The Decision of Decolonization

The Nubian Case, Tactics, and Strategies

animated door and hanging cloth

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Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the latest issue of Tikkun magazine. To read all the other wonderful articles, purchase the issue here.

In the initial moments of rapid state and social transformation—the complete reimagining of what is (or is no longer) possible—political entities and groups with histories may come together in order to demand the downfall of a country’s ruler, the end of widespread police brutality, or comprehensive reform of corrupt government institutions. Patriotism—the support of a nation through practices and belief systems sustained by the production of symbols (flags, style of dress, songs) and their communication—is present during such instances, but it is geared towards an ideal state or government. Once the principal objective is achieved, this enthusiasm turns into something very different. In Egypt, for example, a history of European and American imperialism fostered a great deal of paranoia of foreign meddling during and following mass protests in 2011. Revolutionaries, reformists, and reactionaries alike feared division within the nation as Libyan and Syrian civil wars caused unprecedented displacement and death in the years to come. The interest of international journalists and celebratory observers from western nations feels like voyeurism. The emergence, in 2013, of an authoritarianism so openly antagonistic towards difference, creativity, and critical expression was said to be the cost of stability and promised as a path towards internal coexistence. Egyptian President El-Sisi’s nationalist rhetoric attempted to include the usually ignored groups: he promised to protect Egypt’s Coptic Christian population (about 10 percent of the total population, or 10 million) from militant attacks, but used paternalistic language. Nubians were acknowledged in the 2014 constitution, with a return to their land being mentioned for the first time in written word, but military occupations ignored the plan. These moments and fears of internal division by some of the population tend to minimize different political interests, especially those of minority groups and those pertaining to land struggles (since government responds to internal strife with a military logic of securing its domestic territory). 

 Moments of rapid state transformation—ones accompanied or reinforced by nationalism—offer an opportunity to understand some of the obstacles of decolonization, especially in the Nubian people’s dilemma during the tumultuous years following the revolution. Post-revolutionary regimes use symbols to stress the importance of self-sacrifice and forget real grievances and massacres of older generations. Moments of political rupture and state transition—and growing political and social divisions throughout the historical process—require groups to reconsider decolonization as a set of strategic decisions. The decision of decolonization too is an individual one because it causes individuals to confront temptations to assimilate, whether due to patriotism or remembering the obstacles that their ancestors faced.

 Making Indigenous Patriot: The Decision of Colonization

 On October 9 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (2013– ) presented civilian Ahmed Edris with a medal of honor for his work during the 1973 October War in a auditorium filled with decorated military officials and political figures. A Nubian resident of the southern Egyptian city of Aswan, Edris was critical to coding the military’s communication during the seven-day battle. In the face of Israel’s knowledge of Arabic, Edris suggested that military leaders use the indigenous Nubian dialects (Kunoozand Fadika), spoken in southern (upper) Egypt and Northern Sudan.The language is passed down through oral history and Nubian leaders and activists express real concerns for the language’s survival. The language is known to few outside Upper Egypt and northern Sudan. During the ceremony, Edris told the president of the republic, “I’ve been silent for forty years,” to which el-Sisi responded: “I now will reward you.” 

 A member of the Nubian population in Egypt, Edris used the indigenous language to help Egypt secure the Sinai peninsula. The culture of a population whose displacement threatened its very survival, and whose grievances have been ignored since the construction of the Aswan High Dam, was critical to national land victory over Israeli occupation of its land. To be Nubian in that moment was to be displaced by one’s country and subsequently to work towards acquiring more territory and regional influence. The irony is disturbing but not at all uncommon. For example, the U.S. military benefited greatly from enlisting African American men (e.g., Tuskegee Airmen) and women in the Second World War at a time when Jim Crow laws limited their freedom at home; from indigenous tribes’ engagement in the Civil War; and from arming Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq without offering any form of recognition of a Kurdish state. Returning to Egypt, Ahmed Edris on October 9, 2017 was invited by el-Sisi to be both indigenous and patriotic. This was not entirely unintentional, given the reemergence of the Nubian movement’s call to return to their lands the year prior. Government recognition of the indigenous patriot is an attempt to absorb Nubian people’s exceptional and longer history within the nation during a highly symbolic event, claim it as their own past, and continue military projects on their ancestors’ lands. Partial recognition creates international tension within communities torn between realism and idealism of the Nubian return to land.

