The Ababda tribe: Scattered by climate change and development initiatives  

This article is part of a joint publishing project under the umbrella of an independent media network in the Arab world that brings together Nawaat, Al-Jumhuriya, Assafir Al-Arabi, Mada Masr, Babelmed, Mashallah News, 7iber and Orient XXI. It attempts to shed light on the phenomenon of migration, but not by focusing on existing definitions, numbers and established facts. The journalists involved in the project have been following migration from different angles, taking into account the multiple routes and diverse motivations and causes behind the phenomenon; from travel preparations and detailed journeys to processes of integration and social and economic conditions in host countries.


“I was born in the desert,” says 60-year-old sheikh Karamallah Amer al-Aababdy, as he sits down to boil a pot of green coffee with cardamom and ginger over coal.

The coffee, known as gabbana, is something to gather around in Wadi Kherit, which is located west of the city of Qoseir on the Red Sea. The valley takes its name from a shrub known to grow in the area.

The mood of this gathering is somber, as Karamallah begins to speak of his tribe’s displacement within the Eastern Desert in the 1970, after having resided and herded livestock there for hundreds of years. Scarcity of rainfall and general changes in climate forced them from the mountains of the desert.

Since 2003, the Ababda tribe, from which Karamallah hails, has again faced displacement. This time it is not the climate but the Egyptian state’s investment plans that have pushed many of them away from farming and into gold mining in order to survive.

“Exile is cruel,” Karamallah sings. “Our eyes are teary. God, bring us together so our purpose is achieved.” He is recalling inheriting the sheikhdom of the Ababda tribe in Wadi Kherit from his father.

Even the desert started closing in

Karamallah heard from his elders that the origins of the Ababda tribe extends back hundreds of years, when they migrated from the Arabian Peninsula and settled in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, which stretches from the Nile Valley in the west to the Red Sea to the east and from Sudan in the south up to Aswan, or even Sohag, in the north.

“In the old times, there was rain and prosperity,” the sheikh says.

Karamallah used to herd livestock with his father in the vast desert, until a gradual decline in rainfall left many livestock dead due to drought. In 1973, one of the tribe members, also a member of Parliament, intervened, reaching an agreement with the state to build a town in Wadi Kherit for the Ababda, distributing houses and land to help them settle. The state distributed 1,400 feddans of land in Wadi Kherit for use by 500 families from the tribe.

But the tribe was bigger than 500 families, and some remained homeless. “Life became unbearable,” Karamallah says. Some then moved from the desert mountains down to Aswan, Kom Ombo, and beyond Nasser Lake, but many remained. Others settled informally in Wadi Kherit, and others in the Wadi al-Allaqi protectorate, a barren and poverty-plagued Eastern Desert valley 180 km south of Aswan, on the border with Sudan. They largely lived by trading camel, herding livestock and gathering medicinal herbs, while also using their tracking skills to help Egypt’s Armed Forces find outlaws.

Wildcat gold mining is unstable and dangerous

Young Suleiman is a 28-year-old Ababdady living in a town in the northeast of the Aswan Governorate, where a large portion of the tribe resides. They are largely illiterate because the state only recently began building schools there, Suleiman says. The state has not provided them with a means of livelihood as it has with many residents in the south. Members of the Ababda tribe who did not move to cities know nothing of government employment and do not have pensions or agricultural land, he adds.

Lacking alternatives, Suleiman went to work mining gold in Wadi al-Allaqi. With an area of 23,800 square kilometers, the valley has been known for its riches since pharaohs sought out gold to make jewelry for the living and the dead. It is now considered a hub for the Ababda.

As an informal miner, Suleiman endures severe working conditions. Some coworkers have died after becoming lost in the desert. Some were buried when mines collapsed. And some died of thirst while waiting for supplies. They are also threatened by border guards and hyenas.

“I could easily have been one of those who died or was arrested,” says Suleiman. He hopes to find enough gold to allow himself and his family to live a dignified life without the need for this work.

It is not only the Ababda who try their hand at wildcat mining. Abu Momen, not of the Ababda, migrated south several years ago from his small village in the Delta to look for gold with the tribe. “God gave them gold because they are kind,” says Abu Momen, referencing a verse from the Quran.

Mining for gold in this area is as old as its mountains, he says. Sudanese groups like the Bashaira inherited mining skills from their ancestors in the kingdom of Kush and then taught them to the Ababda tribe, with whom they share family bonds. The area is also very sensitive because it is a border area and has border guards and an intelligence presence due to widespread trafficking in humans, drugs and weapons, says Abu Momen. This is why working in this area is dangerous.

