Upper Egypt development law shifts attention from Nubians’ constitutional right to return
Nubian organizing meeting - Courtesy: Facebook page Nubian Rights

“Economic development” is planned to be coming to Upper Egypt after Parliament approved legislation on Tuesday that makes provisions for the creation of a public service authority tasked with putting together a comprehensive plan toward that end.

However, the law that will create the Supreme Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt — which will be under the jurisdiction of the prime minister — does not address Article 236 of the January 2014 Egyptian Constitution, which obliges the state to devise and implement projects to allow Nubians to return to the lands they were displaced from. In fact, members of Parliament representing Nubian constituencies say the details of the law’s composition, which involved many key MPs being sidelined as well as the glaring omission regarding the right to return, cast doubt on how committed the state is to carrying out the obligations it is meant to fulfill within the 10 years following the Constitution’s issuance.

Nubia MP Yassin Abdel Sabour tells Mada Masr that the law does not include any mention of Nubians’ return to the lands from which they were forcibly displaced, but the government is adamant to present it as a fulfilment of constitutional mandates.

The history of previous, more inclusive legislation that addressed the right of return, but has been waylaid by state back channels, according to an anonymous government source, may substantiate these doubts.

Legislative timeline

The Law to Create the Supreme Authority for the Development of Southern Upper Egypt was submitted to Parliament by Cabinet on February 19. At the March 4 session, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal referred the bill to a joint committee that encompassed a number of parliamentary committees, including Local Government and Public Organizations (LGPOC); Housing, Public Utilities, Reconstruction and Urban Communities; Planning and Budget; Defense and National Security; and Economic Affairs.

The bill was approved in principle by the legislature on May 14 and was passed on Tuesday with minor changes. Article 12, which would have granted concessions for hiring foreign nationals with specialized qualifications that do not exist in the Egyptian labor market, was deleted.

The bill was not passed, however, without staunch criticism from several MPs.

Aswan’s Nasr al-Nuba district MP tells Mada Masr that the bill was discussed in complete secrecy and in the absence of Aswan MPs. “We were surprised to learn that the [LGPOC]’s report on the provisions of the bill was up for discussion at the general assembly meeting on May 13.” Neither the LGPOC nor any of the other committees involved in the consideration of the bill invited any of the 10 Aswan MPs to any meetings convened for that purpose, says the Nasr al-Nuba MP.

But LGPOC member Mohamed al-Husseiny argues that meetings convened by special committees are not exclusive, and that, just like all other members of the house, the Aswan MPs could have attended the committee meetings convened in connection with the discussion of the bill.

In the meetings held without the presence of key parliamentarians, the LGPOC looked into the bill and proposed several amendments culled in a report sent to the committee, Husseiny tells Mada Masr. The most important change suggested was to rename of the authority from the Authority for the Development of Southern Upper Egypt to the Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt. The shift in purview tacitly signals that development efforts would, thus, extend to all Upper Egyptian regions. However, upon its creation by force of the law, the authority may begin with border and underprivileged regions, as provided in the Constitution.

When it comes to the right of return for Nubians, Husseiny denies that the Constitution grants Nubians this right, “This is a different matter. The Constitution addresses the development of Upper Egypt and border regions, including Nubia, but it does not mention the return of Nubians, and we do not want to raise controversial issues that cause unnecessary conflict.” According to Husseiny, no bills pertaining to the return of Nubians are currently up for discussion by the LGPOC.

The second paragraph of Article 236 of the 2014 Constitution does require the state to “work to devise and implement projects to return residents of Nubia to their original [lands] and develop [these lands] within 10 years.” This is in addition to the first paragraph of the article which mandates that the state must implement a plan for the economic development of a number of “underprivileged” areas in Egypt, including the regions of Nubia. The economic priorities, environmental patterns and cultural concerns of local communities should be taken into account when devising development plans, according to the constitutional article.

When a preliminary vote on the bill was put on the agenda for a May 14 general meeting, after the relevant discussion was concluded by the LGPOC and the bill was referred to the general assembly, Abdel Sabour walked out of the general meeting in protest because neither he nor other Nubia MPs were invited to attend the earlier discussions. The MP also cited Parliamentary Affairs Minister Amr Marwan’s insistence that the bill meets the obligations laid out in Article 236 as reason for his protest.

