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Egypt’s Nubians tell Cairo: You have one month to fulfil promises

Government has drawn Nubians’ ire after it decided to sell lands in southern Egypt in auction as part of agricultural mega-project
Nubians staged sit-in for two weeks in response to government policies (Hisham Abdel Hamed / MEE)

CAIRO, Egypt - After two meetings that lasted for seven hours on Wednesday between representatives of the Egyptian government and the Nubian Return Caravan (NRC), Nubian activists decided to suspend a sit-in and give the government one month to fulfil its promises.

Nubian advocates and officials discussed demands raised by protesters decrying government policies toward Nubian land.

The meetings were attended by about 30 NRC advocates, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal and Nubian MP Yassin Abdel-Sabour.

Mohamed Azmy, president of the Nubian Union, said the recent protests began in response to the government putting Nubian land up for sale.

“This was the first case of selling Nubian land in an upfront manner. Most of the past deals were cases of usufruct and what not,” he told MEE. “But this time it was a loud and clear trade, so it was a dangerous signal for us. If this land is sold, the rest of the land will follow, so we had to take a stand.”

Nubians are an indigenous African people in southern Egypt. They have complained of displacement by state-sponsored projects for many decades. They also say they struggle with cultural marginalisation and colour discrimination.

Read: Egypt's Nubians: We want to reclaim our homeland

The government drew Nubians’ ire when it decided to sell land in southern Egypt in an auction as part of a plan known as the One Million and a Half Acres. The government wants to reclaim land to narrow the gap between supply and demand for food produce, thereby reducing imports.

Nubian activists staged a sit-in in the Toshka and Forkund areas of the southern Aswan governorate.

What do Nubians want?

NRC representatives have presented five demands to Ismail and Abdel-Aal.

  • First, they requested a halt in "distribution of pamphlets" - a form of pre-sale documentation - setting out conditions for the sale of 110,000 acres from the Nubian village of Forkund at Toshka, until the village is removed from the project. The trade is part of the previously mentioned state-owned project to reclaim deserted lands
  • Second, they demanded ownership of the Nubian residence at the stream of the Aswan reservoir and its ramps, and dedicated lands for each Nubian village, with a specific timeline
  • Third, they included a draft bill to establish an authority for the development, reconstruction and resettlement of the people of Nubia during the current legislative term
  • Fourth, they called on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to establish a technical committee to nominate Nubians to review all plans and investment projects within the south of the High Dam area and specify their scopes beyond the limits of the Nubian villages. The duties of this committee would be over once the bill of establishing a resettlement authority is issued
  • Finally, they demanded that the 2014 presidential decree 444, which declared former Nubian villages a military zone, be adjusted

What does the government think?

The prime minister promised the NRC that the authorities would form a committee from the ministers’ council, which would include MP Abdel-Sabour, in addition to a group of coordinators from the NRC. The committee would look at the maps and updates for the Forkund area to divide its borders in preparation for removing it from the project as demanded.

However, Ismail said that the Egyptian Countryside company, which is responsible for selling the lands to investors, has not allocated any land yet within the borders of Egypt: what has been put up for sale was just for the opening of the project.

Abdel-Aal promised to discuss the bill for establishing an authority for development, reconstruction and resettlement. He didn’t specify a timeline, according to the statement posted by the NRC, but promised to submit the bill soon.

Article 236 grants Nubians the right to return to their villages (Hisham Abdel Hamed / MEE)

However, Abdel-Aal said presidential decree 444 was not presented before parliament, describing it as a sovereign decision that cannot be altered as a matter of national security.

As for the rest of the demands, government officials promised to consider and present them to both the governor of Aswan and the president.

Egypt's rush for land

On Monday, the leftist Bread and Liberty Party hosted a number of Nubian researchers and politicians in a seminar entitled The Nubian Case, Between the Diaspora and the Return.

'If this land is sold, the rest of the land will follow, so we had to take a stand'

- Mohamed Azmy, Nubian Union

Mohamed ElHawary, a member of the party's economic and legal committee, described Egypt’s rulers as “land brokers”.

He said Nubian land is being targeted because areas around urban centres such as Cairo and Alexandria are already being fought over by the so-called estate or industrial developers.

“The state sees Nubian land as unwanted land, so they can do what they wish with it,” he said. “They’re selling an acre for EGP50 ($2.80), and with instalments up to 10 years.” The fair price per acre, according to ElHawary, is 4,000 to 5,000 Egyptian pounds.

What the presidential decrees mean

Article 236 of the Egyptian constitution holds the government responsible for setting up a plan that would ensure the return of Nubians to villages they were displaced from by state-sponsored projects.

But two presidential decrees signed after the constitution was passed have complicated these efforts. Decree 444, issued by Sisi in 2014, took more than 110 square kilometers of Nubian land - the equivalent of 16 villages - and labelled them as military zones where habitation is forbidden.

In August, the president signed another decree that moved 922 acres of state-owned land to the private New Toshka development project. It was later discovered that the transfer paved the way to selling Nubian land.

Azmy told MEE that about 400 protesters escalated their opposition into a sit-in at Forkund.

'We were displaced by a presidential decree, why don’t we return with a presidential decree?'

- Rami Yehia, Coalition of the Nubian Return

Dr Saker Abdel-Nour, a Nubian rural sociologist at L'École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in France, said Nubians have been mobilising since 2009, but article 236 motivated them still further.

“They waited until there is a parliament to transform this constitutional article to law. The constitution has no operational format without a legal framework, so it transforms into legal procedure and therefore becomes a plan on the ground,” he told MEE.

Fatma Emam, an independent Nubian researcher, said Nubians were disappointed that the parliament did not move to implement article 236, and that lawmakers failed to challenge the presidential decrees.

“This article was and still is imprisoned in the drawers of the state, [from 2013] until now,” she told MEE.

Rami Yehia, the political coordinator of the Coalition of the Nubian Return, said the displacement of Nubians robbed them of political influence.

Read: Eid Al Adha in Egypt's Nuba region

“For starters, there is no such thing as a Nubian representative, the term is politically incorrect,” he told MEE, explaining that new demographic realities do not allow Nubians to elect their own candidates.

Yehia added that even Nubian MPs are not voted in exclusively by Nubians.

Nubian MPs have been able to connect activists to the government, he continued, but other than that they are too few in numbers to stand against the majority in the parliament.

“On another note, we were displaced by a presidential decree, why don’t we return with a presidential decree?” Yehia said.

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