Country’s largest displaced community optimistic political changes will help them return to Nile homeland.
Midway through Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s first parliamentary speech on February 13, a member of parliament shouted, “Don’t forget Nubia, Mr President.”
On early Monday morning, February 22, as hundreds of tourists gathered at Abu Simbel Temple in Aswan to witness a solar alignment illuminate the face of King Ramses II, dozens of Nubian activists stood in silence holding Egyptian flags and banners that read “Nubia is not for sale”, wearing T-shirts with the statement, “Nubians against Decree 444”. By mid-week, the hashtag “#Nubia_Against444” was spreading in English and Arabic.
Since the Egyptian parliament approved Decree 444 in January of this year, the situation between Nubian activists and security forces has been tense.
The decree issued in late November 2014, designates a stretch of land in Nubia adjacent to the Egyptian-Sudanese frontier, as a restricted military zone – including 18 Nubian villages declared “border regions”.
The area – extending from Egypt’s southern border 110 kilometres on the eastern side of the Nile and 25 kilometres to the western side of the river – is, say leaders, precisely the stretch of land that Nubians were hoping to return to, in compensation for the mass displacement they suffered 1963.
The story of Nubian displacement over the past century is well known. The uprooting of the Nubian population from the banks of the Nile began in the early 20th century, when British colonial administrators began building a series of dams.
The construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1963 by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government, and the creation of an artificial lake covering the Upper Nile Valley from Aswan in Egypt to the Dal Cataract in Sudan – led to even greater dislocation, as an estimated 50,000 Nubians were forced out of their villages and resettled in a region north of Aswan known as “New Nubia”.
UNESCO, the UN’s cultural body, would dismantle and relocate Nubia’s most famous monuments threatened by submersion. The Nubian families displaced were promised compensation – a house and two feddan of land, about 10,000 sq metres, but the Egyptian government never fulfilled its promise.
The Aswan Dam helped bring water and electricity to millions of Egyptians, but for decades, Nubians have dreamed of returning to the homeland lost during the hijra (exodus).
Thus many Nubians rejoiced when the new Egyptian constitution, passed by referendum in January 2014, spelled out their right to return to their ancestral lands within a decade.
Many Nubians rejoiced when the new Egyptian constitution, passed by referendum in January 2014, spelled out their right to return to their ancestral lands within a decade.
Article 236 of the constitution specifically calls for the economic and urban development of peripheral areas such as Nubia and Upper Egypt: “The state works on developing and implementing projects to bring back the residents of Nubia to their original areas and develop them within 10 years in the manner organised by law.”
But the Presidential Decree 444, passed by the House of Representatives in January, declares those very areas a military-controlled “no man’s land”.
Nubian leaders have called Decree 444 “unconstitutional”, and many are suspecting that regime officials included an article on Nubian rights in the constitution simply to gain their community’s vote in the referendum.
Speaking on Al Hayat Egyptian television last week, Mohamed Azmy, head of the Nubians’ Union, observed, that the presidential decree was in clear violation of the constitution.
“The Nubian people were happy and hopeful with the new constitution, and felt that finally the government would compensate them for their suffering and sacrifice – and now we’re back at point zero?” he said, adding that the Egyptian parliamentarians who so readily passed the decree that contradicts the constitution, must have approved it without reading the text.
Tensions have been running high between Nubian groups and security forces. Clashes erupted between soldiers and Nubian activists near Aswan on Thursday, with soldiers firing rounds and arresting protesters.
The past few years have seen a surge of Nubian activism in Egypt, Sudan and even in diaspora communities. In July 2015, Nubian activists organised a protest on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo, with banners that read “I’m Nubian and proud” and “No to racism”.
Government repression is sparking more media-savvy organising. Just this month young activists launched NubaTube, an online channel to promote Nubian language and culture.
A few days ago the Nubian coalition Aidun (Returning) issued this statement: “We will hold protests outside Egyptian embassies around the free world, and perform our traditional music and dance to demand our legal and legitimate right to return to land and protect our culture from extinction.”
Activists are now demanding that the Egyptian parliament revisit Decree 444, or else they will resort to international organisations. Across the border in Sudan, Nubian activist have also been rallying against the building of the Dal and Kajbar dams that the regime wants to build at the Nile’s second and third cataracts.
The Association of Nubians, an organisation based in northern Sudan, warned that the construction of these dams would obliterate more than 7,000 years of Nubian civilisation. Protests grew in November when it was announced that Saudi Arabia would be financing these projects. Even in Washington DC, Nubian-American organisations have been holding rallies outside the White House in defence of their ancestral lands.
Nubian community leaders are warily watching this youth agitation, wondering about the possibility of unrest and a government crackdown on both sides of the Egyptian-Sudanese border.
“We cannot guarantee that the new generation will behave in the same [peaceful] way as their forebears,” one Nubian elder in the village of Adnadan, told Reuters. “Surely there will be a rebellion. Maybe not against the state, but at least within the community.”
Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.