Nubians have been waiting decades to return to their homeland around Lake Nasser on the banks of the Nile, but Egyptian authorities have other plans for much of the land.
Many people were forced out of their villages in the 1960s when the Aswan High Dam was built. Much of the area is under water now, but what remains is literally the Nubians' promised land: The government pledged they would be able to return. However, the government announced in October 2016 that the land was for sale to Egyptian and foreign investors, as well as farmers.
The Nubians have staged protests over the years, but their efforts often end in beatings and arrests. Most recently, security forces arrested 24 people Sept. 3 who were participating in a small, peaceful march in Aswan. They were playing drums and singing as they called for the government to activate Article 236 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution, which states, “The state [must work] 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.”
Abdul Dayem Ezz al-Din, a Nubian activist, told Al-Monitor, “The march was totally peaceful. The security forces prepared an ambush for the protesters, encircled them and beat them up. Even some Nubian women were beaten.”
Those arrested staged a hunger strike Sept. 3 at the General Security and Central Security Forces Center in el-Shallal in Aswan to protest the security forces’ behavior with the demonstrators. Abdul Atti Abu al-Teres, a lawyer with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who followed up on the case, told Al-Monitor they ended the strike three days later.
The Aswan Prosecution Office accused the detainees of unlicensed protesting, blocking roads and funding protests. Abu al-Teres noted that the detainees include Mounir Bashir, the head of the Nubian Lawyers’ Association, and Mohammad Azmy, the former head of the Nubian Union.
The imprisoned were to have been released on bail Sept. 19, but the Aswan Court extended their incarceration. A hearing is set for this week.
The arrests of the Nubian activists were locally and internationally condemned. Local parties and rights organizations in Egypt expressed their disdain, while Amnesty International urged the Egyptian government to release the detainees, writing in its Sept. 12 report, “Successive Egyptian governments have forcibly displaced Nubians from their traditional lands for development projects.”
Egypt began displacing Nubians in 1902, when work on the Aswan Low Dam took off. Massive removal came between 1963 and 1964, when the government was building the Aswan High Dam during the days of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Residents of 44 Nubian villages were forced to relocate to temporary shelters. Most displaced Nubians currently live in the Kom Ombo Desert in Aswan.
The January 25 Revolution in 2011 reignited Nubians' hopes that they would return home. They put together political and social actions and formed some organizations, including the Nubian Union. They also launched several events, such as the annual Nubian World Day on July 7.
Facing pressure, the Egyptian government caved and issued the 2014 Constitution, which included Article 236 binding it to put in place a comprehensive economic plan to develop Nubian lands. But President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi subsequently issued two decrees that devastated Nubians' hopes. The first decision came in November of that year, when Sisi decreed that 16 of the 44 Nubian villages would be considered military border lands. This gave control of the villages to the army and forbade civilians to live there or benefit from the lands. Nubians thus resorted to the judiciary and contested the decision. On Aug. 18 of this year, the State Council’s Board of Commissioners recommended that Sisi's decision be annulled, but it was never canceled.
“The decision deprived us of our right to return. It completely contradicts Article 236 and makes the situation more difficult," Ezz al-Din told Al-Monitor. So many successive Egyptian governments have disappointed Nubians that they will no longer take the government’s promises seriously in the absence of a clear timeline to implement their demands, he added.
After that, Sisi launched a project in December 2015 designed to increase Egypt's agricultural area by 20% and create new urban communities for the rising population. The project involves 1.5 million acres of land.
In August 2016, Sisi issued the second crushing decision: to annex 922 acres of Khorqandi and Toshka lands in the old Nubian area on the banks of Nasser Lake in southern Aswan. In October 2016, he announced the annexed acres would be auctioned off to Egyptian and foreign investors.
The following month, in response to the decision, Nubians organized the “Nubian Return Caravan” and headed to Khorqandi and Toshka to try to halt the auction and get the land returned to them.
Security forces stopped the caravan, encircled the protesters and cut off their access to food and beverages. The protestors announced a sit-in for days on the main road. Once government officials came to negotiate with them, Nubians gave the government one month to respond to their demands.
On Jan. 18 of this year, they got their response during the Youths Conference in Aswan. Sisi exempted 12,000 acres from the Khorqandi project and designated it for the Nubians. He earmarked 320 million Egyptian pounds ($18.1 million) to wrap up projects currently under way in Nasr al-Nuba and Wadi Karkar by June 2018 by improving sewage services, electricity and other facilities. He also allocated 5 billion Egyptian pounds ($283.6 million) over five years to establish the Higher Committee to Develop South Egypt to improve services, provide employment and help preserve Nubian antiquities.
However, Nubian lawmaker Yassin Abdul Sabour told Al-Monitor recently, “The money allocated for funding the Higher Committee to Develop South Egypt has not been spent, and the details of the expenditure have not been revealed because there is no law organizing the work of the committee.” So far, no decisions to develop Nubian lands have been issued.
He said the government also ignored a bill he submitted in November regarding an economic development plan for Nubian areas. The plan was supposed to be addressed by March, but still hasn't been discussed.
After the 2014 Constitution was issued, the interim Ministry of Justice had formed a committee to develop and build a Nubian area. The committee came up with a draft law to establish the Higher Committee to Develop Nubia, but the law has never been issued.
Nubians who feel marginalized by the government say that they will not stop asking for their legitimate historical rights. For that purpose, they will continue to stage marches and sing Nubian songs, raising their slogan, “Right to Return.” Abdul Sabour said Nubians love their country and aren't seeking autonomy — just the rights they were promised.