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Nubians demand repatriation during Sisi visit

Nubians in Upper Egypt still seek return to the land of their ancestors, after years of forced displacement, amid complaints of political and cultural marginalization.
Nubian women sell souvenirs in the village of Gharb Seheyl, near Aswan, Upper Egypt, Feb. 5, 2020.

Ayman Mohammad was dreaming of his return to the land of his ancestors, Nubia, which Nubians, who were forcibly displaced from it decades ago, call the Land of Gold, as he followed the rare visit of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to his Nubian village, Gharb Seheyl, on the banks of the Nile River in Upper Egypt.

Mohammad, a pseudonym, who works at a cafe in the village, told Al-Monitor that his father held on to the dream of returning to “our historical Nubian lands one day” until his last breath. He died of the coronavirus in 2021.

“Still, the dream seems out of reach,” he said.

Gharb Seheyl, which Sisi, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly and senior officials visited Dec. 27, is one of the key tourist destinations in southern Egypt.

A couple of thousand Nubian grandchildren of those who were displaced from their villages in the early 20th century now live in the village, which is located to the west of the Nile River.

During his visit, Sisi made a tour of the village tourist market and met with store owners and artisans. He then talked with residents to find out about their living conditions.

During his visit, Sisi included Gharb Seheyl in the presidential initiative "Decent Life," to upgrade the basic services in the village, whose inhabitants mostly work in the tourist sector. The village was hit hard by the strong storms and flooding in Aswan in November last year.

Decent Life” is a presidential initiative that encompasses a series of projects undertaken by the government to upgrade the infrastructure and level of services in rural and poor villages. The initiative targets 58% of Egypt's 102 million population.  

Sisi recently inaugurated several national projects in the governorates of Upper Egypt, including the Land Reclamation project in Toshka, south of Aswan; two industrial complexes in Qena; and another complex for gasoline production at a petroleum refinery in Assiut. On the sidelines of the visit to the Nubian villages, Sisi checked on the Benban solar park in Aswan.

The problems of Nubia, whose citizens have been marginalized for decades, began with the construction of the Aswan Low Dam more than 100 years ago, in 1902, during the rule of Khedive Abbas Helmy II under the British Mandate.

The dam, which was raised twice — in 1912 and 1934 — caused partial forced displacement of an unknown number of  Nubians (no official data available) and erosion of the agricultural land. As a result, these Nubians were displaced to Cairo and other cities, in their search for jobs, after the dam water flooded their houses and lands.

The problems worsened when the government forcibly displaced the citizens from their hometowns in the area between south Aswan and the southern Egyptian borders with Sudan, extending along 350 kilometers (217 miles) after the High Dam was inaugurated in 1970. According to the United Nations, 18,000 Nubian families were displaced.

The majority of historical Nubian lands are now underwater — what is currently known as Lake Nasser, which was formed behind the High Dam. While the state expropriated various Nubian villages and used them for developmental projects, other Nubian villages were considered off-limits and used for military purposes.

During the visit, Sisi called on Nubian youths seeking work to shift to agriculture, as part of the Toshka project that seeks land reclamation and cultivation of 450,000 acres within a state development project, launched at the end of 2015, for the reclamation of 1.5 million acres.

Toshka is a Nubian city that the state decided to use to implement its project, despite the Nubians protesting against it. Nubians are now asking for resettlement there.

Although the 2014 Egyptian Constitution expressly recognizes the Nubians’ right of return to their original land and to develop it — as stipulated in Article 236: “The state works on developing and implementing projects to bring back the residents of Nubia to their original areas and develop them within 10 years in the manner organized by law” — the Egyptian authorities have not kept their promises. Instead, they have taken a series of decisions and policies undermining these rights.

US-based Nubian lawyer Mohammad Azmi, who lectures at Hofstra University, told Al-Monitor, “We are pleased with the visit of the president to Nubia, but it does not live up to the aspirations and demands of Nubians.”

Azmi, who hails from one of the Nubian Shellal villages whose inhabitants were forcibly displaced in 1902, said, “For years, Nubians have tolerated marginalization and displacement from their hometowns without any planning and were transported under inhuman circumstances to arid desert areas where the groundwater level rises. Years later, people still have cracks in their homes, which are at risk of collapse."

Village residents were transported mainly to Nasr al-Nuba and Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, between October 1963 and June 1964.

The government tried to contain people’s anger by offering compensation in stages to those affected by the displacement, with alternative housing, money or land. According to official data, 11,500 people were entitled to compensation.

In July 2021, the government said that a total cash compensation of approximately 136 million Egyptian pounds ($8.6 million) was paid to those affected, in addition to compensation for 397 beneficiaries with ownership of the land on which their current homes are built. In addition, 298 people were allowed to own arable lands in the Wadi al-Amal and Khor Qindi regions in Aswan, with a total area of ​​about 326 acres.

However, Azmi said, “There is a huge difference between compensation and resettlement. The state is continuing to marginalize the Nubians and eliminate their historical rights. These compensations are a circumvention of our demands.”

Hamdi Suleiman, a Nubian activist based in Austria, told Al-Monitor that most of the Nubians currently lack basic services in the villages where they live, and that there isn’t enough space to accommodate the continuous population growth.

There are no official statistics of the current number of Nubians in Egypt due to their presence in many cities inside and outside the country, but human rights groups estimate their number at 3-4 million.

Suleiman, who was born in the village of Abu Hur, which is affiliated with Nasr al-Nuba, criticized the state's lack of interest in the Nubian language, culture and heritage. He called on the state to recognize the Nubian language as one of the cultural tributaries in Egypt, to teach it in schools and to launch a Nubian-language TV channel.

The Nubian community still adheres to its rituals and heritage. Weddings are held to the rhythms of traditional Nubian songs and dances. Many still speak the Nubian language, but children born in the cities mostly don't. Suleiman said that children have the right to know their ancestors' history and to be fluent in their native language.

He called on the state to increase the Nubian seats in parliament through a quota that includes a specific number of seats reflecting the aspirations and problems of the Nubian society.

Nasr al-Nuba was a constituency with two seats in parliament until 1982, when the government abolished the constituency and included it in the Kom Ombo one in Aswan. The 2015 electoral division law restored the Nasr al-Nuba constituency, but allotted it only one seat in parliament.

Azmi said, “We suffer from political and parliamentary marginalization. The Egyptian Constitution approved some additional measures to ensure that some groups — such as women, Christians, people with disabilities and the youth — are fairly represented in parliament, but it deliberately ignored the Nubians as an ethnic group that is considered one of the minorities and indigenous population."