Egypt's Nubians fight for ancestral land earmarked for mega-project
A dispute over Nubian lands that are to be sold off to investors exposes tension between government development plans and rights of the ethnic group
A strip of desert near Aswan city is one of the last remaining areas of the once thriving Nubian empire in southern Egypt, but its descendants are banned from setting foot there. When a group of 150 protesters tried, in November, to reach the area, the closest they came to it was a sit-in on a road outside the city.
In early January, eight young men were arrested for organising further protests against the sale of the land, which lies to the west of Lake Nasser, to investors. Days later, Egyptian authorities summoned Mohamed Azmy, head of the General Nubian Union. He says they threatened him with arrest if he and his colleagues did not dissolve the union and freeze its assets.
“Nubians now have to pay money for the land we’ve been living on for years,” says Azmy, adding that he believes the government’s redevelopment plans for an area that includes a site that once held 17 Nubian villages will benefit many people – but not the Nubian community.
The ancient empire of the Nubian ethnic group once covered large stretches of Egypt and what is now Sudan. For Nubians, the area around Lake Nasser is the last vestige of their ancestral home. But for Egypt’s government, they say, it merely represents the latest development opportunity.
“The case of Nubian lands shows that the government is unwilling to support its own citizens to develop their land, but prefers taking the easy way, which is selling to investors,” said Fatma Emam Sakory, a Nubian rights activist based in Cairo. The dispute reflects long-standing tension between the government’s plans for development and the Nubians’ desire to protect their ancestral homeland.
In 2014 – the same year the new constitution explicitly promised Nubians they could return to their homeland – Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, designated part of the area to the west of Lake Nasser as a restricted military zone. The land within this zone is now intended for the government’s landmark agricultural mega-project, which aims to convert 1.5m feddans (more than 2,400 square miles) of arid desert into verdant farmland.
This is intended not just to “reduce the food gap”, according to Sisi, but to help boost Egypt’s struggling economy; almost 11% of GDP is dependent on agriculture.
However, critics point out that other similarly ambitious projects have failed to get off the ground in the past, and many fear losing their land to a development that might not even go ahead.
Egypt’s government has long struggled with the challenges of a rapidly expanding population in a country that consists largely of desert, and the Nubian community near Aswan has often suffered the consequences. The community was displaced in the 1960s, after the Aswan High Dam was built to create Lake Nasser, flooding much of the Nubians’ ancestral homeland and submerging thousands of years of their history.
Under the auspices of Unesco, the UN’s world heritage organisation, archaeologists managed to relocate the historic Abu Simbel temple brick by brick to an artificial hill above the waterline in what was seen as perhaps the only victory against the deluge. But thousands of Nubians who lost their homes began a battle to return to their lands around Lake Nasser. Their struggle continues to this day.
In the late 1990s, the government of Hosni Mubarak seized part of the contested land – the area now designated as a restricted military zone – for the flagship Toshka project, which aimed to irrigate Lake Nasser to create a “new” Nile valley that would sustain a thriving urban community, supporting not just farmland but factories, schools and hospitals. The Mubarak pumping station was at the heart of this initiative, and was inaugurated in 2005, but work to transport water through the surrounding desert was slow. The project staggered on as an example of government failure for years, plagued by problems such as the desert’s high saline levels, which ended up contaminating the groundwater. Little of the farmland was irrigated and sprawling desert plains remained where glimmering urban development was supposed to be. Sisi then resurrected plans to create Toshka – on the same strip of land in the Aswan governate – as part of the project in 2015.