What Egypt’s racist campaign against Nubians reveals about Sissi’s regime

As Abdel Fatah al-Sissi cruised toward reelection as president of Egypt, the state-controlled media launched an unprecedented wave of incitement against members of the Nubian minority — and my research on the topic. Descendants of an ancient African civilization, Nubians are indigenous to both Egypt and Sudan. At least 10 articles appeared on the same day with the same content — most likely under instructions from intelligence agencies. The articles featured the photographs and full names of human rights defenders who were described in derogatory language as “Nubian elements,” although they are Egyptian citizens. They stand accused of trying to “internationalize” the Nubian issue and thereby tarnish Sissi’s reputation. As an American scholar who has done research on the Nubian community, I was mentioned in at least six articles. Talk-show host Tamer Abdel Moneim, in a segment where he claimed to reveal the “secrets of manipulators,” described a research trip I made to Nasser El Nuba, a village where Nubians were forced to relocate at the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Apparently naming an American scholar suffices as evidence of an international conspiracy.

This concerted media campaign illustrates the regime’s willingness to use racism against Egypt’s Nubian minority in order to discredit peaceful dissent. It also contains elements of xenophobia — in attacking the Nubian minority by pointing out that its members are in contact with foreigners such as myself.

Nubians have lived in Egypt for thousands of years. In the 20th century, they were displaced four times because of the building of dams along the Nile. Forced displacement combined with pan-Arabism and the suppression of their language — not a single school or university in Egypt teaches the Nubian language — have contributed to their marginalization.

For Nubian youths who came of age in a time of revolution, their marginalization is no longer acceptable. They succeeded in gaining Nubian representation in the drafting process of Egypt’s current 2014 constitution. Because of their efforts, and for the first time in modern Egyptian history, Nubia is recognized in the constitution. Even more significant is Article 236, which gives Nubians the “right to return” to some of the land from which they were displaced. Now they are asking for their rights to exist in reality, not just on paper.

In September 2017, Nubians in Aswan staged an entirely peaceful protest, asking for Article 236 of the constitution to be implemented. They sang Nubian songs and played traditional instruments as they walked along the corniche. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were deployed to confront them. Two dozen were arrested and imprisoned in a facility run by Egypt’s notorious Central Security Forces. They languished there for more than two months, where they were not even given beds to sleep on. One of the detainees, Gamal Sorour, died in November, allegedly due to “medical negligence.” He had fallen into a diabetic coma more than once. Sorour was the former president of the General Nubian Union in France, an association similar to the NAACP in the United States. He was known for his peaceful advocacy and philanthropy. Just after Sissi’s reelection, the names and photographs of the presidents of the General Nubian Union in Austria and Egypt were published. After Sorour’s death, the detainees were released, but they were not acquitted. The 23 surviving detainees are being tried in the State Security Court in Aswan under emergency law. Their case has dragged on for eight months and has become so controversial that a judge recently recused himself. The next court date has been set for May 20. The current media campaign may be intended to stir up animosity toward the Nubian minority and create an atmosphere conducive to issuing a verdict that would send them back to prison.

The attacks against my work on Nubians are the latest attempts to criminalize academic research under the Sissi regime. I have been at the American University in Cairo since September 2008 and am now a tenured professor of sociology. I have published numerous articles about the ongoing crackdown on civil society. Yet what triggered the media campaign were my visits to a few Nubian villages. Other scholars in Egypt have paid a much higher price for their research. In 2015, my American University in Cairo (AUC) colleague Emad Shahin was sentenced to death in a farcical trial. Giulio Regeni, a PhD student with a visiting affiliation at AUC, disappeared on Jan. 25, 2016; roughly a week later, his body was found outside Cairo bearing signs of torture. Italian prosecutors say Regeni was under surveillance until he vanished and that he was killed because of his research on Egypt’s labor unions, although no one has been accused of his murder.

Nubians are Egyptian citizens who are asking for the rights guaranteed in the Egyptian Constitution. They are not separatists. They are not part of a foreign conspiracy, and neither am I. The inflammatory language used by the state-controlled media against Nubians is a form of racial incitement that should be condemned. The fact that this campaign was launched just as Sissi was reelected is an indication that, despite allegedly winning 97 percent of the vote, Sissi’s regime is, in fact, deeply insecure.

Amy Austin Holmes is an associate professor at the American University in Cairo and is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

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