 The Nubian population has recently begun debating the usage of status to describe their historical position in relation to Egypt. Very few discuss the process of returning to their land as decolonization, and this is peculiar given the British impetus for nation-building projects that continue to affect them. This is peculiar, too, given the well-known ancient lineage of the population—which precedes Arab, Muslim, Coptic, Ottoman, and European presence on the land.  

 Racialization and Indigeneity of Nubian Identities 

 Decolonization refers to the reclamation of physical and political space to reverse the coercive economic and cultural transformation of a population. Since colonization often entails a reduction of the population into a homogeneous native group, decolonization aims to reintroduce the actual complexity of indigenous experiences. It requires collectively remembering a history of foreign occupation by paying attention to the physical, legal, racial, and economic manifestations that still live with us today. It involves invoking a history of original peoples, overseers, or owners of a land; demonstrating a violence committed to those original peoples by an aggressor(s); and linking land return or reclamation to not only mere survival (access to food, water, and shelter) but economic, social, and cultural revitalization. If decolonization is a tactic and story that we tell ourselves—one that could intentionally be chosen by indigenous and other populations but with careful determination—then we must take into account the possible ways that others react to such a frame.

 The Nubian population of Upper (southern) Egypt, typically darker skinned than northerners, have faced the largest internal, physical displacement of a population within the nation’s modern history, despite having ancestors who belong to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Forced migration is tied to both British rule and the rise of the postcolonial Egyptian state under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency (1954–1970). Beginning with the British-led construction of the Aswan Low Dam in 1902, two subsequent reconstructions of the dam in 1912 and 1932–3, and the 1963-4 high dam displacement in Abu Simbel (lake Nasser), more than 50,000 Nubians have been displaced from nearly 50 villages. Displacement suggests that the most jarring and violent experience is the physical removal of land, but the loss of collective memory (because the Nubian language is oral) and preservation of community that are a result of this original aggression are the issues being fought over by younger Nubians today. 

 Nubian elders who experienced the completion of the Aswan High Dam—and who witnessed the flooding in the 1960s and 1970s—preserve histories of resettlement (to Nom Ombo) by sharing them with younger Nubians. From this generation came a network of domestic and international Nubian clubs, which largely function as social service organizations. Historically, these groups have intentionally refrained from issuing demands or critiques against the state, especially on matters related to indigenous recognition. The reluctance of cultural organizations to engage in risky political demands should not suggest that narratives of displacement and official-legal recognition have not transferred across time. Following the construction of the Aswan High Dam, authors like Zeki Murad, Muhammad Khalil Qasim, Idris Ali, and Yahya Mukhtar came to represent a literary generation that focused primarily and explicitly on the collectively experienced (traumatic) events of their generation. Idris Ali’s Dongola: A Novel of Nubia (1993), for example, depicts the Egyptian state as a colonial force which extracts cultural and physical resources from the Nubian community (e.g., ancient ruins, the nile river, pharaonic legacy, etc.). Very little has been documented on the post-Dam mobilization of the Nubian community but forced “Arabization” indicates the state’s concern with its internally distinct group. 

 If we look at the racialization of Arab and Nubian populations, we begin to see that the latter has been treated as anything but a homogeneous portion of the national citizenry. The paragon of pan-Arabism in the mid-twentieth century, Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser (President of Egypt, 1954–1970)—as well as was the cultural renaissance in Egypt simply referred to as al-Nahda (the awakening), and resistance against Ottoman hegemony—was central to the formation of the Arab as a contemporary racial category. Nasser’s nationalization projects led to the coerced evacuation of non-natives, the native-Egyptian Jewish community, and dispersed Nubians across the country. Pan-Arabism, itself a response to European colonial hegemony, asserted anti-imperialism precisely through its claim as the authentic heir to Egyptian land and descendants of some original inhabitants. But quickly—and we are reminded of this during the mid-twentieth century, when native rulers adopted the colonial apparatus left by its European engineers to lead post-independence authoritarianisms—land management, encroachment, and evacuation became an issue whose main tension emerged between nationalism and heterogeneity of Egypt’s population (as a more-than-Arab place). 

