egypt were “safe”. “So far, no Sri Lankan has requested us to arrange for his or her return,” Ambassador I. Ansar said yesterday.
Hundreds of Americans and other nationals left Egypt last week.
Among the 2,000 Sri Lankans currently residing in Egypt, the majority – migrant workers – live in and around free trade zones there. Apart from industrial workers and domestic aides, there are about 75 Sri Lankan students in Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
A plan to evacuate about 77 Sri Lankans who work at an Egyptian garment factory in the industrial town of Ismailia near Cairo was afoot earlier last week after the factory owner requested the Sri Lankan embassy to consider sending them back.
That plan, however, was put on hold, Mr Ansar said adding that the factories were hoping to resume work today. “Sri Lankan workers are being provided with food and security by their employers,” he said.
Most factories had suspended work since January 25 when tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets demanding an end to President Mubarak’s rule of 30 years.
According to Sri Lanka’s Bureau of Foreign Employment, 285 Sri Lankans workers migrated to Egypt last year. The unrest in Egypt has forced the bureau to suspend recruitments, Additional General Manager L K Ruhunage said. Mr. Ansar said he and his five Sri Lankan colleagues at the Cairo mission were hardly able to work last week. There are eight local staffers in that mission.
Media division officials of the External Affairs Ministry in Colombo claimed that an emergency response to evacuate Sri Lankans was in place. That however would be put into effect only if the situation worsened.
According to reports from Egypt, around 300 people had been killed there in the past 12 days. Hundreds had been injured as pro-government mobs clashed with pro-democracy protestors.
The Egyptians are known to have been inspired by a people-power revolution in neighbouring Tunisia where Zein Al Abidine Ben Ali, was forced to flee the country.
Commenting on the popular revolutions in these Arab countries, UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya said: “Youth on the streets of Cairo and Tunis are toppling dictatorships that just weeks ago seemed indomitable.”
“It is with great humility that we call upon the leaders of our country, who are currently intoxicated with their seemingly unchallenged hold on power, to open their eyes to the reality of what is happening in countries where the will of the people has been suppressed for too long,” he said.
Mr Jayasuriya said: “It is advisable for our rulers to bear in mind that they are serving at the pleasure of the masses, even though that representation has been repeatedly distorted by corrupt and fraudulent elections.”
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s outbound travel industry also seemed affected by the crisis in Egypt. “We have not had bookings to Egypt in the last 15 days,” Travel Group HRG Sri Lanka said. “Our clients are booked for April but we will have to wait and watch. I hope the situation changes,” R Koelmeyer, chairperson, Superlink Travels said.
As uncertainty over Egypt’s future continued, Sri Lankan exporters spoke of its indirect yet long-term impact. The current impasse led to lowering of tea prices in the Kenyan market. “I think a lot will depend on the global supply position,” said Anil Cooke, CEO, Asia Siyaka. His company exports tea.
Sri Lanka exports about a million kilograms of tea to Egypt each year.
Apart from tea, Sri Lanka exports coconut and rubber products to Egypt.