CAIRO — Nubian Hussein Jabr is waiting for long-overdue government compensation that could ease some of his bitterness after he was displaced with his large family almost five decades ago.
Nubians were displaced from the Nubia area in southern Egypt as a result of the establishment of the High Dam.
On June 25, the offices of the Ministry of Social Solidarity in Nasr al-Nuba and Kalabsha in Aswan governorate began receiving requests for payment of compensation to Nubians affected by the construction of the High Dam and the heightening of the Aswan reservoir.
Egypt’s Council of Ministers had issued in February a decision to form a national committee for the disbursement of compensation to Nubians entitled to compensation.
Minister of Parliament Affairs Omar Marwan announced in a press conference in the Cabinet June 19 that the recent compensation decision is based on instructions by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Marwan said this step follows another decision issued in 2017 by the prime minister to count Nubians harmed from the dam.
About 3,851 people were determined to be eligible for compensation for losses they sustained from the construction of the reservoir — as well as 7,865 from the construction of the High Dam, 3,107 of whom lost their dwellings while the remaining lost their land — with a total of 11,700 eligible persons.
Marwan asserted the government is keen on giving the Nubians their rights in an orderly and accurate manner. Egyptian authorities have been making such promises to Nubians since the era of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the '60s of the last century but have yet to keep them.
The displacement of Nubians happened over several stages. The first stage began in 1902 with the construction of the Aswan reservoir to regulate the Nile River's annual floods, followed by a second wave of displacement in 1912 when the reservoir was heightened, and then again after another heightening in 1933, which resulted in dozens of casualties and the flooding of a number of villages.
They thought they would not be displaced again after this, but they were — this time for the construction of the High Dam. The wave of displacement lasted for nine months — from October 1963 until June 1964. The government relocated some 135,000 Nubians living in 44 villages in residential units overlooking Lake Nasser. They were displaced to arid lands unsuitable for agriculture.
When the Nubians were kicked off of their indigenous lands under the pretext of the state’s public interest of generating electricity in collaboration with Sudan, Abdel Nasser promised to return them after the water level stabilized or 10 years after the construction of the dam. But 56 years have elapsed since then. Nubians who were displaced back then have died, and their children and grandchildren still struggle to regain their rights.
“Yes, I dream of going back. But we are facing the status quo. I have turned old and cannot afford to keep struggling,” said Hussein Jabr, 63, who lives with his family in Balana in Nasr al-Nuba — a village of about 70,000 citizens, most of them displaced Nubians who were resettled.
The Jabr family owned 8 acres of land and two houses in the old land of Nubia. The compensation offered by the newly formed committee is reduced to only 3 acres and one house. Although it is unfair, Jabr seems grateful.
The government announced June 19 it will divide the new compensation into agricultural and residential. Affected citizens who lost their lands would get land. Those wishing to obtain financial compensation would get 25,000 Egyptian pounds per feddan (acre) and 225,000 Egyptian pounds for a lost residential unit.
“Why would we refuse financial compensation that we are entitled to? Let us take what we can get rather than waiting for something that will never come,” Jabr said. He, however, refuses to link compensation to the demands of return to old Nubia.
Not all Nubians share Jabr’s pragmatic way of thinking. Some question the government's latest move as mere propaganda to prolong the negotiations with Nubians on the right of return.
In recent years, Nubian activists have been very active in Egypt and abroad to press the government to implement Article 236 of the Egyptian Constitution, which says “the state works on developing and implementing projects to bring back the residents of Nubia to their original areas and develop [the areas] within 10 years in the manner organized by law.”
This has not yet been achieved on the ground amid the government's delay in promulgating a law establishing the Nubian Committee on the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Nubia.
For her part, member of the General Nubian Union activist Wafa Ashri told Al-Monitor she is against disbursing compensation before issuing the law on the Committee on the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Nubia. The draft law was halted by the government suddenly for reasons of national security. Ashri feared the government could once again be trying to dodge the demands of Nubians.
Arguing that financial compensation is not a solution to their cause, she asserted that Nubians long for their land and want to regain their identity and heritage. “They want a place that preserves their Nubian heritage, customs and traditions, and that represents a social favorable environment for the Nubian cultural identity that they fear will be lost.”
In the same context, Nubian activists are seeking to internationalize their cause. This step was first initiated by Nubian author Hajjaj Adul when he spoke about racism and ethnic cleansing against Nubians during a conference organized by the Coptic diaspora in Washington in 2005.
Head of the Nubian Union in Austria Hamdi Suleiman is also exerting efforts for the same cause. He said the compensation owed for lost housing units and lands does not cancel the right of return, and this is a legal and international principle.
“Compensation is for something that is damaged or lost, and our land is still there. There is no compensation for a historic homeland that is still there,” Suleiman told Al-Monitor, pointing out that it is not in the government’s best interest to displace Nubians across Egypt’s governorates and cause them to lose their identity, language and heritage.
The Nubian cause is inseparable from the crises ensuing form Egyptian government's marginalization of the demands of minorities. Professor Said Sadek, a sociopolitical science at The American University in Cairo, told to Al-Monitor, “Egyptian governments have been following the strategy of false promises with Nubians that is used with all minorities. They stall to delay the execution of these minorities’ demands and invoke various pretexts.”
Sadek said if Nubians are given back the rights to their lands, this would open the door to other minorities such as Copts, Shiites, atheists and people with different sexual orientation to claim their rights. “The government does not want this to happen.”
He described the government's announcement of a new compensation committee as a temporary fix to calm Nubians’ suffering. “This is, however, not the result of international pressure by Nubian activists. The government does not fall for such pressure and is not willing to halt its investment projects on the lands overlooking the High Dam,” Sadek added.