Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Knocking on Nubia’s door

Egypt’s Nubians are divided over the country’s new constitution that acknowledges their “right to return” to their ancestral homelands, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience” – William Golding

“I boycotted the recent referendum on the constitution, as I believe the last referendum was not much better than the Muslim Brotherhood’s referendum in 2012. I was the first person to resign from the 2012 referendum preparation committee, precisely because it aimed at instituting a bogus religious state and a fanatical anti-women and anti-children environment. It also ignored the rights of indigenous peoples like the Nubians of Egypt,” Manal Al-Teiby, director of the NGO Egyptians for Housing Rights and a Nubian political and cultural activist, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

However, despite differences over the two referenda, Egypt’s Nubians agree on at least one thing – their right to disagree. “Nubians in Egypt continue to be divided over many issues, and a focus on individual human rights will not serve collective Nubian interests. As far as the Nubians are concerned, everyone thinks of themselves as a general and not a soldier. It is a case of all the Nubians being chiefs with no Indians.”

“There is always the problem of who is to represent the Nubians in the political arena. There are the Nubians of Aswan, and there are the Nubians of Kom Ombo. All the Nubians want reparations for being forced out of their ancestral homeland and dispersed across the country and to the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries where many of them emigrated in search of better economic opportunities. All Egyptian Nubians want the right of return to their ancestral lands that are now submerged under Lake Nasser. The problem is that the Nubians do not have an official spokesperson,” Al-Teiby said.

“People often think that the problems of the Nubians began with the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. But that is a mistake. The problems of the Nubian people in Egypt began when the British colonial authorities constructed the Aswan Dam in 1902. In today’s Egypt, the Nubians identify themselves as an indigenous people whose rights have been appropriated. We, as Nubians, want justice. We want reparations, and we want the right to return to our ancestral lands.”

One adage states that it can take decades to right the wrongs of the past, but Nubian activists like Al-Teiby, who do “ride the sea of Nile,” do not necessarily have sails woven of patience.

With lingering clouds still hanging over Egypt in the wake of the 25 January Revolution, it seems that reparations for Nubians will in all probability not feature in the political and economic scheme of things for the next few years at least. Yet, reparations are gaining ground as a key demand of Egypt’s Nubians because “it is all very well to let the Nubians return to their ancestral lands, but how many Nubians actually have the means to do so? A handful, perhaps,” Al-Teiby says. For the others, some other way of making up for the past will have to be found.

“I am all for the 3 July political roadmap. However, I feel betrayed by the new 2014 constitution. First of all, it says that the cultural identity of Egypt is Arab. I am not an Arab. I am proud to be an Egyptian Nubian. In the same way, the constitution serves the interests of investors, and it does not serve the interests of the Nubian people. The state is ignoring the rights of the Nubian people. We cannot simply leave Cairo and head for ancestral lands in the south of the country, for example. There is no way that I can prove that the land of my ancestors is my land, and there have only been reparations arrangements put in place for three villages.”

“No fewer than 41 Nubian villages have been denied reparation rights. Likewise, the authorities have not exactly acknowledged the right of return: instead, they have permitted us to return to arid land and not to the fertile soil on the banks of Lake Nasser. So, in effect they want to dump us in the desert,” Al-Teiby said.

Lake Nasser is the largest freshwater artificial reservoir in Africa, and opportunities for development are immense. Yet, few political parties have taken up the Nubian cause. According to Al-Teiby, the indisputable winners from Egypt’s new constitution are the military and the economic elite. Though she is no defender of the Muslim Brotherhood, and says that she has serious ideological differences with the banned organisation, she also feels that the new constitution introduced after the Brotherhood’s downfall does not guarantee the Nubians their rights any better than that introduced in 2012.

“I do not want to be at the mercy of tycoons investing in some Wadi Al-Amal (Valley of Hope) in the middle of nowhere. Some 75,000 hectares have been auctioned off to prospective businessmen intent on investing in Nubia,” but nothing has been done for the Nubians themselves. Against this backdrop, the “right of return enshrined in the new constitution, and I admit that this is the first time in history that the Nubians have won such a right, is meaningless without reparations,” Al-Teiby said.

THE VIEW FROM NUBIA: Many institutions and civil-society organisations supported the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi, among them the police and security apparatus, the judiciary, state religious institutions such as Al-Azhar, the country’s highest Sunni Muslim religious authority, and the Coptic Christian Church. What was the view of the Nubians?

“Speaking in a personal capacity, I am proud that the new constitution gives Nubians the right of return to their ancestral lands,” says Haggag Oddoul, a Nubian novelist and the Nubian community’s only representative on the assembly that drafted the new 2014 constitution.

Speaking to the Weekly, Oddoul said that the Nubian right to return was an inalienable right. The new constitution recognises Nubians for the first time in the country’s history as a specific ethnic and cultural group with special rights and social demands.

“The right to return is our most important demand. When I used this term 25 years ago, I received many angry reactions. Today, and as the notion of freedom has changed, I am starting to feel more acceptance of our demands, and I am pretty optimistic about where things will be going in the long run,” Oddoul said.

