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For the national good: Casting out Egyptian Nubians Open in fullscreen

Gehad Quisay

For the national good: Casting out Egyptian Nubians

Hajj Elias holds picture of himself playing oud before Tahgeer [Nour El Refai]

Date of publication: 17 November, 2017

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Comment: Once an ancient civilisation that ruled East Africa, the Nubian people endured division, displacement and forced migration, and under Sisi their collective trauma reached fever pitch, writes Gehad Quisay.
In a surprising and unprecedented move last week, the Emergency National Security Court in the southern Egyptian governate of Aswan released 24 Nubian activists on bail, pending trial on 12 December. 

Twenty-five activists had originally been arrested on 3 September on charges of protesting illegally, endangering national security and receiving foreign funding.

The protest was in fact a peaceful celebration of Eid al-Adha during which those arrested planned to reaffirm - in song - their dedication to a decades old Nubian grievance: The right to return to their ancestral homeland south of the Aswan High Dam - a right afforded to them in Article 236 of the 2014 constitution.

Such charges are all too common in the era of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The nonviolent Nubian activists were but the latest victims of nationwide security crackdowns and economic corruption. Yet, unlike their fellow countrymen who continue to waste away in overcrowded prisons under the guise of a "War on Terror", their release on less than $60 bail was a surprising breath of fresh air.

However, the history of systematic marginalisation and suppression suffered by Nubians at the hands of Egypt's military regimes casts a dark cloud over present optimism.

Gamal Sorour in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising [Facebook]
Gamal Sorour in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising [Facebook]

One of those who organised the peaceful demonstration, Gamal Sorour, died in custody due to medical neglect. In his fifties, Sorour had long suffered from multiple health issues and reports claim that police knowingly neglected his deteriorating condition.

Like his forefathers, Sorour was ignored, his complaints fell on willingly deaf ears until it was ultimately too late and even then, it is rather unlikely that those responsible for his demise will face any consequences or that any reparations will be paid.

Turning a blessing into a curse

Very little remains of Ancient Nubia, a civilisation that had once conquered Ancient Egypt and built numerous pyramids hundreds of kilometres south of Giza. Nubia was an autonomous kingdom until the overthrow of King Farouk - who reigned over Nubia alongside his kingdoms of Egypt, Sudan, Darfur and Kurdufan.

Upon the Sudanese independence, Nubian families awoke to find themselves citizens of one country and their kin citizens of another.

Egyptian Nubia was left submerged by Egypt's first national megaproject, the Aswan High Dam. The Nile, which was once the blessed sustenance of the Nubian people became their curse.

The decree stated that 16 out of 44 newly promised Nubian villages were to be converted to a militarised zone

Once President Nasser finalised his plans to build a High Dam near the southern border, he met with heads of the Egyptian Nubian tribes pleading that their displacement will be "for the national good" promising that their return would be imminent.

The Aswan High Dam did not just drown the Nubian villages. In 1964, approximately 100,000 Nubians gathered their material possessions and left behind their history, their cultural markers and the cohesion of their society embarking on a journey they did not choose, one they called tahgeer.

Tahgeer means forced displacement.

The dam was built, the Nubians were displaced, and Nasser died, yet they still clung to the promise he made them.

Right to return

Nasser's death and the subsequent Yom Kippur War kept national focus away from the plight of the Nubians. President Sadat, who was born to Nubian parents, began to heavily conscript Nubians into the military in an unsolicited bid to assimilate them into Egyptian mainstream.

Using the Nubian language to carry out sensitive communications during the war, Sadat presented the marginalised population as heroes in the fight against Israel.

Yet, by the mid-1970s a severe breakdown in the cohesion of the Nubian society had begun to take its toll in the fight for return.

The relatively uninhabitable land west of Old Nubia, that was uninspiringly dubbed "New Nubia", offered far fewer opportunities and little comfort to the displaced peoples.

The landscape of the Western Desert wasn't only soulless it was also highly saline making agriculture almost impossible

The landscape of the Western Desert wasn't only soulless it was also highly saline making agriculture almost impossible. This led many Nubians to abandon the southern governates and head north to Egypt's overpopulated urban heartland where they faced stanch colourism and racial discrimination.

Despite tahgeer Nubians clung to their unique culture [Nour El Refai]
Despite tahgeer Nubians clung to their unique culture [Nour El Refai]

Mubarak's era saw the return of national megaprojects, for which the Nubians again unwillingly paid the price.

The land of the Western Desert, known as New Valley, housed Mubarak's developmental brainchild, "Toshka". Mubarak planned to give one acre to every college graduate who applied, ignoring the reality that Nubians lived in the only barely habitable regions of Toshka.

Broken promises

The 2011 uprising revived Nubian hopes of gaining access to lands they can thrive on. They kept their distance from Morsi's presidential fray and the subsequent Sisi-led coup, and when their right of return was recognised in the 2014 constitution - the Nubians cautiously believed the regime and rejoiced.

Article 236 states that "the state [shall] 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 organised by law." This meant that Nubians would be resettled in lands south and west of the Aswan High Dam, ones better suited for agriculture in comparison to where they currently live.

In 1964, approximately 100,000 Nubians gathered their material possessions and left behind their history, their cultural markers and the cohesion of their society

Eleven months after the constitution was ratified however, President Sisi issued decree 444. The decree stated that 16 out of 44 newly promised Nubian villages were to be converted to a militarised zone.

Sisi further dashed Nubian longing for their ancestral homeland when in February 2016, the government announced the sale of 6,300km² of the promised lands to private investors.

The recently released Nubian activists [Twitter]
The recently released Nubian activists [Twitter]

"Nubian Return Caravan" was not the first protest movement organised by Nubians seeking their right to return. Yet, it marked an important shift in Nubian attitude towards their grievances and the regime. 

When 700 Nubian men and women travelled to the lands their forefathers once inhabited, and in the process cut off roads to several historic sites including Abu Simbel, they sounded the alarm and signalled they are united ready to push back against the regime.

Sisi's security apparatus delivered its well-known heavy handed crackdown but the Nubian awakening will not accept being forced back into a slumber. 


Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, who graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.

Follow her on Twitter: @ghqsy_

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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