“In the gold business, those who pay more, get more,” explains Abu Momen. The basic tools and methods the tribe uses for mining yield negligible quantities of gold compared to what multinational companies, particularly those from the Gulf, with expensive equipment can extract with less time and labor. Some companies get formal mining permits for other stones, as gold-mining permits are expensive, but then mine for gold in secret, says Abu Momen. Some Armed Forces personnel also mine on a private basis with the help of wildcat miners through an arrangement to split the extracted metal.

Around 2011, informal gold mining increased among the Ababda and the Bashaira as they pursued a better life, prompting the state to crack down on the practice by establishing the Shalateen Mineral Resources Company in 2014. The company offered tribe members mining permits in exchange for taxes on extracted gold. The tax exceeds half the value of what is extracted and the company does not offer any protection in exchange. Tribe members see this as tax farming.

Most of the Ababda refuse to cooperate with the state because they believe that “what their land offers is theirs to have,” explains Abu Momen. Yet, he concurs that several tribe members have been buried in rubble when the structurally weak wells they have dug collapse, while others have ended up in prison.

Members of the Ababda are not looking for riches, says Abu Momen — they actually yearn for a decent living and peace. He recounts the story of a certain Hassan Abu Sadek, who mined for gold for a while and then bought agricultural land and livestock to return to his original profession as a herder in the area spanning to Halayeb and Shalateen.

Urbanizing the desert without its people

State officials began spreading a rumor that the Ababda won’t farm because they prefer herding livestock, says Abdallah al-Aabady, during a gathering at Sheikh Karamallah’s place. This was used as pretext to not offer the tribe agricultural land. But all the feddans distributed to tribe members in Wadi Kherit in the 1970s have been cultivated with wheat and sugarcane, say Karamallah and others. The tribespeople who farmed that land bought it from the state in installments, eventually becoming full legal owners.

Karamallah’s father Amer, a sheikh of the tribe in Wadi Kherit in the 1970s, received a house and 2.5 feddans. After the sheikh’s death, his inheriting descendants split the ownership of the land. Karamallah and his five siblings did not receive land in the 1970s because they did not have identification cards. And Karamallah says that, despite its proximity to the Wadi Kherit region and the mountains they reside in, the state overlooked them while distributing land in its Wadi al-Nuqra Project.

An agricultural development initiative launched by former President Hosni Mubarak in 2003, the Wadi al-Nuqra Project covers 65,000 feddans arranged as five villages. The state brought young graduates and older landless people into the project, but ignored the Ababda tribe members who surround it. The Ababda have long herded livestock in this area, depending on rainwater, and eventually dug artificial lakes when that became unsustainable.

The project was designed to distribute the five villages over several governorates in the region, and it was to be administered under the aegis of the Nasr al-Nuba center in Aswan. Agricultural engineer Nasser Sultan arrived at one of the project’s villages, Amal, to receive his five feddans in 2004. The village extends across 1,800 feddans, with 360 residents benefiting from the project. Some large-scale investors have acquired more than 10,000 feddans each, according to Sultan.

The tribe was surprised by the project. Some preferred to remain in the mountains surrounding the valley, just herding livestock on the project’s land between growing seasons. Other times they used the grass growing in irrigation drains or bought forage from farmers to feed their cows. But some tribe members found the change too disruptive — they left the land to the new landowners and migrated elsewhere.

Problems arise when a herd moves down to the land during the agricultural season — crops get destroyed because the cows are hard to control. This is when disputes between landowners and shepherds turn into direct conflicts. The state intervenes only when customary arbitration methods between the farmers and the Ababda fail, Sultan says.

Sultan adds that in the chaos of the revolution in 2011, some Ababda members took over some of the state land near what had been allocated to the project’s beneficiaries and then sold it. Tribe members believe the land was theirs before the state established the project and that they are more deserving of it. But the other side also has a case to present.

In Egypt, residence rights are only until further notice

The story of the Ababda is one episode in an ongoing history of the government displacing residents as it seeks to benefit from their land, says Ahmed Zaazaa, an architect at 10 Tooba, an organization for applied research on the built environment. Residents of Heliopolis in Cairo, and of Sharm el-Sheikh, have been similarly displaced. In fact, most of the previous residents at the outskirts of cities have been displaced, the architect says. The same thing is happening now, with local variations, to longtime residents of the Maspero triangle, Nazlet al-Semman and Warraq.