“As the government insists that this law fulfils the constitutional obligation provided in Article 236, it becomes a contravention of the Constitution and a violation of Nubians’ right to be resettled on the banks of Lake Nasser — especially that more than 5,000 families have yet to be compensated,” Abdel Sabour tells Mada Masr.

None of the 15 articles constituting the law was discussed at the general assembly meeting or inquired about by any MPs. Rather, the arguments revolved around proposed changes to the name of the authority included in the LGPOC’s report.

Marwan opposed the proposal, contending that the bill concerns the economic region of southern Upper Egypt, which is one of two Upper Egypt economic regions (southern and northern) that were created by force of a presidential decree to divide the country into eight economic regions. “The government will submit another bill later pertaining to northern Upper Egypt and Assiut, as two [distinct] economic regions,” Marwan said in the session.

Abdel Aal intervened in the disagreement by changing the name to the Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt and introducing language into the bill that would defer the decision over jurisdiction.

Whereas Article 1 of the law previously created a public service authority headquartered in Aswan and called “the Supreme Authority for the Development of Southern Upper Egypt,” upon Marwan’s objection, the amended version of the law now stipulates that this entity be based in Cairo and named “the Supreme Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt.” Moreover, according to the parliamentary amendment, “regions prioritized for development shall be specified by a prime-ministerial decision,” thereby further centralizing the development decision-making process.  

For Abdel Aal, the current disagreement has a history that dates back to the choice of language in Article 236 of the Constitution. “It was not in the draft proposed by the 10-member committee, and, as part of the 50-member committee, I raised objections to it, because the devil is in the detail,” he said. “Such articles only exist in problematic constitutions.”

But Abdel Aal does not explain whether his objection extends to the second paragraph of the article, or only applies to the first paragraph. Furthermore, the government’s explanatory memorandum on the bill elaborates that it is “an [effort] by the state to honor its constitutional obligation provided in the first paragraph of Article 236 of the Constitution,” but does not mention the second paragraph.

Return deferred by government directive

Presented with Abdel Sabour’s inquiry as to what would become of the constitutional obligation granting Nubians the right to return, a government representative in the May 14 general meeting asserted that the law’s jurisdiction includes Nubia, but he was quiet on the issue of return. “Nubia is a genuine part of southern Upper Egypt. This law and the jurisdiction of this authority undoubtedly pertain to it. Development [projects] will extend to it as one of the regions of southern Upper Egypt.”

Abdel Aal in turn presented resettlement as an issue that would have to wait. “The bill pertaining to the authority for the development of Upper Egypt will protect Nubians’ right to development,” he said in the general session. “Appropriate resettlement processes will come after development.” He, however, did not specify a mechanism.

A former government official, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that the matter of resettling Nubians in their original lands had previously been waylaid by force of a high-level directive disseminated in early 2015. The decision disregarded the constitutional paragraph pertaining to Nubians and froze the deliberations on a bill to regulate the mechanism according to which the region would have been developed and displaced Nubians would have been allowed to return.

According to the former government official, following the ratification of the 2014 Constitution, the interpretation adopted by the former Cabinet of Ibrahim Mehleb would have had the state meeting the requirements set forth in Article 236 by introducing four laws pertaining to the urbanization of Nubia, Matrouh, Sinai and the governorates of Upper Egypt. Mehleb’s Cabinet then assigned the task of drafting the four bills to the Transitional Justice Ministry.

Headed by Judge Ibrahim al-Heneidy, the Transitional Justice Ministry opted to start with the development of Nubia and the resettlement of Nubians. On October 8, 2014, Heneidy formed a committee tasked with working on Nubia development. It included several Transitional Justice Ministry judges and was granted the purview to look into methods to implement the constitutional paragraph pertaining to Nubia in Article 236. The committee met with Nubians and representatives of Nubian groups in Aswan, Cairo and other governorates, as well as those living abroad. The committee listened to their demands and suggestions regarding the comprehensive development of Nubia and the banks of Lake Nasser. The committee also conducted field visits to lands from which Nubians were displaced.

A sub-committee was then created to prepare a bill to lay out regulations for the return of Nubians to previously populated Nubia areas (old Nubia), which are located between the Aswan Reservoir and the border with Sudan. The sub-committee included 18 members, nine of whom were Nubians. The remaining nine were representatives of the Armed Forces; the ministries of Irrigation, Housing and Electricity, the Public Authority for the Development of the Aswan Dam Lake; and public figures, including Abdel Aal.