 Colonization and the formation of white supremacy are not part of a single historical phenomenon, mutually reinforcing as the two often are. Racial formation, far from concretizing categories that are historically durable, dramatically shifted during the mid-twentieth century in Egypt, where explicitly anti-racist and anti-imperialist rhetoric of Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser provided the framework to reaffirm Arab identity in North Africa while aligning with other African and American independence struggles. The forms of racism in Egypt cannot be understood through U.S. or European anti-blackness. Though many Nubians do not consider the Egyptian nationality in conflict with their former identity, rampant bigotry and violence from Northern Egyptians—especially in popular media’s representation of them as doormen and housekeepers—socially and politically isolate them. Some landlords in Cairo—and this is through my personal observation—do not rent apartments to Nubians or Sudanese couples or families. Though marginalization of Nubians is distinct from and relatively limited when compared to the marginalization of Somali or Ethiopian immigrants communities in Cairo, Arab identity since the Nahda (renaissance) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries never attempted to reckon with Nubians who found themselves on the Egyptian side of the border with Sudan. This distinction, in part, informs Nubians’ ambivalence of adopting indigenous and colonization frameworks as a tactic. Nationalism and moments of state instability change the relationship that Nubians from other countries have with the majority Arab-Muslim population, but it can also become a chance to gain formal recognition and state rights that have been denied through their racialization. 

Deciding Decolonization in Nubian Youth Strategy

 When a state and population finds itself in a moment of rapid transformation—when populations remove, replace, or dismantle their existing governing apparatus—the decolonization effort of an indigenous population may have opportunities to emerge or adapt. But it also reveals something distinct about tactical usage of decolonization and associated concepts. Whereas decolonization in the contemporary artistic community in Cairo—which is often funded by or features European natives—speaks to a specific suspicion against foreign-led neo-imperial projects, for example, there is no clear indication that Nubian populations position themselves in relation to European influence (despite the original effects of systemic discrimination by the British and Ottoman empires). A decision to understand one’s future through decolonization does not always require explicit, verbally articulated sentiments against European occupation, violence, and extraction. The focus tends to lock onto the immediate repression from Egypt’s ruling groups.

 Limiting the use of decolonization to matters of land, indigeneity, imperialism, and occupation— and avoiding the use of decolonization metaphorically, to be able to talk about the infinite ways that white supremacy manifests itself in our everyday lives—could allow us to understand how the historical process manifests itself differently at the local level and how these local variations come into conflict with transnational discourses. In the U.S. context, colonization most often refers very specifically to the occupation of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America (until the mid-twentieth century); European land seizures from and removal of indigenous peoples in what are now known as the Americas; and human genocide and enslavement that accompanied them both. Colonization in, say, Egypt refers more to French and British, rather than Ottoman, occupation. Decolonization here is primarily anti-imperial and anti-European (avoiding anglicized words in everyday language, emphasizing Islamic over European architecture in Cairo, etc.); in the U.S., it is tactically used to address white supremacy, privatization of land, and monopoly on knowledge production (e.g., universities, hospitals, and the legislative branches of government being the sole producers of truth)—to name only a few of its targets. (De)colonization unfolds unevenly across geography. This becomes relevant when we ask how local strategies interact with the international discourse on the human rights of indigenous groups. 

 Young segments of indigenous groups have established transnational ties, both symbolic and social. Nubian organizers began an online solidarity campaign with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe during the 2016-7 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. In both the 1960s construction of the Aswan High Dam in Upper Egypt and the 2016-7 completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the U.S., actual and future displacement of native populations were seen by each government as a necessary tradeoff for energy resources, a sacrifice for the nation. And both endangered the spiritual and physical relationship of indigenous populations to the land, now at risk for environmental degradation. The Egyptian and U.S. governments use a logic of development (building roads, creating energy for consumption, etc.) to justify indigenous displacement as a mere cost of state growth.

