Given Egypt’s notoriety for administrative ineptness, it seemed beyond argument that the country is in dire need for an ‘administrative revolution’. When President Sisi put this on his priority agenda, the concept was welcome. Once the draft map for the new administrative division of the land into governorates was announced a few weeks ago, however, it came under fire from unexpected quarters.
According to the new map, the land where the Nubians currently live and which today lies in Aswan governorate would be spread over three horizontal divisions: the governorates of Aswan, al-Wadi al-Gadid and Tushka. The Nubians were infuriated, claiming the division risks eroding their hegemony. In a show of protest against the new decision, a press conference was recently held at the Nubian Club in Tahrir Square in central Cairo.
Four times displaced
Living in the southernmost quarter of the country, the Nubian population has long been obliged to offer hard sacrifices for the sake of Egypt.
As Egypt’s population began to grow in the late 19th century, the need for more water for irrigation and hydroelectric power grew exponentially. It was inevitable to seek to construct dams on the Nile to store the floodwaters which flowed annually through the land and spilled into the Mediterranean. The first Aswan Dam was built between 1899 and 1902. Even though at the time it was an engineering feat with no equal, it provided inadequate water storage and had to be raised twice, in 1912 and 1933. Even so, the dam did not meet the country’s irrigation needs and, in 1960, the Aswan High Dam was built and went into operation 10 years later.
Throughout these four major projects, the Nubians have had to leave their ancestral land south of Aswan, which was drowned by the water reservoirs, and relocate northwards. Perhaps the harshest such move was the last, in 1964, when all the Nubians who had still remained on their land had to relocate to make way for what came to be known as Lake Nasser, the water reservoir behind the High Dam. This stretched 550km south, well into the Sudan. The Nubians were relocated in villages built for them in Kom-Ombo, and have suffered because of the inadequacy of their new homes which did not resemble in any way their old ones and could not accommodate their hereditary way of life. Even though they had modern amenities such as running water, their new villages were not close to the Nile as their old ones were, a source of pain to the Nubians who regard the Nile waters as the essence of life and have historically had a close attachment to the river.
The banks of Lake Nasser remained almost uninhabited. In the 2000s, investors began to eye these banks, spotting invaluable economic opportunity and lucrative tourism projects. This had the Nubians up in arms; they demanded a return to the banks of the Nile in their ancestral land, calling for the revival of their villages in their age-old names. This was the time of President Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down in February 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. When the government appeared to be disregarding the Nubian demands Mubarak himself unequivocally said that, once habitation of the Lake Nasser banks would be possible, first priority should be given to the return of the Nubians. Then came the Arab Spring, and the matter stalled.
Egypt’s new Constitution, which was approved by a landslide vote of 98 per cent last January, included an explicit clause on the right of the Nubians to return to their ancestral land. However, the new proposed administrative division of today has brought an outcry from the Nubians. The division will come about through dividing Aswan governorate into three horizontal divisions that would spread from the Western Desert to the Red Sea coast in the east. Since the Nubian community is stretched out across today’s Aswan governorate, they will effectively be living in three separate governorates once the new division comes into effect.
Resorting to the international community
“A law that would result in Nubians living in three governorates would be unconstitutional,” Fawzy Gad, a member of the Nubian file committee in Aswan, said in the recent conference, stressing that the 2014 Constitution grants Nubians the right to their identity. Yet, he admitted that no official decision to this effect has so far been declared. The governorate division was only mentioned by Mr Sisi during his electoral campaign, and again by Major General Adel Labib, Minister of Local Development. “But if the proposal materialises, we will not keep still; we will resort to harsh action. We will seek international arbitration, basing on all human rights and minority rights codes and treaties of which Egypt is signatory,” Mr Gad said. He divulged that before the 2011 revolution Nubians had filed a lawsuit with the international tribunal claiming their rights had been usurped and demanding an apology from the British and the Egyptian government for the problems the Nubians incurred during the three relocations they were forced to undergo; three of them were during the time Egypt was occupied by the British. The Nubians also demand that the Egyptian government should reassess the compensation due to them and to restore them to their ancestral land.
“We only ask to go back to our land and for the government to finance development projects for us there, which is really the government’s responsibility,” Mr Gad said.
