A Nubian man named Mursi talks on the phone in a cement house in a Nubian village called Armena. The government built these houses for the Nubians when their original villages were flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. (Photo: Julia Simon)
Elections began Monday in Egypt. They don't happen all at once. Different districts vote at different times over the next month or so. One nearly-forgotten group sees the current election season as a chance to finally make their voice heard: Egypt's Nubians.
There are approximately two million Nubians in Egypt. They're skeptical of Egypt's politicians, but hopeful that their long-standing status as outsiders might change.
Ahmed As'haka sits drinking tea with milk at a Nubian community center in downtown Cairo. A small group of men play dominos nearby.
As'haka lives in Cairo – and will vote here – but his heart is with his hometown.
"I have lived in Cairo, but I was born, I grew up in the village of Tomas in old Nubia. And so I am, like all the Nubians, attached to old Nubia," As'haka said.
The old Nubia he refers to is an area of Southern Egypt that was flooded in the 60s for the construction of the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser. Nubians have lived in Egypt along the Nile for thousands of years, working as farmers and fishermen. Today, many of the approximately two million Egyptian Nubians — like As'haka — bristle at their lack of political representation.
"We had two parliamentary seats that were taken from us in the 1970s," As'haka said. "We have tried to get these two districts inside the parliament but such attempts were not taking seriously. We tried to get these districts after the revolution but we are still waiting."
The thing about Nubians is while their numbers are low, they tend to unify behind a cause. So Asha'ka and others are pondering the same questions as many Egyptian minorities: in a democratic Egypt, how can we best exert political influence?
In the Nubian village of Armena in Southern Egypt, men walk down dry, dusty streets. When the government built the dam thousands of Nubians were resettled, many away from the fertile Nile Valley on a high desert.
64-year-old English teacher Abdullah Mohamad Abdel Fatah says that in the months before the election many parties have come looking for Nubian support — including the new Free Egyptians Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Fatah says none of these parties will address Nubian demands.
"All the Nubians know who will love them who will stand before them, who will come to take their voice and after that will never ask about them," Fatah said. "They know who will never care about them."
That's why Fatah is running on the Socialist Party ticket in Aswan. His campaign pledge is to return Nubia to the banks of Lake Nasser.
"To returning to our old nation on the banks of the lake. And after the elections if I was succeeding in my plan I will carry out in returning to Nubia," Fatah said.
But that's a tough campaign promise. This territory on the edge of Lake Nasser is hugely valuable — in fact it's some of Egypt's most fertile agricultural land. Lawyer Fady Saleh says the Mubarak regime made corrupt deals for much of that land including with billionaire Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal. And he says the military owns some of the land too.
"The resistance is vicious because they are not defending principles, they are defending billions of dollars so it won't be an easy fight," Saleh said.
Manal Tibe of the Egyptian Center for Land Rights says her organization has filed a lawsuit with the Egyptian government over the land, and even though it may sound ludicrous she's actually optimistic.
"I'm optimistic but not on the side of the government," Tibe said. "They are the same before the revolution as after the revolution unfortunately but many of the Nubians who were silent and don't talk now started to talk and organize demonstrations and express their opinion and claiming for their rights."
Lawyer Fady Saleh agrees, and he says that's why he's forming coalitions with political parties so that Nubians can petition for their rights together.
"I consider this a must that us Nubians have to constitute a lobby," Saleh said.