Al-Teiby draws a distinction between religious minorities in Egypt and indigenous peoples such as the Nubians. “The Coptic Christians have no justifiable recourse to reparations for the appropriation of their ancestral land, as they are a religious minority and not a separate people. However, we as Nubians do have this right,” she said.

Mohamed Saleh Adlan, head of the Nubian Society in Cairo, a community group, said that many young Nubians were eager to return to their ancestral lands on the banks of Lake Nasser. “There are some 45 Nubian agricultural cooperatives and wealthier Nubians in the Arabian Gulf and North America who would like to invest in agricultural, industrial and tourism industries in Nubia,” Adlan told the Weekly.

Taking the long view, Adlan stressed that this was just the beginning, and the right of return marked a shift in Nubian political thinking. In truth, Nubian interest in contemporary Nubia has come and gone since the Nubian ancestral land was inundated after the the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.   

Although the majority of Egyptians identify pre-eminently as Egyptian, there is no doubt that the country also boasts considerable ethnic diversity, including the Sinai Bedouin, Siwa’s non-Arab Amazigh people, and the Upper Egyptian Nubians, all of whom have sometimes been marginalised on the country’s political scene.

Nubians in post-25 January Egypt are in no mood to be lectured. But despite this, and despite the new emphasis on the rights of indigenous peoples, the new constitution says in its first article that Egypt is an independent and democratic nation and that the Egyptian people are members of the Arab umma (community). It further notes that Egypt is a part of the Islamic world and downgrades its ties to the African continent, Oddoul says.

The constitution’s new preamble thus touches heavily on Egyptian cultural identity. What this means in practice has yet to unfold as the terminology used is vague. However, al-Teiby and others are concerned that though the non-Arab Nubian and Amazigh ethnic minorities have historically suffered from exclusion and oppression under successive regimes, the new constitution does not explicitly recognise this. Many young Nubians are scrutinising the new constitution on this matter, even as they try to predict how they will be treated by future governments.

The new constitution offers better human rights protections than the 2012 version, forced through by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. While the latter tried to make overtures, but not serious amends, with regard to rectifying the grievances of the past, the question of the right to return was sketched over and in the end sidestepped altogether.

However, many Nubians are placing political stability and economic growth above individual and collective rights. For them, these things are more important than an emphasis on minority rights. Others are insistent about the need for laws designed to safeguard against possible abuses by local officials in Aswan. There is a growing consensus that Nubian lawyers and human rights activists must be permitted to signal and single out legal abuses, especially on issues such as land claims and protection against unscrupulous local entrepreneurs.

The Nubian activists interviewed by the Weekly were not enthusiastic about the notion of a North American-type first-people reservation on the banks of Lake Nasser. They consider themselves to be an indigenous people and insist on the right of return, but they understand that in Egypt the notion of a “reservation” would be unacceptable both to the authorities for security reasons and to many Nubians themselves.

Older generations of Nubians stress the Nubian commitment to rules-based governance. Oddoul has long called for the recognition of cultural rights, including a systematic revival of the Nubian languages. However, his demands have sometimes been misinterpreted as a call for Nubian secession, a notion he vociferously denies.

According to Oddoul, the new constitution reflects Egypt’s regional and global identity better than any previous one. By emphasising Nubian cultural specificity Egypt gains by highlighting its cultural heterogeneity, he says, helping the country to become a leading regional power and international player. Oddoul adds this will be impossible to achieve unless major local issues, especially in Aswan and the Lake Nasser region, are not taken into account.

UNITY THROUGH DIVERSITY: “the specific needs of Nubians, Coptic Orthodox Christians and other Christian denominations, the disgruntled and restless Bedouin of Sinai, as well as other religious minorities such as the Bahais and Shia Muslims, who together form around 20 per cent of Egypt’s population, must be carefully examined and taken seriously by the authorities if Egypt is to avoid getting bogged down in sterile arguments about democratisation,” he says.

“Some Nubians reside in Egypt’s southernmost city of Aswan and in its environs. Others are in Kom Ombo where they were relocated after the inundation of their ancestral lands by Lake Nasser. Most yearn to return. And unlike the Bedouin of Sinai and Marsa Matrouh, many Nubians are dispersed in the major urban centres of the country as a whole. I for one consider myself to be an Alexandrian, for example, which is the city where I reside, as well as a Nubian. But some people still see the existence of such multiple identities as a threat and say that it constitutes a threat to Egypt’s unity. I, on the contrary, believe that this unity-in-diversity strengthens Egypt.”

According to Oddoul, such minority groups should be represented on Egypt’s future political map in order to preserve the country’s territorial integrity and avoid internal disputes, or, worse, such movements calling for secession from Egypt.

For the time being, some Nubian political activists have expressed specific concerns about the broad jurisdiction given to military courts over civilians enshrined in the new constitution, one reason cited by al-Teiby for her own refusal to participate in the recent referendum.

“I see Egypt moving forward despite the current economic conditions. The youth are gradually taking the lead,” Oddoul counters. For al-Teiby, the situation is complicated to say the least. “My grandfather moved from Nubia to Cairo, and I regret to say that even though I consider myself to be a Nubian activist I can hardly understand my own Nubian tongue,” she comments.

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