“We were farmers,” he said. “We used to mainly depend on the dates that our palms produced. One palm tree would sustain a whole family. We want to go back to our land and to our way of life. Our land represents our identity. We have lost our traditions; it is impossible for us to uphold them outside Nubia.”
Nubian activist Ikramy Reda told Watani that if Aswan were divided into three, young Nubians would organise sit-ins all over Egypt and the wider world. “We will hold hunger strikes and organise mass deportation of Nubians to another State,” Mr Reda said. He did not, however, explain what he meant by ‘another State’. Possibly Sudan? “We demand that all the Nubian villages should be in one governorate.” Only two Nubian villages are in Tushka, and 42 lie between Aswan and al-Wadi al-Gadeed.
“We lost our identity and traditions after we were displaced. We had to live in 100-square-metre homes after we were used to homes of 400 square metres, ones that used to host the entire [extended] family,” Mr Reda lamented. “We only want to be allowed to go back to our land and we will build new homes and found projects,” he added. “When we left the land of our ancestors we were some 5,000; now our population has swelled to 6 million.”
Mustafa Abdel-Qader, a researcher in Nubian heritage, says the government is not applying the terms of the Constitution which grant Nubians the right to develop their land. He suggests that the government does not want Nubians to return to their land since this is now attractive for investors. Mr Abdel-Qader divulged that both before and after the revolution Nubians had proposed to the government a map for the distribution of Nubians along their land, but nothing had come of it.
The conference raised many questions. The Nubian Club in Cairo was founded in 1964, even before some Nubians had found new homes, to offer their families a place to meet. It later turned into a social and cultural forum, and now has branches in Aswan, Alexandria, Ismailiya, and Suez. Who exactly does the Nubian Club today represent? How credible is the information cited by the speakers? Mr Gad said that Nubians were farmers, a historical misinformation since Nubians never farmed land; they relied on date palms, as he quickly stated. Nor have Nubians ever been relegated to their southern lands proper, they have always moved all over Egypt in search of a livelihood and are well integrated. More important, however, what is the connection between the time-honoured Nubian demand to return to their ancestral land, and that this land should be administratively divided into three divisions? In Egypt, there is absolutely no restriction in movement, trade, or any activity between governorates. None can any have a separate law; governorates are not states as in the US or cantons as in Switzerland, they are mere administrative and security divisions. The majority of Egyptian families live in separate governorates; it does not affect their way of life or relationships in any way. Nubian demands to go back to their land are fully understood and absolutely valid, not so the demand that this land should be managed administratively and security-wise through a single division. Why the anger?
Commenting on the Nubian Club’s young members’ viewpoint, the young Nubian activist Manal al-Teebi, professor of international law for human rights, told Watani that the Nubian Club was not representative of the Nubian population in general but is merely an association among 44 other associations for Nubians throughout Egypt. She agreed that the recent suggestion made by President Sisi to disperse Nubians around three governorates had enraged Nubians who were indeed looking to return to their birthplace, especially as the Constitution stipulates that they will be restored to their homeland within 10 years.
However Ms Teebi was unable to give an answer as to why this land should be one administrative entity. She explained that the idea of resorting to international arbitration was misunderstood, since only governments, not citizens, have the right to appeal to the international tribunal. Nubians may not appeal to the African Court for Human Rights, since Egypt is not among its members. All that Nubians can do, Ms Teebi says, is to file a complaint with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which can then issue recommendations. These recommendations are in no way binding to the Egyptian government, however.
Another Nubian activist, Nader Naim, insists that the Nubian Club represents the Nubians. He says the dispersion of the Nubians in three governorates would hamper their adherence to their customs and traditions, but when asked how this might be he could give no reply.
Nubian lawyer Ahmed al-Bashir, who lives in Aswan, agrees with Ms Teebi that the Nubian Club is not fully representative of Nubians. He says not all Nubians are dissatisfied with their dispersion over three governorates, and many believe that their concentration in one governorate might work to alienate them from the rest of Egypt.
The fact remains that Nubian demands to return home are perfectly understandable, perfectly valid, and perfectly backed by the Constitution. The Nubian demand to be under a single administration is not equally understood. If young Nubians do not bother to support their demand with credible backing, they risk being taken as irrational. Worse, one analyst who required his name to be withheld asked: is this the beginning of a call for separatism?
2 July 2014