The 32 Nubian activists charged with illegal protesting received suspended fines or were acquitted on 7 April 2019, but grievances in Egypt’s Nubian community over what they say is their marginalized position persist.
The Nubians traditionally live on the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan and southern Egypt. They have a history that dates back to pharaonic times as well as their own language and culture.
When the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir was filled to create Lake Nasser in 1964, during the presidency of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, 44 Nubian villages were flooded. Nasser’s promise to give the Nubians new land was never fulfilled.
Instead, around 50,000 Nubians were displaced to villages north of the dam, on the west bank of the Nile near Kom Ombo and Aswan: a narrow strip of land with limited space for agriculture. Ever since, the Nubians have demanded the return of their lands.
The present criminal case dates back to September 2017, when a small group of activists protested in Aswan to demand the return of their lands as compensation for the loss of land caused by the creation of Lake Nasser in the 1960s. The return of Nubian lands is enshrined in Article 236 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution, which was not changed with the amendments that were approved in April 2019.
25 defendants received preliminary fines up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,900) and seven were acquitted of charges ranging from illegal protesting to blocking roads, chanting against the state and receiving foreign funding. The fines will be upheld if the defendants commit ‘further crimes’.
A Nubian activist and lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, expected the suspended verdict. “It is a way not to stir further unrest in the community ahead of the referendum on the constitutional amendments,” he told Fanack in March, “but at the same time ensures leverage for the state over the activists in case they raise their voices again.”
A key issue for Nubian activists is Decree 444, originally issued in 2014 and later approved by parliament in early 2016. The decree designates strips of land along Egypt’s borders as military zones. The land the Nubians are hoping will be returned extends from Aswan to the Sudanese border to the west of Lake Nasser, and the decree makes large swathes of that land a closed military area.
A second decree, issued in 2016, included two Nubian villages in a national agricultural development project in the Toshka area, west of Lake Nasser. “[The state] wanted to take the villages for the project and strip them of their Nubian designation,” Mostafa Hassan, a lawyer, told Fanack.
Five of the defendants were leading the opposition against these two decrees. In 2016, they organized a protest march towards the villages in the Toshka area. Although the police stopped them and kept them surrounded in the desert for several days, the Nubians succeeded in getting the second decree abolished. “They kept negotiating until the decision was erased,” Hassan said.
The same five defendants also have a case running against Decree 444. Two of them, including activist Mohamed Azmy, live abroad. “The first legal report was in favour of the activists, so the government doesn’t like them,” said Hassan, who believes the charges for illegal protesting served as a means to obstruct Nubian opposition to the decree.
According to Hassan, the government does not want the Nubians to return because it is exploiting the land itself. “These are good lands for mining granite, clay, agriculture and fishing,” he said.
Grievances in the Nubian community were heightened by the detention of 24 Nubians who participated in the 2017 protest. They were held for three months in an unofficial detention centre in a police training camp south-east of Aswan.
“The first three days we didn’t know how long we would be in detention, we didn’t know anything and were completely isolated. Water was contaminated, lots of people felt sick, and there were a lot of scorpions in the cell. For the first ten days, the lights and fans were always on,” one of the detained activists told Fanack.
Only after the death of one of the detainees, Gamal Sorour, were they released. Sorour died after a diabetic episode was not treated adequately, the activist said. “Sorour used to say that one of us had to die for the rest to be released,” he recalled.
Aside from the return of the land and the detention of activists, Nubian grievances stem from what they see as their marginalized position. “We want our children to be taught the Nubian language at schools. Now they start school with language problems because they don’t speak Arabic well and are bullied,” one defendant told Fanack. “In movies, the Nubian is often a servant, or they make fun of him [because] he speaks funny,” she said.
In addition, there are fears that the government is eyeing West Aswan, one of the villages the Nubians were displaced to, for new tourism facilities. “It will be like Waraq island or Maspero in Cairo [where residents are subject to relocation to make way for development projects],” the defendant said.
Just north of West Aswan, the authority of a new desert city, New Aswan, has indeed disowned some agricultural land. “The compensation is cheap,” said one farmer who lost his land. The amount he receives per acre (around $1,052) is based on the price of agricultural land, whereas the New Aswan authority aims to use it for tourism, according to the farmer, which fetches a higher price. He is still hoping for better compensation. “My family lives from this land,” he said.
However, he does not face relocation, and aside from his small parcel of farmland, the strip that is supposed to be developed is largely unused. Fears that the whole village will be displaced therefore seem premature and, according to one activist, are based on rumours. However, the community’s concerns indicate the level of distrust toward the government.
Both the farmer and lawyer Hassan strongly reject the notion that the Nubians are considering separation from Egypt. “The government portrays it this way to treat us as a national security threat,” Hassan said.
The farmer said he hates the word separatists. “We have sacrificed our land twice already – the first time in 1912 after the building of the old dam. We have sacrificed more for this country than any other.”