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Nubians still dream of return to historical lands in Upper Egypt

Dozens of Nubians, frustrated by lack of progress in ongoing resettlement negotiations with Egypt's post-revolution governments, stage demonstration before Shura Council in Cairo

Reem Gehad , Sunday 20 Jan 2013
Nubian protesters called for specific demands in Saturday
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In front of a long line of Central Security Forces eyeing them from behind thick barbed wire, they stand in a circle, their arms wrapped around each other's backs, and they dance to the rhythm of a song only they can understand.

More than a hundred Nubians gathered on Saturday in front of Egypt's Shura Council building to protest what they call "the deliberate and continued marginalisation" of their nation, which, they say, "represents the origin of Egypt."

"If Egypt is the mother of the world, then Nubia is Egypt's mother," Abd El-Moneim Abd El-Wahab of Al-Madiq Nubian Association said, modifying the familiar saying.

Abd El-Wahab, an old man sitting in the shade in a galabiya (traditional dress), is demanding, like many men and women at the protest, a resettlement law that would relocate the 44 Nubian villages on the banks of Lake Nasser, which they insist on calling by its original name: 'Lake Nubia.'

Starting in 1902, Nubians had to leave their lands south of Aswan in Upper Egypt so the government might build its Aswan Reservoir. The largest wave of migration came in 1960-1963, when Egypt started building the Aswan High Dam under Gamal Abdel Nasser's presidency.

"We want our lands and homes back," women from the Nubian village of Al-Seyalla, who did not want to disclose their names, said.

Several Nubian groups drafted a 40-article resettlement plan that they had presented to Egypt's first post-revolution parliament (since dissolved by military order).

"We discussed the law in September 2011 with former prime minister Essam Sharaf, who promised to draft a law to resettle Nubians," said Mohamed Adlan, head of the Public Nubian Club.

"However, nothing happened and we were surprised to hear that Prime Minister Hisham Qandil is forming a special committee to look into the demands of the Nubian people," he added.

Similarly, Ashraf Osman, head of the Nubian Sayyalla Association, criticised government planning.

"Whenever a new prime minister takes office, we start the whole process over again. We can't continue from where we left off previously," he explains. "This shows a chaotic decision-making system."

Adlan argued that the desired land in Nubia is rich and can open up many opportunities, especially in agriculture, for Egypt.

Many Nubians at the protest feared these lands would be used by the government for foreign investment, stressing that it was their right to go back to the land and utilise it themselves.

"It should not go to foreign investors... We are the ones who deserve this land and they know it," said Shaimaa Hassan, who works as a journalist in Cairo.

Many of the Nubians in front of the Shura Council, which, coincidentally, does not have a Nubian representative, were unsatisfied by what members of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had to say about Nubians.

Most notably, last summer, leading FJP member Essam El-Erian described Nubians as "Egypt's invaders."

Many protestors asserted their Egyptian identity by carrying signs saying that they had built the Aswan High Dam, noting that they had been there when the Egyptian Army crossed the Bar Lev line in the 1973 Egypt-Israel War and that Pharaonic civilisation had flourished on their lands.

Actions taken by the Qandil government regarding Nubian issues were also the subject of complaint.

In December, Qandil's cabinet allocated about 5,000 feddans (slightly more than 5,000 acres) as compensation to the Nubian people in the area of Karkar and to build new residential units in Abu Simbel city. 

The protestors viewed these decisions as a "diversion" from their main demand of resettlement. They also criticised how the government issued such decisions.

"This means that each of about 1,930 families [in Karkar] will get a feddan each," Adlan said.

"Did they even look up Nubia's population numbers? They do not have a strategy," Osman added.

Around 60 Nubian associations – from Nubia itself to cities where Nubians migrated en masse, such as Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia – participated in the protest.

They demanded the establishment of a high commission to develop Nubia and the separation of the Nasr El-Nuba electoral district from Kom Ombo, Aswan, allowing Nubians to achieve fair representation in parliament.

In addition, protestors want to dismiss Mostafa El-Sayed, Aswan’s governor, who remained in office even after president Hosni Mubarak was ousted during the January 25 Revolution.

Many men and women at the protest expressed their frustration with the government's focus on the Sinai Peninsula on the border with Israel while setting aside the Nubian issue.

"We have always been peaceful people; we never carried arms or caused trouble; we sacrificed our homes for our beloved Egypt, and when we demand our rights, we should be given the first priority," said Mohamed Abd El-Aziz of Al-Madiq Nubian Association.

Many Nubians at the protest expressed their disagreement with the 'Katala' armed movement in Nubia.

Katala (meaning 'brave warrior' in the Nubian language) recently announced that it would use violence to "separate Nubia" from Egypt completely.

"Katala is a reaction by some Nubian youth who saw that the diplomatic method has not yielded results," Osman said. "They saw that the unrest happening in Sinai was getting the government's attention and they decided to take the same route."

"Although we understand where it is coming from, we do not agree at all with its methods," Osman said of the movement.

Several political parties were present at the demonstration, including the Strong Egypt Party and the liberal Free Egyptians Party.

Mohamed Salah, member of the Nubian team in the Strong Egypt Party, said his group was working on a plan detailing demands and solutions for the Nubian issue, which it plans to present to the incoming parliament.  

"We are currently establishing two offices for our party in Nubia and are very much concerned with their problems," Mona Rizk, the party's women's committee secretary-general, said.  

"Since we do not recognise the Shura Council as a legislative body, we are awaiting the incoming parliament to start pressing for progress on the Nubian issue," she added.

However, some Nubian youth at the protest were not optimistic about political parties' involvement in the issue.

"Political parties use the Nubian issue for their election campaigns and nothing more," Islam Omar, a student at Egypt's Al-Sherouk Academy, said.

"What we need is to get real Nubian representation in parliament and solve our own problems," he added.

Originally, Nubia stretched for about 350 kilometres from Dabud village to the south of Aswan to Adendan village in the Halfa Valley in modern-day Sudan.

Currently, the Nubian villages lie on less than a half of what originally used to be their lands.

"They told us we would go to a green heaven, but it turned out to be a scorching desert," Shaimaa Hassan said.

The Nubians still hope that they will once again be able to live by the banks of their lake as their ancient ancestors did.

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