Zaazaa asserts that people should have a legally protected right to the land they have owned historically. It does not make sense for families who have lived somewhere for generations to have no right to continue living there, he says. When the state decides to reconstruct an area, it must involve residents in the planning process.

There are various forms of extralegal ownership, such as those practiced by Nubian villages and by Arab tribes in Sinai, says Yehia Shawkat, an urban policy researcher at 10 Tooba. These forms allow residents sovereignty over land and the freedom to dispose of it even if they do not have legal documents for it. For example, nobody can buy land in a Nubian village without partnering with the land’s informal owners, who are Nubian. But reaching this type of customary ownership requires a certain level of organization. Nubian tribes defend and negotiate their rights with the state and continuously exert pressure through the media and parliamentary councils.

Article 78 of the Constitution stipulates that “the state guarantees citizens the right to decent, safe and healthy housing, in a way that preserves human dignity and achieves social justice. The state shall draft a national housing plan that upholds environmental particularity, and guarantees the contribution of personal and collaborative initiatives in its implementation. The state shall also regulate the use of state lands and provide them with basic facilities, as part of a comprehensive urban planning framework for cities and villages and a population distribution strategy. This must be done in a way that serves the public interest, improves the quality of life for citizens and preserves the rights of future generations.”

But the reality is entirely different. All the governorate of Aswan does is occasionally coordinate with the Armed Forces in facilitating the work of medical convoys, food supplies and civil services to register citizens for identification cards, according to Mohamed Hassan, the head of communications for the governorate. This is particularly true in Wadi al-Allaqi. Hassan agrees that the Ababda should have the same, full rights as any other citizen.

Other features in this series:

Malek Lakhal from Nawaat (Tunisia) highlights the motives behind migration by meeting Tunisian would-be migrants from several different social, class and educational backgrounds. Through various interviews, Malek attempts to understand the real reasons why people seek “a real life” outside of Tunisia. She looks at a pattern of young, relatively wealthy Tunisians hoping to access what they call “the future” outside their country — thus breaking the mainstream stereotype that desperation is the main driver of migration.

Kamal Shahin from Assafir Al-Arabi (Lebanon) deconstructs the phenomenon of migration amid the never-ending cannonade in Syria. He does this by looking at the causes of forced migration, in particular why Syrians move to one particular place or another on their journeys of forced displacement. Kamal also examines the impact of locally specific factors in deciding on particular migratory routes and destinations inside Syria and neighboring countries. He relies on a rich database to demonstrate how Syrian cities are witnessing an ongoing demographic change, related to both inbound and outbound migration of varying size and social compositions.

Sana Sbouai from Babelmed looks at motives and causes of migration across the Mediterranean, including the risky journey and all of its dangers. Her article compares two separate incidents, on February 11, 2011 and on October 8, 2017, when boats carrying informal migrants from the Tunisian coast sunk due to intervention by Tunisian military. Sana documents the memories of survivors from each incident to find similarities between the two events, and show how the Tunisian government, especially the Defense Ministry, dealt with the two cases. She questions the role the Tunisian army seems to play in protecting European coasts from migrants coming from the southern Mediterranean.

Yassin Sweihat from Al-Jumhuriya (Syria) contributes with a story of Syrian migrants in Germany, a country home to over 700,000 Syrian refugees, more than half of whom are under 25. His article tackles the issue of university education by highlighting the stories of people who had to stop their higher studies in Syria and then attempt to resume them again in Germany, either continuing where they left off or starting again from scratch.

Ammar Ahmad al-Shaquairi from 7iber (Jordan) writes an article about the situation for Egyptian laborers in Jordan. His field report seeks to examine the lives of these workers —most of whom work in construction — and understand their motives for migrating to Jordan. Ammar dives deep into the daily hardships of the people he meets, and discusses both their living conditions in Jordan and the economic hardships they left behind in Egypt, which in many cases migration was not able to solve.

Jenny Gustafsson from Mashallah News (Lebanon) contributes with an article about a lesser known side of the Syrian diaspora. She meets with Syrians who have decided to live in Sudan, the one country that still continues to allow Syrians to enter without visas and reside without restrictions. This is how Sudan became an important destination for many Syrians affected by the war, including those with nowhere else to to meet up with other displaced family members. How things will change for the community now, after the overthrow of the regime of Omar al-Bashir, remains to be seen.


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