 Movements that build borderless networks of international groups and supporters from economically and politically powerful nations sometimes boomerang back to pressure a national government to concede (at least partially). This was the case, for example, when international pressure caused Egypt’s “democratic opening” of civil society in the 2000s, which would lead to movement-building responsible for the 2011 revolutionary moment. Nubian groups, such as Nubian Democratic Youth Union (NDYU), led by younger generations, as well as the Nubian (social) Clubs of Awan, Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria (among others), have grappled with the question of positioning the struggle as one of citizens’ rights and the right to return. The latter of the two has been controversial because of the strategic narrative weaving of the Nubian and Palestinian struggle, a fabric that many Nubians wish to unravel to maintain their authenticity as an Egyptian, localized movement. Renowned Nubian activist Haggag Oddoul received negative media attention and community responses by both the older Nubian community in Egypt and the state in 2005 after he attended a “Freedom and Democracy in the Middle East” conference in Washington D.C. to discuss the the Egyptian state’s violence toward the Nubian community. Manal el-Tibi, head of Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, went to transnational human rights and legal entities in 2010 to place pressure on the regime, but only after organizing a conference in 2007 that was met with threats and censorship by the Egyptian government. Aligning the Nubian narrative with other indigenous struggles to return to their land has thus far yielded little for young and old Nubian citizens of Egypt. An interview with a Nubian activist reflects on this sentiment: 

 “Would we lose more than we benefit if we framed our demands as an indigenous people… What happened after the declaration of indigeneity? Nothing. We need more than recognition. More than papers.”1

 Framing the Nubian return to land as a transnational issue linked to other indigenous struggles yielded little for organizations and the broader movement in the 1990s and 2000s, but continuing solidarity with Amazigh people (Maghreb), Palestinians, Black Lives Matter protests, and indigenous peoples at Standing Rock through online solidarity campaigns continues to matter to a handful of Nubian activists. International networks of alliances—especially those online—do not need to be massive to effectively spread in moments of heightened political conflict.

 Colonization as Eliminating Difference 

 Just as colonial states do not simply appear and psychologically, socially, and economically transform a population, decolonization is not simply about a collective body of individuals who oppose some other grouping of colonizers. That these new post-independence, indigenous rulers—who identify with the rest of the population—choose to perpetuate unpopular institutions despite their undoubtedly foreign origins is no accident. Especially in places where no pre-existing modern state had existed, colonization introduces a geographic area and population into a global arena (international financial markets; loans for building new roads, electrical grids, etc.) which recognizes its new statehood. It introduces a population to new desires, some of which are embedded in the rights of citizens (private property, freedom of speech, etc.). In places such as the Middle East and Africa where the formal apparatuses of states remain in flux and civil strife is highly likely, decolonization must tactically represent itself as something other than the destruction of state institutions or else a population seeking stability will look elsewhere. 

 Nubian organizers have had some recent success when framing land return as a domestic struggle. The 2008 bread crisis initiated by a general strike in Egypt and the 2011 mobilizations against the police allowed Nubian people to align their struggle with larger national goals. The removal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi by Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi—now Egypt’s military leader—was followed by the 2014 constitution. Article 236 was recognized as a triumph: for the first time in the nation’s modern history, the Nubian population was explicitly mentioned and given a ten-year timeline for the return of their land. 

 Success was limited, even when the struggle was framed as a domestic one: The framework of decolonization can prove, especially during revolutionary moments, to be ineffective—true as it may feel to frame one’s struggle as such, as historically accurate as it may be. This is because such moments motivate populations to emphasize their shared interests (against some economic or political grievance such as corruption in the courts, abuse of the presidency, growing class disparity, etc.). Once a leader is ousted, or government reforms commence, coalitions and groups that momentarily align with one another begin to compete for institutional power within the new government. Meanwhile, sustained protests by groups who feel underrepresented by the recent political developments are met with accusations of disrupting the national economy or threatening national unity. In Egypt, many began distinguishing between the “real revolutionaries” that helped oust president Hosni Mubarak (1981–2011) and those who went out in the streets in the years to follow, who were often called baltajiyya (thugs). Many blamed political instability for the inflation of staple foods (rice, sugar, wheat), near collapse of tourism, everyday petty theft, and declining international investment. Between 2012 and 2016, I’d even hear conspiracies that Egypt was being intentionally divided into various, smaller geographic entities. Fear of civil war was all too real for Egyptians who saw former nations in the region disintegrate. It is in this political climate that a much needed Nubian movement was making their claims to return to their land. They had to do so in a way that reminded both the Egyptian state and the remainder of the population of their national pride.

