Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 September 2011
Issue No. 1063
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Nubians muscling in

Rioting in Aswan has put a long-festering Nubian question on the front burner for Egypt, notes Gamal Nkrumah

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Nubian demonstrators torched the headquarters of the Aswan governorate in protest against their "political marginalisation"

Nothing gets the Nubians up in arms like calling them separatists. There is a moral and common sense case for making it easier for Nubians to return to their ancestral lands once submerged under Lake Nasser, which has receded over the decade, freeing some of Egypt's most fertile land. Now that much land on the shores of the lake has been reclaimed, the Nubians are looking forward to returning to their original homeland, without of course, totally abandoning Aswan or Kom Ombo where many of them were relocated when the High Dam was constructed.

What this points to is a need to encourage national and local authorities to see the development of Nubia as an opportunity for reconciliation and peaceful coexistence rather than something to be warded off at all costs. Nubians demand exclusive rights to their ancestral, as well they should.

The strategic location of Nubia on the southern frontier region of Egypt and site of the Aswan High Dam prompted the State Security Apparatus under Mubarak to clamp down on the least sign of unrest among Nubians. Socially and politically, the Mubarak government's strategic framework for containing Nubia was not the final answer.

After the 25 January Revolution the Nubians pinned their hopes for a better future on the spirit of change and the appeal for social justice. The dreaded State Security apparatus was disbanded and the Nubians felt that the post-revolutionary government in Egypt should move things in the right direction. Cairo should, in Nubian eyes, build a new Nubia on revolutionary foundations and not demolish the outlying backwater as its detractors would wish.

It is against this anxiety-ridden backdrop that Nubian protesters torched the headquarters of the Aswan governorate building and blockaded the Corniche, the boulevard bordering the River Nile in Aswan City's centre on Saturday and Sunday.

The government announced that an emergency meeting is scheduled to be held next Sunday to brainstorm matters that concern the Nubians and to find solutions to the Nubian question. "The charge that we are separatists is a lie, a dirty lie. The defunct Sate Security apparatus of ex- president Hosni Mubarak deliberately circulated the rumour that Nubians are separatists and want to set up their own state in the south of the country. They did so to incite hatred, alarm and suspicion among Egyptians and even to alienate moderate Nubians," Nubian poet and writer Haggag Oudul told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"I am an Alexandrian, born and bred in Alexandria even though I am ethnically Nubian. Egypt is my land of birth. There is no contradiction between me being both Nubian and Alexandrian and Egyptian. I have multiple identities and they are not conflicting or contradictory," Oudul extrapolated. "The authorities of the Mubarak regime intentionally sowed the seeds of mistrust between Egyptians and ethnic Nubians who hold Egyptian citizenship, denying the Nubians their full citizenship rights and stopping them from demanding the right of return to our ancestral homeland," Oudul stated. "Nubia constitutes a corridor between Egypt and Africa south of the Sahara and especially the Nile Basin nations."

All the Nubians interviewed by the Weekly insisted that they are not in favour of secession but rather fuller integration into the Egyptian political system. Nubians believe that they are underrepresented in parliament and marginalised by the powers that be in the decision-making process.

An estimated 2,000 Nubian demonstrators marched through the centre of Aswan angrily protesting against their political marginalisation and the usurpation of their traditional rights by newcomers from Upper Egypt whom the Nubians insist have appropriated their ancestral lands and are robbing them of their jobs and employment opportunities. Already, Aswan like the rest of the country is facing an economic meltdown with the plummeting number of tourists who have traditionally flocked to the city to survey its historical sights. Aswan and its environs have some of the most enchanting ancient Egyptian temples and mediaeval relics and ruins including the famous Temple of Philae.

The main concern of the Nubians is the influx of Upper Egyptian, or Saidi, workers from the impoverished governorates of Qena, Sohag, and Assiut to the immediate north of Nubia. "We have nothing against the inrush of Upper Egyptians to our ancestral lands, but we cannot welcome their taking over our municipalities, economy and local politics. Our struggle is political, economic and above all cultural. We demand our civil rights and liberties, including our right to speak and be educated in our own language. Nubians are renowned for their hospitality," Oudul told the Weekly.

