Nubians may turn to international courts to guarantee return to their lands
Courtesy: Dina Sayedahmed

While there seemed to be an opening in the 2014 Constitution for Nubians to claim the right to their historical lands in southern Egypt, presidential decisions since then have left Nubian activists feeling hopeless and prompted them to make the controversial decision to turn to international courts for help.

Nubian activist and lawyer Mohamed Azmy told Mada Masr that independent Nubian groups and civil society organizations are working on collecting historical documents and evidence to file an official complaint against the Egyptian government before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR). The complaint is against two presidential decisions, and aims to order the return of Nubians to 44 villages that they were forcibly evicted from in the 1960s, in accordance with constitutional guarantees.

Nubians in southern Egypt were displaced a number of times in the 20th century. The first wave of displacement was with the building of the Aswan Low Dam by the British in 1902, when its height was raised on two different occasions in 1912 and 1933, and again with the building of the Aswan High Dam by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1963-64.

Article 236 of Egypt’s Constitution obliges the state to work on giving Nubians the right to return to their lands within 10 years, as well as committing the government to propose plans to develop the land and preserve Nubian culture.

In 2014, presidential decree 444 was issued, and later passed by Parliament, designating certain border areas as military zones that are not to be inhabited, including 16 Nubian villages. And in August this year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi passed decree 355, designating 922 feddans of state-owned land to the new Toshka development project.

Both decisions, Nubians say, have crushed their dreams of return.

“We’ve reached the stage where we are unable to deal with the government,” Nubian activist Fatma Eman says. “We thought in 2014 that the government had changed its attitude towards Nubians, but time has proven that these constitutional guarantees are just ink on paper.”

Eman believes the state regards Nubians as troublemakers at Egypt’s borders. “The government does not realize that not giving the people their rights is what further exacerbates the problem.”

Lawyer Azmy thinks the state is procrastinating when it comes to constitutional guarantees for Nubians. “Investment projects are working very well for non-Nubians, while the state ignores us,” he says.

Wadi al-Alaqui is Nubian land that is attractive to investors who want to build compounds and real estate projects there, in addition to its potential as an important port connecting Egypt and Sudan.

“These lands overlook the Nile, like most Nubian land, and represent a large fortune for investors. That’s why the state does not intend to give us the right to return and resorts to trumped-up security threats,” Azmy says.

A major conference was held in September by a number of Nubian organizations in Daboud village dubbed “Return is a right.” Participants recommended the state establish a body to develop Nubia and address the decision to stipulate Nubian land as a military zone, giving the government three months to comply with the demands before the involvement of international courts.

The controversy about international courts and lawyers

Azmy believes turning to international courts is the only solution, vowing to appeal the two presidential decrees and become “a headache for the state.”

Parliamentarian Yassin Abdel Sabour, who represents Nubians in parliament, told Mada Masr he is torn between the state’s favoring of its security agenda and the anger of Nubian youth.

“I don’t think Nubians will seek international arbitration now, according to the agreement reached at the conference,” Sabour says. “I was given three months to work with the government on guaranteeing constitutional rights for Nubians,” he adds, explaining that he will work on pressuring the state to issue another presidential decree to remove Nubian land from the border areas designated as military zones. Another option, Sabour suggests, is to allow Nubians to make use of the land, despite it being part of military’s border areas.

But the government fears Nubians may seek separation from the Egyptian state, Sabour says.

“Can 10,000 Nubian families demand separation? Why do security apparatuses always use this as a scare tactic? These security personnel make a living by writing reports for state officials. Nubians are a nationalist people,” Sabour says pointedly, warning that the government’s reluctance to respond to Nubian demands will create more anger among the youth.

A media smear campaign followed the conference. Staunch government supporter and talk show host Ahmed Moussa said the recommendations “carry a threatening message for the Egyptian state,” referring to a campaign by Nubians to hire a Danish lawyer to work on their case.

“Who are these activists who represent our people? Who gave you the right to turn an Egyptian case into an international matter? Do these activists speak in the name of entities inside or outside Egypt?” he said on his show on the privately owned Sada al-Balad channel.

Researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies Ahmed Nagui Kamha leveled similar accusations against Nubian activists in an article he published, linking their efforts to “fourth generation warfare” that aims to “bring down the Egyptian state and undermine its sovereignty.”

Azmy believes hiring a foreign lawyer is not a good idea, given the accusations that are commonly leveled against Nubians.

“We’ve reached the stage where we are unable to deal with the government,” Nubian activist Fatma Eman says. “We thought in 2014 that the government had changed its attitude towards Nubians, but time has proven that these constitutional guarantees are just ink on paper.”

Nubian activist Abdel Fattah Morgan, who attended the conference, explains that there is an obvious disagreement among Nubians concerning international arbitration, as many inside Nuba believe it means direct confrontation with the state. He sees the three-month ultimatum as a middle ground for those who disagree with the decision to turn to international courts. “On the other hand, some people believe the ultimatum is ineffective and that it is important to campaign for our cause internationally,” Morgan says. “This is their right and no one can blame them.”

“We should not fall prey to blackmail and those who accuse us of treason. Going to the international community isn’t an old idea and the Constitution grants citizens the right to turn to international courts. Egypt’s signature of international conventions make the nation part of the global legal system as well,” says Nubian activist Mohamed al-Sheikh, who sees no problem in hiring a foreign lawyer.

While Nubian rights activist Fatma Eman also supports seeking international pressure, she is skeptical that it will be effective. Firstly, she says, Nubians have not exhausted all their chances of litigation before Egyptian courts: “We still have the option to appeal in front of the Administrative Court against decrees 444 and 355, which may last forever,” she adds.

Egypt has also not approved many of the protocols for international conventions, which makes it harder to file complaints in international courts.

“We can only resort to UN special rapporteurs from human rights or ACHPR. Although they can embarrass the Egyptian government, they cannot oblige the state to take any steps on the ground,” Eman says, citing a similar case in which the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights issued a ruling on an Egyptian matter. In 2013, ACHPR found the government guilty of physical and sexual assaults against a number of female journalists protesting in 2005. The Commission demanded that investigations into the case be reopened and compensation be issued to the four Egyptian journalists who filed the complaint.

And in this case, Eman adds, “What happened afterwards? What were the measures taken by the government? Nothing.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism