People of the Nile appeal for greater rights

A Nubian community numbering some 70,000, displaced from Upper Egypt to make way for Aswan High Dam, ask the UN to be designated as an indigenous population.

A group of Nubian women on Lake Nasser, which was created on their original lands when the Aswan High Dam was built.
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CAIRO // Human rights activists and community leaders are planning to petition the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights this month to appeal for greater recognition and housing rights for Egypt's Nubian community. The Egyptian Center for Housing Rights (ECHR) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies will submit separate reports to the UN commission to urge the Egyptian government to grant Nubians international legal status as an indigenous population.

The reports will also request improved government housing for those Nubians who were displaced in 1964 from their original lands in Upper Egypt, which were inundated when Egypt built the Aswan High Dam. While many Nubians support efforts to bring international awareness to their cause, others say the Egyptian government has largely fulfilled its obligations to the more than 70,000 Nubians who were displaced by Lake Nasser, a reservoir created by the High Dam.

"We were angry for a time. But when the government started to implement projects and things that were in our interest, we understood that. If the government lingers again, we will renew our negotiations with it," said Khabiir al Gamal, a Nubian community leader. He said the Nubian's last remaining demand - that the government find permanent housing for 5,221 families absent at the time of the original 1964 displacement - was fulfilled by an unwritten agreement between the community and the government after discussions last year. Those homes south of Aswan near the banks of Lake Nasser will be completed within 10 months, Mr al Gamal said.

"There are no conflicts. This is an ongoing dialogue until everything is settled," he said. Despite the sanguine attitude of Mr al Gamal and some among the Nubian leadership, other community leaders say the government has not offered enough to a unique population whose sacrifice in the name of national development has all but cost them their way of life. The ECHR said the government needs to provide improved housing for all Nubians, not just those 5,221 families who were not compensated during the 1960s.

The government's resettlement plans in the 1960s were poorly suited for Nubians and their distinctive culture, which for centuries has revolved around an agrarian village existence along the banks of the Nile River, said Haggag Hassan Oddoul, a prominent Nubian author. The Egyptian government, Mr Oddoul said, has long pursued an unstated policy of "denubianisation" to force the Nubian peoples to assimilate into mainstream Egyptian society, threatening the community's ancient way of life.

Modern Nubians, who are descended from one of Africa's earliest and most powerful ancient civilisations, inhabit large regions of north-eastern Africa, primarily in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. While the Egyptian government does not consider them a minority group, their darker skin and unique culture lend them a distinct identity that has historically separated them from the Egyptian majority.

Such policies include political disenfranchisement through the gerrymandering of Nubian regions; a reluctance to confront what some consider to be persistent racial discrimination against Nubians; a lack of public education in Nubian languages; and a continuing policy of separating Nubians from their ancestral lands near the Sudanese border. "During this time, the socialist and communist governments of [Gamal Abdel Nasser's] time, it was one of the main theories of governance for these systems to integrate minorities, just like what was happening in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, among others," said Mr Oddoul, referring to one of Egypt's first presidents and the man who built the Aswan High Dam.

"Our identity is based on the Nile River. It's a Nile identity. They transferred us to the desert," said Mr Oddoul, who characterised the 1964 relocation to Kom Ombo, a city north of Aswan, as a "cultural holocaust". "This is like emotional slaughter because we in original Nubia had our special life and homes that were attuned to the environment around us," he said. While Mr Oddoul acknowledged that most Nubians were eventually relocated, he said the government was insensitive to the needs of the Nubian population. Nubians typically live in clay and mud homes in small villages close to the Nile River and their agricultural land.

Traditional Nubian agriculture relying on the cultivation of date palms which was out of place in the urbanised environment of Com Ombo. Mr Oddoul said the government offered substandard agricultural land and provided no technical assistance to help Nubians adapt to the farming habits of mainstream Egyptian society. Their new homes were situated far from the Nile River and were poorly built with concrete on land that was later discovered to be too unstable for permanent construction. Many homes are now crumbling. The original land allotment on the edge of the desert was also too small for future generations.

The ultimate goal of bringing the Nubian cause to the attention of the international community, said Manal al Tibi, the ECHR's executive director, is that their complaints be included in the UN humana rights commission's Universal Periodic Review of Egypt - a study that the UN body completes for its member states every four years. If the UN agrees with the ECHR's assertion that Nubians are indeed an "indigenous population", they may enjoy the added force of international law behind their claims to their ancestral lands along the banks of Lake Nasser, said Ms al Tibi.

While there is no official policy of discrimination against Nubians, the Egyptian government has also never officially identified the presence of any minorities or indigenous groups, she said. It is that lack of acknowledgement, in the name of cultural cohesion, that has allowed state authorities to run roughshod over Nubian rights. But with the informal agreement last year to allow 5,221 Nubian families to return to the banks of Lake Nasser near the ancestral lands of Old Nubia, many community leaders say the time is right to bury the hatchet.

"This is not a written agreement because it's not between two enemies, it's a promise made by the government and a plan," said Ahmed Kaby, a Nubian and a researcher on African affairs for the Egyptian government. Mr Kaby said most Nubians understand that the government was burdened with "other priorities" over the past 47 years that kept them from fulfilling their financial obligations to the displaced people.

"So this discussion about how Nubians are discriminated against is just baseless. There is no discrimination against Nubians."