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The Rise of Nubian Activism

In sharp contrast to the deterioration of security in North Sinai, southern Egypt has witnessed stabilization since the July 3 counterrevolution or coup. This is due in part to the unique ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity in Egypt’s south, and is reflected in the social and popular ambiguity of the region since 2013. The Nubian people are composed of two branches: the Fadjiicka and the Matocka (Kenuz). This diversity necessitates a multidimensional engagement with political issues like cultural and linguistic discrimination and calls for the countering of stereotyping along color and professional lines. All of this is compounded by, and ultimately centers on, the question of compensation for the largest forced displacement in the history of the African continent, which accompanied the midtwentieth-century construction of the Aswan High Dam. Despite the great social cohesion among Nubians and their Cairo-based migrants, the ethnic group’s grievances have not translated into organized social and legal movements aiming to make political demands on issues in Aswan. Interviews with Nubians in Cairo, Alexandria, and Aswan reveal a general lack of political mobilization.

The 2011 revolution brought some change to the Nubian public domain, where Nubian activist groups became more active in pursuing political, socioeconomic, and educational initiatives. Sometimes the extent of Nubian diversity was a problem, and internal conflicts did result. And yet, reminiscent of the cosmetic political change embraced by the military, discussed in Rashed’s and Fadel’s articles, little initially changed following Mubarak’s fall. For instance, although Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who ruled Egypt until Morsi’s 2012 election, is Fadjiicka Nubian (from the village of Abu Simbel), his ethnicity brought few improvements for the livelihoods of Egypt’s Nubians. Moreover, during the time of Morsi’s presidency, the constitutional committee rejected a proposed document recognizing the ethnic diversity of Egypt and refused to schedule the right of return for Nubians to the shores of Lake Nasser. As a result, the Nubian member of the constitutional committee resigned in protest.

However, during President Adly Mansour’s 2013/2014 administration, the Nubian writer Hagag Oddoul successfully led a push for ethnic pluralism in Egypt’s new constitution. In turn, the July 3 regime was able to contain the Nubian issue that had troubled previous administrations. Oddoul’s sole priority during the revolutionary period was to gain recognition for Nubian rights. The Nubian activist was indifferent to the 2013 coup, demonstrating little interest in the uprising’s broader national issues of democracy and social justice. Instead he seized a unique moment in Egyptian center-periphery relations to achieve the historic progress that marginalized Nubians had long dreamed of. The place of Nubians in Egypt reached wider exposure in the media in April 2014, when clashes broke out between members of the Arab Banu Hilal tribe and the Nubian Daboud tribe, leaving twenty-five dead. At that time, it became clearer that many army, police, and intelligence officers had Nubian origins. This shone a light on how the state was able to contain the Nubian struggle and mobilization in the past. While the Egyptian state’s interests centered on its political legitimacy and stability, the Nubians saw their national exposure as a chance to reaffirm constitu?tional rights that stood against the proposed plan to draw new administrative borders between governorates, splitting the Nubian lands. It was a symbolic victory for the Nubians, and it opened the door to future dialogue and negotiation to secure their newly acquired rights.

The Cairo-centric narrative of a narrowly interpreted Tahrir revolution inadequately captures the great diversity among Egyptian people, parties, and social movements. Such an oversimplified view is reductionist to the extreme, and it insufficiently captures the aspirations, struggles, and actions of communities around the country. The greatest challenge to the ongoing revolution is that the ascendant counterrevolution continues to appreciate the grassroots networks that reinforce the legitimacy of the Egyptian state, and accordingly strives to network the local communities, as the deep state is known to do. The counterrevolutionary Sisi government leveraged its knowledge of the fragmented, marginalized society to besiege the centralized revolution in Tahrir and then to push it out of the public sphere altogether. At the same time, the revolution outside Cairo is far from decided, and as such we must take the longue duree view, as numerous authors in this volume suggest.

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