In November 2014, the sub-committee drafted a 32-article bill under the title the Public Authority for the Development and Urbanization of the Regions of Old Nubia, according to the former government source. The bill was published in the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper on November 11, 2014. It defined Nubians as the populations affected by the construction of the Aswan Reservoir in 1902, and its subsequent expansion in 1912 and 1933; the populations displaced by the building of the Aswan High Dam between 1960 and 1964; their descendants; and whoever is proven — by virtue of official documents or surveys — to have been forcibly displaced from the regions of old Nubia and Lake Nasser to other places.

The “regions of old Nubia” were defined in the bill as Nubian lands and villages located between the wall of the Aswan Reservoir and the border between Egypt and Sudan, as provided in Law 6/1933 and Presidential Decree 67/1962. The bill also specified that the relevant area of Lake Nasser eligible for resettlement stretches over no less than three kilometers beyond the shore.

Additionally, the bill stipulated that a Supreme Authority for the Development and Urbanization of Old Nubia shall be created, with its headquarters in Aswan. It would have been under the jurisdiction of Cabinet, and its competencies would have included: setting a national policy for the urbanization, economic and touristic development of old Nubia; the resettlement of the displaced populations, which were affected by the Aswan Reservoir and the Aswan High Dam, and their descendants to their original lands; and providing them with the means for a dignified life in the form of adequate Nubian-style housing, essential infrastructure, substantial opportunities for farming; hunting; investment and industrial activities, and usufructuary rights to the designated lands.

According to the source, who was well informed about the proceedings within the sub-committee, Nubians widely criticized the bill at the time on account of the implied ban on land ownership. Eight other drafts followed, the latest of which was announced by the Transitional Justice Ministry in January 2015 and addressed the land ownership issue by stipulating, “Lands and properties located in the regions of old Nubia shall be allocated to Nubians under 10-year usufruct contracts with the Supreme Authority for the [Development and] Urbanization of [Old] Nubia. If a Nubian person is proven to have resided on the land or property for 10 consecutive years, it may be conveyed to them.”

The bill initially stipulated that five feddans, three kilometers off the shore of Lake Nasser, shall be allocated to each displaced Nubian family, according to the source. The state would establish utilities and services in these areas, but Nubian families would bear the costs of the construction of their own homes. The source adds that a Nubian consensus was eventually reached, only for the Military Intelligence Service to oppose the bill. Nevertheless, the transitional justice minister decided to refer the legislation to Mehleb in early February 2015, where it then would have been submitted to the president for the issuance of an official decree, or referred to Parliament for its first convention in the beginning of 2016.

Under pressure from Nubian representatives, Mehleb, Heneidy and Judge Ashraf al-Ashmawy, the head of the committee of judges who drafted the bill and conducted the dialogue sessions with Nubians, requested a meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, according to the government source. Ashmawy then resigned from his post as head of the committee in early February 2015, following the meeting, the source tells Mada Masr.

The source relates that the objections raised by key state authorities to the bill emerged at the same time as a presidential decree was published in the Official Gazette on December 3, 2014, promulgating Law 444/2014 on the demarcation of border areas, after garnering the approval of the National Defense Council. The law designated the border points of Ras Hedreba and Arqin, and the 35-kilometer asphalt road extending between Hajar al-Shams and the Qastal border point as military areas that may not be inhabited. These areas encompass 16 Nubian villages. A violation of Article 236 of the Constitution, the decision angered Nubian representatives who had been involved in the legislative process. However, Mehleb and Heneidy assured them that the final say would be with Parliament when it convenes and passes the resettlement law.

Abdel Sabour tells Mada Masr that Nubians feel that their demands have been overlooked by the state. Abdel Aal has repeatedly assured him that the law pertaining to the Authority for the Development of Southern Upper Egypt is not related to the bill on Nubian resettlement, he adds, while also saying that the speaker has failed to prompt the government to disclose the status of the resettlement bill. According to Abdel Sabour, Aswan MPs submitted a bill – endorsed by 66 MPs – on the resettlement of Nubians and have been requesting that Abdel Aal refer it to the competent committees and commence the procedures for it to be passed, but the speaker has refused to acquiesce for the past two years.