"We Nubians are of mixed heritage. Take the Nubian tribe of Al-Muradab. They are the descendants of Murad, the grandson of Sheikh Abdel-Maguid, an Arab tribal leader from Arabia. He settled in Nubia and married a Nubian and their offspring intermarried with the local Nubians. His shrine is located in Qena and he is venerated by Nubians and Saidis alike," Oudul cited as an example of the common heritage.

Army troops intervened and tried to disperse the protesters, a move that incensed the three million-strong Nubian community in Egypt and further aggravated the tense situation. About one and a half million Nubians live in Aswan governorate and the other half are dispersed around the country with a concentration of Nubians in large cities such as Cairo and to a lesser degree Alexandria. This is one of the few instances that the Nubian community of Egypt reacted angrily and resorted to violence and arson since their displacement from their ancestral homeland, now submerged under Lake Nasser. The Nubians are demanding that the lake be renamed Lake Nubia.

But this is somewhat misleading. Nubians have other more pressing demands.

Far from engaging in a temperate debate about the merits of relocation and the return to their ancestral lands, Saidi politicians and businessmen in Aswan are using the "right of return" to discredit Nubians and label them separatists. The Egyptian Armed Forces intervened quickly to evacuate the employees from the Aswan governorate building, but members of the Nubian community staged a sit-in on the grounds of the Aswan governorate headquarters.

Much of the Nubians' criticism is levelled against Aswan Governor Mustafa El-Sayed. He, the Nubians insist, has sided with the incoming Saidis and disregards the citizenship rights of the indigenous Nubians. El-Sayed incensed Nubians by selling their lands to rich tycoons at bargain prices. Nubians demand he be sacked. Inevitably this created tensions between the Saidi and Nubian communities of Aswan.

The Nubians strongly objected to the recent visit paid to Aswan by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The premier convened a closed meeting with selected moderate members of the Nubian community, much to the chagrin of the more militant elements.

The Nubians accuse Sharaf of making false promises about relocation, housing and land reacquisition. The Nubians demand the return of 40 villages to the descendants of those who were displaced in the 1960s when the Aswan High Dam was under construction. The Nubian ancestral lands along the shores of Lake Nasser are among the most fertile in Egypt. Nubia is the only part of the country where the rich silt from the Blue Nile ameliorates the quality of the soil and it is deposited during the rising of the Nile waters in September and October with the concomitant inundation.

The Nubian protesters and human rights activists complain that the new electoral constituency laws disadvantage Nubians. Originally in the Aswan governorate there were three constituencies representing both Nubians and Saidis. Now there are only two, and the Nubians will even be more underrepresented in the parliament. They insist that Kom Ombo, where many Nubians reside, should be split, forming two constituencies, one with a clear majority of Nubians, and that Nubians be promoted throughout the administration. "The officers who police Aswan are not Nubians. They are Saidis and are not sympathetic to Nubian aspirations."

"A quarter of a century ago, with the tourism economic boom, many Saidis sought better employment opportunities and refuge from poverty in Aswan. They were favoured by successive governors of Aswan," Nubian activist and community leader Ibrahim Abdine told the Weekly.

Matters came to a head when the janitorial workers blocked traffic between Aswan and Cairo demanding a higher minimum wage, better working conditions and formal contracts. Trains connecting Aswan to Cairo came to an abrupt halt.

Abdine explained that it is a malicious lie that Nubians live in relative isolation shunning mainstream Egyptian politics. He complained that the Saidis now control 75 per cent of the economy of Aswan, much to the disadvantage of the Nubian indigenes.

All Nubians want is to be recognised and respected as one of Egypt's most ancient cultures and peoples, the direct descendants of the Pharaohs. It is the height of hypocrisy to lure Western tourists to Pharaonic ruins when the original Egyptians are themselves living in poverty as outcasts.

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