In the wake of the January 25 revolution, the world’s media have given a great deal of attention to the plight of Egypt’s Christian minority, the Copts, and what place there might be for them in the country’s future. However, Egypt has another aggrieved minority who are starting to make their demands heard, and now Egypt’s 3 million Nubians are hoping to reclaim their rights and address their long-standing grievances with the government.
For thousands of years, the Nubians lived in villages along the banks of the Nile, stretching from Aswan in southern Egypt and into northern Sudan. In spite of the huge changes that swept across the region down the millennia, the Nubians retained their own distinct language, customs and culture until the present day. Yet the rush to industrialise Egypt in the 20th century finally put an end to their way of life, forcing them to abandon their lands and find new lives across southern Egypt and northern Sudan.
The British decision to build dams near Aswan in 1902, 1912 and 1933 caused the Nile’s waters to rise, driving many Nubians into nearby towns and cities. Many others chose to stay in the area, and rebuilt villages further away from the banks of the Nile. Twenty years after the last British dam was built, Nasser’s drive to modernise Egypt with the Aswan High Dam project in the 1950s sounded the death knell for old Nubia. Nasser intended that the project would provide more land for agriculture and boost Egypt’s electricity production.
It also meant that a huge area downstream would be flooded (this area was suprisingly awarded the name Lake Nasser), and included in this were the lands of old Nubia. When the project was announced, UNESCO mobilised to save the Pharaonic and ancient Nubian ruins that littered the area, spending somewhere in the region of $42m on the project. Nasser claimed similar care would be taken to transplant the Nubian people elsewhere and to safeguard their culture and traditions. However, what Nasser actually gave the Nubians was far from what they had promised, and it is this sense of betrayal that lies at the heart of their grievances today.
In 1963 the authorities around Aswan began a programme of forced resettlement and villages were uprooted and moved to new, purpose-built settlements in southern Egypt. According to an article published by the L.A. Times in 1986, the Egyptian government spent a huge amount on resettling the 100,000 Nubians (some reports suggest as many as 120,000 were moved) displaced by the Aswan High Dam.
A chain of villages, named after the original villages lost to Lake Nasser, were built around Kom Ombo; apparently, the officials responsible even told builders to copy the distinctive style of Nubian architecture when building the new villages. New schools and clinics were built near to the villages. In fact, a report inTime magazine in 1963 suggests that some Nubians were optimistic about their new homes, looking forward to the advantages of more modern housing.
Any hopes the Nubians may have had for their new villages were dashed, as the housing that Nasser’s government arranged for them turned out to be of very poor quality. The houses were described as “concrete cells”, and many complained about the lack of greenery. This was a people accustomed to waking every morning to see the lush farmland on the banks of the Nile, after all. Worse still, few provisions were made to preserve Nubian culture. The new schools built around Kom Ombo and Aswan taught exclusively in Arabic, and generations born in the resettlement villages didn’t learn the Nubian language properly. Increased exposure to Egyptian television and cinemas also assured the dominance of Arabic over the old Nubian culture.
Both Sadat and Mubarak promised to let the Nubians resettle themselves on the banks of Lake Nasser closer to their traditional homelands, although, perhaps predictably, nothing happened. Many Egyptian Arabs saw the Nubians as inferior, although they were apparently admired for their loyalty, cleanliness and good manners. It seems that Egypt’s rulers saw the Nubians as a tiny minority, and one unlikely to cause a fuss. No more, though.
Talking to Al Jazeera Arabic in April, Nubian rights activists have warned that their patience is running thin. Activist groups have been demanding rights for Egypt’s Nubian population for decades although the January 25 revolution seems to have given these organisations a fresh impetus.
Almost three months ago, these groups attended a conference called 'The Problem of Nubian Rights before and after the January 25 Revolution', organised by the Journalists’ Union and chaired by the veteran rights campaigner Haggag Oddoul, a journalist and writer, who had previously caused uproar in Egypt in 2005 for comparing his people’s treatment by the government to that of the Palestinians by Israel and calling for an independent Nubia. Since then he has toned down the rhetoric, although he is still just as passionate about his people’s rights.
At the conference, Nubian groups reiterated their demands; they want to be able to resettle on the banks of Lake Nasser, and they want to be awarded land for homes and agriculture. They also want the full recognition of Nubian culture and language as well as guaranteed electoral representation in a new, democratic Egypt. Mounir Bashir, another prominent activist, said that the Nubian people “wanted to turn over a new leaf” in their history, and it seems these concessions would be necessary for this to happen.
In response to increasingly vocal Nubian activists, Egypt’s military government offered groups a limited amount of land around Toshka, and, as Al Masry Al Youm reported at the time, the offer proved highly divisive. By all accounts what the military was prepared to give fell far short of the calls for a Nubian ‘right of return’, and Oddoul criticised the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for failing to take “encouraging steps to realise the Nubians’ demands”.
However, on June 13, the Egyptian daily al-Ahram reported that the military governor for Aswan, General Mustafa Sayid had announced (in rather vague terms) his “full support” for Nubian demands.
In the same piece, the “largest residential development project” that the region had ever seen was announced; once again it seems that Egypt’s authorities are planning to rebuild the Nubians’ villages, although this time closer to old Nubia. As yet, it remains to be seen what will come of this latest project.
Previous governments have seen no reason to pay any heed to the demands of the Nubians, although perhaps in Egypt’s current political climate, no politician will want to be seen to ignore wholesale the grievances of an entire peoples, even if they number just 3 million. More worryingly for the government, Bashir Bashr Muhammad, current president of the Egyptian Nubian Legal Association told al-Arabiya.net that frustration was building amongst the Nubians, warning ominously that a failure to act on their demands would lead to a real and angry response from the Nubians.