Egypt's Nubia: Drowning by Government Decree
In recent history, the Nubians of Upper Egypt have lost entire towns and villages to the floodwaters of the Nile. Their loss has not been the result of a natural disaster, however -- it has happened by government decree.
Large parts of Nubia, an ancient African civilization whose pharaohs once ruled Egypt, have quite literally been erased from the map. Four times during the 20th Century the Nubians were forcibly displaced. Successive governments from the time of the British occupation right through to Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the building of dams along the Nile -- and ordered the Nubians to leave their ancestral homelands. While Nubia drowned under the waters of the Nile, the Nubian language was suppressed. Not a single school or university in Egypt offers instruction in the Nubian language. While the heyday of Nasser’s pan-Arabic movement has passed, the marginalization of the Nubians continues right up to the present.
These long-standing discriminatory policies are being challenged by a new generation of Nubian activists who have come of age in a time of revolution. I have had the honor of meeting many of them while living in Egypt, where I teach at the American University in Cairo.
Mohamed Azmy, a human-rights lawyer from Aswan, was just 34 years old when he was elected President of the General Nubian Union, an association similar to the NAACP. He is also the founder of Nuba Tube, a YouTube channel that promotes the Nubian language. Last spring, I invited him to speak to my students at AUC as a guest lecturer. On Sept. 3, Mr. Azmy was arrested along with 23 other Nubian-Egyptians while holding a small and peaceful rally in Aswan. They are still imprisoned at the Shellal security camp, which is run by Egypt’s notorious Central Security Forces. I have written elsewhere about this unprecedented government crackdown, which includes the arrest of opposition leaders and blocking of websites, and have tried to draw attention to the fact that Egypt’s minorities, in particular Coptic Christians and Nubians, may suffer disproportionately as non-governmental organizations that provide services to them are forced to shut down.
The recent plight of Egypt’s Christian minority has been documented in a variety of media and human rights reports. In April, Pope Francis visited Egypt in a display of solidarity with the beleaguered Copts. The Nubian minority has not garnered the same amount of international attention. In a recent State Department report that assessed the human rights situation in Egypt, including arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture, a whole paragraph was dedicated to Egypt’s Coptic Christians, but the Nubian minority was not even mentioned.
This same report acknowledged that the “overall human rights climate in Egypt continues to deteriorate.” And yet the United States has sent mixed signals to the Egyptian authorities. U.S. President Donald Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the sidelines of this month’s U.N. General Assembly gathering. Trump described the U.S.-Egyptian relationship as “very good.” The Senate Appropriations Committee, for their part, has proposed to cut $300 million in US aid to Egypt, reducing the aid from around $1.3 billion to $1 billion in order to send a message to President el-Sisi that the U.S. is concerned about the harsh wave of repression that has targeted virtually every sector of Egyptian society.
The mass arrest of Nubians this month coincided with the release of two reports documenting torture in Egyptian prisons. On Sept. 5, Human Rights Watch issued a report arguing that Egypt’s torture epidemic may constitute a “crime against humanity.” The UN Committee Against Torture came to the “inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt.”
When Nubians were displaced by the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the United States was one of 25 countries that supported the removal of ancient monuments in a massive undertaking known as the Nubian Salvation Project. Some of those artifacts ended up in U.S. museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shamefully, less was done to help the Nubian people than to preserve their ancient monuments. The United States now has an opportunity to do better.
In a remarkable concession, Egypt’s 2014 constitution acknowledged some of the Nubians’ historic grievances. Article 236 gives Nubians the “right to return” within 10 years to some of the land from which they were displaced. The driving force behind this achievement is the prolific author Haggag Oddoul. Since then, however, El-Sisi has issued a number of decrees that make the possibility of return more and more unlikely. This includes Presidential Decree 444, which designates a 125 kilometer-wide swath of land along the border with Sudan as a military zone, which means Nubians will not be able to return there. By contrast, the militarized zone along the border with Gaza is just 5 kilometers in width, which has caused many to speculate that Decree 444 is less about securing the border than it is about preventing Nubians from settling there.
In response to what they see as a betrayal of their constitutional right to return, Nubians have attempted to exert pressure through peaceful protests. The problem is that the draconian Protest Law issued in November 2013 essentially criminalizes any gathering of more than 10 people. On Sept. 3, during the Muslim Eid holiday, a small group of Nubians held a singing march in Aswan. In doing so, they defied both the Protest Law and the suppression of their language -- they sang Nubian songs. They were met by several tanks and Central Security Forces personnel deployed from both Aswan and Qena, about four hours away. They are known as the “Detainees of Dufof”, referring to the Arabic word for the traditional musical instruments they were playing while they were arrested. The full list of detainees who have been imprisoned in the Shellal security camp since Sept. 3 can be found here.
Fatma Emam, a Nubian human rights researcher who worked with Mr. Oddoul on the constitution-drafting committee, wrote about the protest on her blog. On the same day, her blog was blocked in Egypt. The website of Human Rights Watch was also blocked in Egypt -- just one day after they released their report on torture in Egyptian prisons. The total number of websites blocked in Egypt exceeds 400.
The course I was teaching at AUC last spring where Azmy spoke was entitled “Borders, Wars, and Refugees: From the Ottoman Empire to the Islamic State.” Azmy showed students maps of Nubian villages in Upper Egypt and a book written in the Nubian language. I only discovered afterward that none of my students, all of whom were Egyptian, had ever seen such maps before. And none of them had ever seen the Nubian language or heard it spoken. Not a single one. The extent to which Nubian culture, history, and language has been suppressed is nothing short of shocking. And yet, by the end of the semester, many of my students had elected to write their final papers or other assignments about Nubia. If my AUC students are any indication, there is not just a willingness, but indeed an eagerness to learn about Nubian history and culture. Bloggers like Fatma Emam and human rights defenders like Mohamed Azmy are also eager to raise awareness about their cause, but with Emam’s blog censored, along with hundreds of other websites in Egypt, and with Azmy in jail, this will be difficult.
It is now no longer ancient Nubian monuments which are at risk, but the young generation of Nubian civil rights leaders.