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Nubia’s disenfranchisement: A decades-long crisis

Nubia residents have for several days been staging protests against the state’s 1.5 million-acre reclamation project

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Residents of Nubia, the southernmost region of Egypt, have for several days been staging protests against the state’s 1.5 million-acre reclamation project that would encroach on their historic land. The project, managed by the Egyptian Countryside Development Country, entails offering parts of two Nubian villages for sale to investors.

Protestors also reiterated Nubian condemnation of presidential decree number 444 from 2014 that designated large swathes of Nubian border lands, comprised of 16 villages, as restricted military zones. Protestors’ indignation was intensified by their disillusionment regarding the promises of the 2014 constitution, article 236, about Nubians’ right of return to lands from which they were evacuated. All such issues led to the resurfacing of the decades-long crisis of the disenfranchisement of Nubia.

Journalist Emad al-Din Hussein blames the state for its inability to deal with Nubians in particular, and minorities in general. According to him, the disenfranchisement of Sinai is the main reason behind the emergence of militant groups there and the same scenario is likely to be repeated in Nubia.

“Nubians were evacuated from their villages in 1964 because of the construction of the High Dam and ever since have been complaining of not being on the state’s development map,” he wrote. “The state knows all this and is still taking steps that make things worse.” Hussein accused the state of rushing into the 1.5 million acre project without calculating the consequences, thus intensifying feelings of resentment on the part of the Nubians.

“Then the state and pro-regime circles use the conspiracy theory once more and accuse foreign parties of inciting sedition in Nubia. If this is partly true, then the state is definitely making it easier for those parties.”

Archeologist Ahmed Saleh said the Nubian crisis dates back to the 19th century when lands were submerged every year by the flooding of the Nile, and the government never interfered to help. “And when the government decided to solve irrigation and electricity problems, this was done at the expense of Nubians by the construction of the Aswan Reservoir then the High Dam,” he wrote. “Their problems increased in the villages to which they were transferred because there wasn’t enough land for them and because of the loss of their heritage and culture as a result of the evacuation in addition to unemployment rates that reached 80 percent among their youths.”

Saleh, who is also head of the Aswan Antiquities Department, said that despite all the injustice from which they suffered, Nubians never resorted to violence nor developed any separatist discourse, yet they are still accused by pro-regime media and a sizable number of Egyptians of destabilizing national security. “Their protests now are only the result of years of marginalization coupled with the failure of dreams that followed the January 2011 revolution and the 2014 constitution.”

Ater Hanoura, director of the Egyptian Countryside Development Country, said Nubians can only get the land when they submit documents that prove their ownership. “We have been in touch with Nubia’s representative in the parliament MP Yassin Abdel Sabour for the past two weeks, but he hasn’t yet brought us any documents,” he said. “If this is their land they will have priority in buying it.” Hanoura added that late president Anwar Sadat verbally promised to give Nubians this land, but this cannot be considered a legal proof.

MP Yassin Abdel Sabour, who said that Nubians are always “the first to obey and the last to rebel,” noted he has a written approval from the Egyptian Armed Forces designating 44 regions as Nubian, which means that Nubians should have the right to return there.

Abdel Sabour criticized the official response to the protests, especially obstructing the progress of the Nubian Return Caravan as it attempted to reach the disputed areas. “The caravan aimed at making a statement about this land being Nubian and it was totally peaceful. When they were prevented from reaching their destination by security forces, they had to stage a sit-in in the middle of the desert,” he said. “Then they were besieged by security and food was not allowed in, which escalated the situation.”

MP Moustafa Bakri, who took part in the negotiations between the government and Nubian protestors, said Nubians have always had a trust issue with consecutive governments including the current one because none of the promises they got materialized. “The 2014 constitution promised return and development, then Nubians were asked in 2015 to draft a law towards this end and they did submit their proposals to the Ministry of Transitional Justice, but not one single step was taken.” Bakri, however, objected to protestors’ decision to block main highways and railway tracks to voice their anger at the security response to their protests.

Aswan representative in the parliament MP Ahmed Saad Darwish said that while he supports the demands of Nubians, it is totally against actions that violate the constitution. “It is wrong of protestors to block main roads and obstruct tourism in the area,” he said. “Protestors drained security forces.” Darwish objected to referring to Nubia as representative of the governorate of Aswan. “Nubian land only constitutes 10 percent of Aswan and the actions of Nubian protestors are rejected by residents and tribes of Aswan.”

Aswan governor Magdi Hegazy said there is no justification for what protestors did and noted its negative impact on residents and on the economy in general. “There are always legal channels for people to put their demands forward. The country has been unstable for years already and this might have led to inability to respond to all demands,” he said, adding that protestors are very few compared to the number of Nubians. “In fact, most Nubians are not happy about what the protestors are doing.”