In 2017 and 2018, sustained campaigns and the growth of groups such as the Nubian Knights youth collective were met with such accusations and fierce repression, such as the death of notable organizer Gamal Sorour after being jailed and deprived of his medication. Two presidential decrees secured the preservation and management of military zones—territories that just so happened to be in the place of fourteen Nubian villages. As expected, the regime juxtaposed nationalism to the population’s heterogeneity. In a 2017 youth conference in Aswan, el-Sisi suggested that national and Nubian survival are one in the same:

 “My aim in these meetings is not to give any chance to people who incite strife and cause problems within the state… I’m very much aware of the current problems, as I have discovered that there is someone telling the people of Nubia that the country is not granting them their rights.”

 Responding to el-Sisi, Nubian leaders of the community quickly framed the struggle as one of development rather than indigeneity, centering their populations’ housing requests and employment as central to national progress, following much lamented revolutionary instability. In part, this was to avoid political repression towards a Nubian community of activists, but it was also to align Nubian interests with the general course of post-revolutionary Egypt. The reframing was not successful. Land promised by the el-Sisi in 2016 was later sold for a new national mega-project. But the narrative of development that was proposed has long fit the Nubian situation: displacement of the Nubians was, after all, due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which provides just under fifteen percent of the country’s electricity. Development of the nation in the past has come at the direct expense of the Nubian population so choosing this over indigeneity worked only because it was familiar. The hope by some more conservative Nubian elders was that this time development would be in their favor—a hope that quickly evaporated.

 Forms of government (authoritarianism, liberalism, etc.) and the conversations occurring within the international community simultaneously shape what is possible from understanding one’s struggle through decolonization. The durability of modern colonial projects is precisely in states’ capacity to establish an intimate relationship with the population it wishes to exploit, encroach upon, remove, or wipe out. In the case of indigenous groups, it needs to isolate them from the international community. Nubian activists decided on decolonization in a moment of state instability that was followed by ultra-nationalism. One feature of the latter is the spread of patriotism as a social measure of intimacy. But for historically distinct ethnic, racial, and religious groups, intimacy in those moments comes in the form of surveillance wrapped in a cloak of cultural preservation. British rule in Egypt and American influence in Iran, for example, promoted and claimed to preserve the native legacy but only in museums and architecture. Nubian youth, individuals, organizers, and families are deprioritized while their ancient relics are preserved and showcased as a source of national pride. This may be reminiscent, to the reader, of the award ceremony for Ahmed Edris mentioned at the introduction, where he was rewarded by military rulers only by securing territory for Egypt while the country took the land of his family, friends, and ancestors.

 The Nubian return to land along the Nile threatens Egypt’s current authoritarian grip not because their struggle would devastate the military’s strategic position but because it introduces more complexity to an increasingly politically and socially heterogeneous population. And this is not, of course, particular to Egypt. Patriotic belief can accept coexistence among a superficially diverse population, but real difference in political demands, cultural practices, racial and religious discrimination, and history of government displacement make state-building projects more difficult in a historically divided nation. More than three decades of organizing by indigenous groups globally introduces serious challenges to increasingly nationalist, insular governments. There is a reason why Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is so threatened by “his” population talking to the international community. But that this tension—to label one’s struggle as decolonial—is never resolved should not suggest that the strategic usage of (trans)national decolonization cannot continue to eat away at a patriotism that eliminates the possibility of indigenous (or just heterogeneous, for that matter) existence.

 [1]Interview conducted by legal scholar, Maja Janmyr


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