On the 19th of November, a car convey under the name of “the Nubian Right to Return Caravan” stopped 200 Km before its original destination and established a protest camp demanding the constitutional right of the Nubians to return back to their lands, a demand that has been proposed by Nubian activists for the past sixty years since their fourth and major forced displacement when the High Dam was being built in 1961. The Egyptian state restrained the Nubian protest using the same measures it has been using for the past sixty years to deal with the Nubian issue: a combination of coercion and persuasion.
The way the current Egypt regime tackles the issue of Nubians is an extension of how the minorities’ issues has been tackled by different post-colonial regimes. Since independence, the post-colonial consecutive regimes produces their own domains of cultural sovereignty to combat the western colonialism and throughout this process, they promoted a unified Egyptian culture in order to shape a repertoire of habits, norms, skills, and styles from which people should construct their actions and modes of behaviors. (Swidler, 1986) By analyzing the official nationalistic discourses adopted by the current regime that promote this unified culture and push the other cultures to margins, this post is attempting to pose an important question: How can a post-colonial state produce and reproduce the same forms of domination towards a certain minority?
In his book ‘Imagined Communities’, Benedict Anderson argues that nations are not the determinate product of a given sociological conditions such as language, race or religion, that have been imagined into existence. Although he claims that the post-colonial nationalist elites in Africa and Asia imported the modular forms they wanted to adopt from the nationalism models provided by Western Europe, the Americas and Russia, Chatterjee objected to his argument as the most powerful nationalist regimes in Africa and Asia are postulated on the ‘differences’ with the ‘modular’ forms of the national West. (Chatterjee, 1993)
These arguments can be seen in the Nasserism ideology that was spread and adopted in Egypt and the post-colonial Arab World in the 1960s. Nasserism, which is an Arab nationalist, Arab socialist, Pan-Arabism and secular ideology that opposes ideologically the Western colonial capitalism and communism, espoused an end to the neocolonial western interference in the Arab affairs through supporting modernization, nationalization and industrialization. Nasserism was not only manifested in the way the political, economic, cultural and social spheres were constructed and restructured in Egypt and the Arab World but in the way the Egyptian regime started forging a single coherent nation and enforcing a unified single culture by defining what should be a ‘national’. In this sense, nationalism could be seen as a hegemonic movement that used a combination of force and persuasive self-evidence ideology (Chatterjee, 1993) (Demirpolat,2009).
In the process of establishing the unified Egyptian culture, the minorities were pushed to margins and excluded from the national narratives. Egyptian Nubians can serve as an example of minorities who were pushed to margins in the epoch of nationalism for two reasons. The first is Nubians who lived along the banks of the Nile river in the south of Egypt and the north of Sudan were viewed as a security threat by consecutive post-independence governments. In the 19th century, Sudan was under the direct rule of the Egyptian monarchy. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, Sudan seceded and Nubia was divided between Egypt and Sudan. (Fahim, 1973) The second reason is that; although Nubians were subject to forced migration when the High Dam – Egypt’s major post-independence national project- was built, they were not included in the official narratives of this project.
The construction of the High Dam in 1961 was not only as a direct response to the demands of water and energy in Egypt but also as a response to the US and the Western powers policies towards post-colonial Egypt (Borzutzky & Berger, 2010). While the construction of the Dam was looked upon as and promoted as Egypt’s greatest national project that endorsed its sovereignty, more than 16,000 Nubian families were forced to migrate from their villages to new deserted lands in a few days as their villages were flooded in the process. (Nkrumah, 2013) (Serag, 2013) Before their forced migration, being ethnically and culturally different from the majority of the Egyptians, the Nubian community was a conservative, self-regulated and self-governed community, fully attached to their lands with a certain economic system that depended on agricultural activities and the investments that come from the Nubian labor who migrated outside Nubia. (Geiser, 1973) (Geiser,1981) all of that was subject to change after their displacement.
The Egyptian state dealt with the Nubian forced migration with neglect and caution. They neglected the Nubians demands to have lands and houses that were similar to the ones they had in old Nubia to restart their lives again, as these demands threatened the image of the high dam construction as national anti-colonial project and the caution that the Nubians have a distinctive language, color and culture which shook the homogenized culture the state had been promoting for. Several laws and decrees were issued by the Egyptian state back then to compensate the migrated families, but the results were the opposite. The Nubians were promised lands and houses similar to those in old Nubia that preserved its culture while introducing modern utilities. However, the Nubians found low-quality, unfamiliar houses in the desert and as a result, they had to migrate to Cairo and other regions in Delta and Upper Egypt. The compensations for the Nubians were not the only situation where the government dealt with the Nubians with neglect and caution but also in the 1960s, while everyone was seen to be trying to be part of the historical moment of building the high Dam, the Nubians were not given the right to work in the Dam construction as they were considered as a national security threat to that national project, since they lived near the Sudanese borders. (Serag, 2013)
Moving forward in time, The Egyptian state is still dealing with the Nubians with the same kind of neglect and caution. Although Article 236 of the 2014 constitution which were issued under Abd El Fatah El Sisi’s time states that: “The state shall work on developing and implementing projects to return the residents of Nubia to their native areas, and develop them within 10 years and as regulated by the law.”, two presidential decrees directly conflicting with this article and neglecting the Nubians’ demands have been issued. Presidential Decree no. 444 in 2014 entitled specific border areas as military zones which should not be populated with residents for national security reasons and the Presidential Decree no. 335 in 2016 entitled 992 acres owned by the state to the privately-owned New Toshka Project, the majority of these acres falls within the historical Nubian Sovereignty. These two decrees were presented as the state’s efforts to save its border, maintain its sovereignty and start new development projects to enhance its economy and they show how the state is dealing with the Nubian case as a “national security” problem, ignoring its humanitarian and social sides. (Sakroy,2013) (Sakory, 2016)
In October 2016, several independent Nubian groups and civil society organizations stated that they were working on collecting historical evidence to file an official complaint against these decrees before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights following a conference that was held in September that recommended the establishment of a state body to develop Nubia and giving the government a three months to comply to the demands before the international involvement. The response of the state didn’t come in a direct form, but using its media arms, a fierce media campaign followed this conference where the pro-government anchors and journalists stated that these recommendations threaten the sovereignty of the Egyptian state. (Shams El Din, 2016) At the beginning of November 2016, a number of Nubian activists decided to start an open strike to protest the inclusion of their village in a state-backed land development project according to the presidential decree after they tried to march the project location but they were prevented by the police. In the aftermath of the clashes that were mentioned at the beginning of the post, the sit-in was suspended after four days hoping to negotiate their demands with government after receiving a promise to meet the PM (Mada Masr, 2016).
In the1960s, the post-colonial Egyptian state produced forms of domination towards the Nubians minorities to exclude them from the national picture it was trying to construct, the picture of a culturally homogenous society under a nationalist government. Sixty years on, the Egyptian state is still producing the same forms of domination by excluding the Nubians from the main narratives as well and pushing their demands to the margins, following the same nationalist discourse the Egyptian regime adopted in the 1960s.
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