It all started in 2009, when businessman Mansour Amer, founder and owner of real estate company Amer, sought to launch a project in Aswan to follow suit with his infamous prototype of projects Porto Marina on the North Coast and Porto Sokhna in Ain Sokhna.
The project–dubbed Porto Aswan–was to cover an area of approximately 120 feddans south of Aswan next to the village of Gharb Soheil, extending all the way to the Aga Khan tomb, in what is considered to be a prime location directly overlooking the banks of the Nile.
Though it might have been considered a good step towards boosting the local economy, residents of the area strongly opposed the project. People stood in unison and demanded the project be halted.
According to Gamal Ahmed Salahin, a local chieftain, “singer Mohamed Mounir spoke on behalf of us in opposition to the project and had Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, look into the project and later announced that they could not proceed since it is located in an antiquities area–being so close to the Aga Khan tomb.” By the end of 2009, the project was halted.
But residents' relief was only temporary. Soon after, they awoke to find workers in the area of Wadi Salouga, also close to the village of Gharb Soheil south of Aswan. When they approached the workers, residents discovered they were beginning work on another tourism project. According to Hakeem, a young resident, people were very unhappy and felt another project was being imposed upon them, “which led to several of us scuffling with the workers, and we succeeded in scaring them away–even if only temporarily–and in the process a couple were arrested."
Further inquiry by local residents revealed the project belonged to businessman Ali Agha, who was originally from the area but had migrated to the city decades ago. Working in the field of electricity, he was now breaking into tourism.
“Ali Agha did not try to talk to people in the area first and went straight to the government," says Abdel Hakim Abdu, a local resident who is part of a council seeking a dialogue with the governorate regarding projects. "He came from the back door so to speak and we definitely don’t appreciate this. As far as we are concerned, this project is being imposed on us in liaison with the governorate.”
According to Salahin, “We have always considered this area to be a natural protectorate; we dont want to see it ruined with the construction of touristic projects bound to attract more investors to follow suit.” Several other residents echoed his concerns that the area would fall prey to investors' interests. With the local population's rate of growth and the need to expand and develop villages, they worry that they will have nowhere to go if their land is taken.
This inevitably raises the issue of land ownership for Nubians. “Land ownership among us is marked by tribal customs,” explains Yahia Taher, a local resident and owner of a small hotel in Gharb Soheil. “Barely anyone has ownership contracts; by not consulting with the people in the area first, the governor did not take into consideration our culture and traditions, which led us not to welcome such projects.”
Speaking to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Ali Agha gave his perspective, emphasizing the need for investments in the area. “In no way am I seeking to harm anyone with this project. These are my people and I have their best interest at heart. I want to have a role in the progress of the area since it’s about time we move forward and develop. Such a project is bound to positively affect the area since I only seek to employ Nubians. The idea is to build a prototype of a Nubian village for visitors to experience the Nubian life.”
Despite residents' concerns, plans to finalize this project are moving forward unabated. According to Mohamed Hassan, media spokesman for the governor of Aswan, Ali Agha’s project is moving ahead as planned. According to Hassan, a major touristic plan is already underway in the area and four new hotels have just been finished. Other planned projects will cover an area of 4500 feddans and provide jobs for 14,000 people. The projects, which have an estimated price tag of LE2.2 billion, include a mall dubbed ‘Khan Aswan’ which will include 150 outlets and seven restaurants. This project alone is expected to cost LE30 million and be completed within a year.
When asked about the environmental concerns inevitably arising from such an ambitious plan, Hassan says there is no conflict between implementing large-scale tourism projects and protecting the environment. “We believe that the bigger the project, the more the infrastructure and resources involved would allow for environmental protection. Naturally, any new project has its supporters and its opponents, but these projects will bring employment and investment, which is bound to overshadow any opposition it faces.”
Being left out of the process worries residents as they would like to see development take a different path. “People have been trying to tell the governor that we do not seek to push investors away. Want we don’t want to see is investors coming with big projects that stand to ruin our environment,” Salahin says. Investors seem concerned only with obtaining support from the governor, while disregarding the traditional laws and customs of the people living there, according to Salahin.
“All the big businessmen are now coming here,” he says. “What you see now in terms of investment is nothing compared to what is yet to come. We are already seeing the environment being degraded. Some birds are already extinct and the Nile is suffering from serious pollution with all the boats in the area.”
The backdrop to such frustrations extends a long way back for the Nubians. For decades residents have been feeling neglected by the government, starting with the massive displacement which took place in the 1960s ahead of construction of the High Dam and Lake Nasser. “We [Nubians] had been living in these areas for thousands of years," Taher says. "Suddenly we were being displaced for the sake of grand national projects. We are not willing to stand by and see something similar happen again for the sake of tourism projects. The government has not been making decisions with our best interest at heart for too long. It’s time this changes."
Many residents in the area view the situation with much gloom and predict troubling times ahead.
"If people here continue to feel their concerns are being sidelined then you can’t expect us to remain quiet. Many are willing to die to protect our land,” Abdu says.