North Africa, West Asia

Egypt’s parliament crushes Nubian right of return to ancestral lands

The parliament has approved designating many of the villages to which Nubians wish to return no-go military areas, and Nubian activists have yet again taken to the streets to demand their rights.

Maja Janmyr
21 March 2016
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Tara Todras-Whitehill/MCT via Getty Images. All rights reserved.Last month scores of Nubians protested at Abu Simbel sanctuary in Upper Egypt to oppose a parliamentary decision that would prevent them from returning to the villages on the banks of the Nile from which they were forcibly displaced more than half a century ago. This latest development is a painful setback to the Nubian activist community, whose incessant mobilisation bore fruit when in the 2014 Egyptian constitution, ‘Nubia’ was explicitly mentioned for the first time, and a return to Nubia within ten years was set out.

The increasing militarisation of Egyptian society and decreasing political space that followed the entrée of president El Sisi in 2014 now puts into question the realisation of these constitutional gains. A decree issued by El Sisi designates many of the villages to which Nubians wish to return as military areas that should not be populated, and it is this decree that the Egyptian parliament now has now reviewed and approved – to the dismay of many Nubians. While the recent parliamentary decision is an obvious blow to the question of Nubian rights in Egypt, in light of the government’s persistent attempts at quashing any public debate or mobilisation to claim Nubian rights, the developments in recent years are nevertheless striking.

Bearing an ethnic identity distinct from Arab peoples, the Nubian people are usually considered the descendants of a specific civilisation as old as ancient Egypt itself, having inhabited villages along the banks of the Nile – stretching from Aswan in southern Egypt into northern Sudan – for thousands of years. After being divided arbitrarily between Sudan and Egypt in 1899, Nubians in Egypt effectively were uprooted during the early and mid-twentieth century when a series of dams were constructed and resulted in the flooding of Nubian land. With the exception of a thinly populated strip of land along the Nile, today old Egyptian Nubia lies completely under Lake Nasser, built by former president Nasser in the 1950s and 60s in an effort to modernise Egypt.

Shortly after the building of the High Dam, Egyptian authorities began a program to forcibly resettle approximately 50,000 Nubians to new, purpose–built ‘resettlement’ communities in southern Egypt. One would imagine that the vast resettlement of Nubians in the 1960s would have triggered large-scale political and social unrest among the Nubian population, but any attempts to mobilise collectively on behalf of their group have been repressed, and the Egyptian government has gone to great lengths to deny even the very existence of any indigenous people or minority groups in the country. Ever since their displacement, Nubians have systematically been marginalised politically, socially and economically.

Recent gains made by the Nubians are under pressure from the increasing militarisation of Egyptian society and shrinking space for civil society and political action in general.

In a new research article I explore how since 2005, and despite the obvious risks, Nubians in Egypt have become more vocal in demanding change, and how through shifting frames and strategies they have mobilised for a return to ancestral lands. While the majority of Nubians long regarded mobilisation as too risky, a growing number of Nubians have started to perceive the status quo as a more profound threat to their existence and therefore have begun to mobilise for a return to ancestral lands on an unprecedented scale. Following the 2008 bread crisis in Egypt, several Nubian grassroots youth movements emerged. Even though this younger generation might never have visited ‘Old Nubia,’ it since has become the most vocal and politically engaged. This activism was indeed strengthened during the 25 January revolution, during which Egyptian activists organised protests against, and eventually toppled, the Mubarak regime

Nubian activists sought to make use of the unprecedented opportunities that followed the changes in domestic politics and were quick to organise in the months immediately following the revolution. They were nevertheless left out when, by early 2012, a new post–revolutionary parliament had been elected, bringing a majority, Islamist–led coalition to power. Nubians as a collective were also effectively excluded from the process of drafting the first post-revolutionary constitution. After the revolution, Nubian rights groups such as the Egyptian Nubian Association for Lawyers had elaborated a draft law guaranteeing Nubians the right of return to their lands.

Nubian grievances were exacerbated during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi (June 2012 - July 2013). In January 2013, an astonishing 60 Nubian associations protested outside the Egyptian parliament to demand an end to Nubians’ marginalisation and to be allowed to return to their lands. I argue that the incessant mobilisation culminated in the 2014 Egyptian constitution, which finally accommodated the Nubians’ demand for return to ancestral lands.

In July 2013, after massive protests against president Morsi, the military once again ousted an Egyptian president and suspended the divisive 2012 constitution. A new constitutional process ensued, leading to the adoption of another constitution through a referendum in January 2014. It was the first time that Nubians as a collective group were represented. In the end, however, the 2014 constitution proved to be greatly successful; for the first time, ‘Nubia’ was mentioned explicitly and the basis for a Nubian return was set out. Article 236 of the 2014 constitution states that:

The State shall guarantee setting and implementing a plan for the comprehensive economic and urban development of border and underprivileged areas, including Upper Egypt, Sinai, Matrouh, and Nubia. This shall be made with the participation of the residents of these areas in these development projects, and they shall be given a priority in benefiting therefrom, taking into account the cultural and environmental patterns of the local community, within ten years from the date that this constitution comes into effect, as regulated by Law. The State shall work on setting and implementing projects to bring back the residents of Nubia to their original territories and develop such territories within ten years, as regulated by Law.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi was elected through a May 2014 referendum, and in September, the Ministry of Transitional Justice formed the Committee on the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Nubia. This committee is tasked with implementing the constitutional provisions on Nubia by drafting a specific law on return. Until now, the committee has elaborated three draft laws on the ‘Rehabilitation and Development of Nubia,’ the most recent of which was submitted to the Council of Ministers in February 2015.

But now there are very real concerns that the constitutional changes and the work of the Rehabilitation Committee may not translate into implementation on the ground. The recent gains made by the Nubians are under pressure from the increasing militarisation of Egyptian society and the shrinking space for civil society and political action in general. In light of the new presidential decree that blatantly undermines the work of Nubian activists, many doubt that the most recent draft law will be approved. Presidential Decree 444, introduced ‘without warning’ in November 2014, establishes vast areas along the Egyptian border as military zones, including 16 villages to which Nubians demand to return. Since the Egyptian parliament’s approval of the decree last month, Nubian activists have yet again taken to the streets to demand their rights.

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