Ten Egyptian citizens living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were sentenced to between 10 and 18 years in prison last week. Their "crime" was to commemorate the 1973 October War, and they were sentenced by the notorious Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh. The court is fast becoming an instrument of repression rather than justice, as it bends to the will of the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi authorities arrested the Nubian Egyptians three years ago, on 25 October 2019. Six were released, but the others were held for two months. In mid-July 2020 all ten were re-arrested and forcibly disappeared for nearly five months. All attempts by their relatives to find out where they were failed, until one of the families received a phone call in December of that year.
According to human rights groups and media reports, the detainees were tortured during their detention; when the defence team mentioned this in its memorandum, the prosecution objected and the court forced it to be deleted from the record. The court appointed lawyer obliged. That alone illustrates the farcical nature of the trial, which ended with very harsh sentences, as if the detainees had committed a grave crime. They hadn't, so why such lengthy prison sentences?
The Nubians living in the Kingdom are organised in associations under the umbrella of the "Nubian family". There are three families in Saudi Arabia, with one of them in Riyadh. It wanted to organise a symposium on "The Role of the Nubians in the October 1973 War" which focused on the most prominent Nubians who took part in the great war of liberation. The highest-ranking Nubian officers at the time were the late Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and First Warrant Officer Ahmed Idris, who suggested encrypting military messages in the Nubian language. This had a major impact on the course of the war, no less important than the strategic deception plan, the destruction of the Bar-Lev Line or the plan to cross the Suez Canal. His suggestion was one of the pillars of that great victory.
This is the symposium that the court felt had to be responded to with forced disappearances, torture and the wasting of years of the detainees' lives, both young and old. This wasn't a national occasion for Egyptians alone, though; it was the first Arab victory over the Israeli occupation state. Saudi Arabian troops participated in the war on the Syrian front, and the Kingdom's leaders played a decisive role, and yet it is now prosecuting people celebrating the victory.
Details of this role were provided in Saudi newspaper Okaz on 3 May, 2020, about two months before the arrest of the Nubian Egyptians. "On October 17, 1973, a few days after the outbreak of the war, [Saudi Arabi's] King Faisal decided to use the oil weapon in the battle. He called for an urgent meeting of the Arab oil ministers in Kuwait, which decided to reduce the total Arab production of oil by 5 per cent, in addition to another 5 per cent per month, until Israel withdraws to the pre-June 1967 lines, and Saudi Arabia, led by Al-Faisal, announced it would stop selling oil to the West to push it to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied Arab lands. Al-Faisal also announced he would stop oil supplies to America and pro-Israel countries."
The report pointed out that the former Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Abdel Ghani El-Gamasy, made mention of the Saudi support in his book The October War: Memoirs of Field Marshal El-Gamasy of Egypt. "Saudi support for Egypt did not stop at cutting off the oil supply. On the military level, the Saudi forces participated in the war on the Syrian front, in the Golan and Tal Mari, and the Saudi army fought fierce battles against the Israeli units. Saudi Arabia also established an air bridge to send its soldiers to the Syrian front, and sent forces from the King Abdul Aziz Brigade, an artillery regiment, a parachute regiment, a rifle company, a signal company, a mortar company, a tank maintenance platoon, and a maintenance company for the Syrian front." Moreover, "King Faisal, may God have mercy on him, insisted on visiting the fighting fronts during the October War, accompanied by Egyptian President Muhammad Anwar Sadat, in addition to successive field visits by Saudi princes and ministers to check on the Egyptian forces on the front, and to provide support and assistance to the leaders and the Egyptian people."
This was support at every level, and victory was celebrated in the Kingdom as well as in Egypt and elsewhere by every believer in the justice of the Arab cause and in the illegality of the occupying state. Even if we assume that the Nubian Egyptians made a mistake in not, for example, getting the correct permit for the gathering, the intention to commemorate the war cannot, surely, warrant such harsh punishments. Indeed, I'd suggest that the Kingdom should have participated in their celebration and facilitated the holding of the symposium.
The other interesting matter is the focus of investigations into Egypt's domestic issues that are way beyond the scope of Saudi security concerns. Asking the detainees about their opinion on the issue of the Nubian return to their lands that the "leader of defeats" — Gamal Abdel Nasser — seized from them during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1963-1964 indicates Egyptian-Saudi complicity in punishing the group. It sends an intimidatory message to all Egyptians getting together in foreign lands. This complicity was not without its stupidity, as the detainees were asked why they had a picture of Field Marshal Tantawi on the wall and not one of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, as if the latter participated in the war; or he is a Nubian; or, most importantly, he has opposed the Zionists at any stage of his dark life. For those who don't know: he didn't; he isn't; and he hasn't.
This issue indicates that the Arab regimes do not agree on anything except perceived security matters. National aspirations have no place among the priorities of tyrannical regimes. It also indicates that there are relentless attempts to obliterate the memories of the victory over Israel, and to monopolise the conversation through official channels so that the discourse is controlled and does not establish any hostility towards the occupation state in the public mind. We are basically dealing with Zionist agents here who accuse their opponents of being traitors although they are themselves drowning in treachery.
The imprisoned Nubian Egyptians need effective solidarity from civil society and human rights organisations. Unfortunately, only two Egyptian parties have addressed their cause: the Constitution Party and the still being established Bread and Freedom Party. The detainees and their families should not be left at the mercy of regimes that terrorise their citizens, whether locally or regionally. The Nubians have had more than their fair share of persecution and displacement, starting more than a century ago, when the Aswan Dam was built in 1902. It is a disgrace that their marginalisation and persecution continue to this day.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 18 october 2022
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.