In 2012, I met 67-year-old Ahmed Abdallah, a Nubian man who was among those displaced in 1963 to allow for the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
At the time, the displacement of thousands of Nubian families was framed as a sacrifice for the nation, a small price Nubians had to pay for the sake of a national project that was going to change Egypt’s future.
The same rhetoric is now being repeated to justify the displacement of over 1,000 families in Rafah to create a buffer zone at the border, which the state insists is necessary for national security. However, the collateral damage — which has severe social and, potentially, security ramifications — is largely ignored.
Fifty years after the displacement of Nubians, Abdallah speaks with tears and a vigorously deep sense of loss of the day that he saw his house and the area where he grew up being flooded, as he was escorted away with his family.
The desert area in Aswan now known as new Nubia, where Abdallah currently lives and has spent most of his life, never became his home.
He sits there like a visitor — as do most of the residents who are old enough to have experienced the displacement — reminiscing about his old life, and holding on to an impossible hope of one day returning to the home that was taken away from him.
I remembered Abdallah’s grief-stricken face last week when I saw pictures of families in Rafah. With less than 24 hours’ notice, they were told to pack up their lives and leave their houses behind. Soon after, their homes were blown up for the greater good of the nation.
This action is part of an ongoing military operation that was announced over a year and a half ago to eradicate terrorist cells in Sinai, and which intensified following a terrorist attack last month in Arish that killed over 30 soldiers. The state announced its intention to create a 500-meter-long buffer zone at the Rafah border, forcefully displacing over 1,000 families.
Rafah will thus follow the destiny of historical Nubia. The area will be flooded after the construction of a 30-meter-deep canal to prevent smuggling between Sinai and Gaza, the state declared, leaving no trace of what the displaced families called home for generations.
Demolition commenced, and pictures were circulated. Photos of buildings splintered in the air above intense clouds of smoke appeared under headlines declaring, “Sinai sacrifices for the sake of Egypt,” as the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm put it.
The human cost of these state measures is constantly framed as a small price that has to be accepted, even overlooked, for a higher purpose. Accordingly, the media coverage of the recent Rafah operation has blatantly ignored the human factor, only covering the state’s security perspective.
But I could only think that, for a few thousand people, this is the moment their relationship to this nation has forever changed. This is the moment that instead of being home, Egypt becomes the power that took their homes away.
What happened is not merely a story of personal suffering, but is in fact quite a heavy price that society and even national security will have to pay.
Ayman Mohsen, a young man in his early 20s, posted a picture of himself on Facebook carrying a mattress and riding away from his family’s house for the last time. The caption read, “I feel orphaned. Losing your nation is more painful than hell itself.”
Newspapers this week led with reports of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s meeting with Rafah community leaders, where he expressed his desire to promptly compensate the recently displaced residents. This is in addition to his pledge to plan development projects for the area.
Meanwhile, Abdallah and other displaced Nubian families are still waiting for the land compensation that Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had promised 50 years ago — and some have not even been housed yet.
I heard the words “the loss of the nation” that Mohsen used to describe the forceful eviction of his family repeated by several people in the city of Qusair near the Red Sea last month, where people are protesting another disorienting state proposal.
The government is currently studying a plan Sisi proposed in his presidential platform regarding the repartition of Egypt’s governorates. According to the new plan, the Red Sea governorate would be divided and parceled out to various Upper Egyptian states. This consequently curtails the Red Sea area, which will constitute a small plot around the administrative center in Hurghada.
While there are practical concerns about the effects of the new plan, the most pressing issue seemed to be one of identity and belonging.
A hysterical sense of local-nationalism filled the air in Qusair. Many declared that they belong first and foremost to their city, and to the Red Sea. Some said that this state is really where all their loyalty lies, and that they would leave the country if it were taken away from them. Others responded even more vociferously, with angry declarations that they would completely disown Egypt if the plan was put into effect.
The state and its supporters often evoke the analogy of “a house on fire” to justify these governmental measures, particularly at times of grave crackdowns on freedoms and human rights.
“If someone is trying to put your house on fire, wouldn’t you put everything aside and do everything you can to protect it?” This is the logic of the state’s rhetoric when framing foreign security and terrorist threats against the country to justify its undemocratic measures.
When people literally had their houses blown up by the state, however, there was no pause to consider what this would do to a person and his or her relationship to the country.
If the personal loss is too trivial to consider in the grand scheme of things, what about considering the price that the nation would pay by having more groups lose their sense of belonging?
For the majority of Egyptians, especially those living in remote areas where these uprooting measures are taking place, life is a struggle. Between the lack of proper services, unemployment and frequent state harassment, there’s little to be grateful to the country for, in a material sense.
The people of Rafah have been living under a stifling 4 pm curfew for over a year and a half now. They have been living in the midst of a military operation that locals report has taken civilian casualties.
It can be argued that all that remains, all that keeps the people attached to this country and fuels their passion for it, is their tie to the land — this feeling of home and belonging that transcends any interests or benefit.
What happens when you take that away, too?