Eye for an Eye

10.28.13

In Egypt’s Countryside, Vendettas Between Police and Islamists Simmer

The old blood feud between Egypt’s Islamists and the security forces runs deep. And until it ends, the country may never have peace.

In a hospital for police in Cairo, in one bed after another, if the patients were conscious, they told stories of horror. They had been beaten with in an inch of their lives. They had been burned with acid. They’d seen their buddies die around them. They’d been dragged through dusty streets behind trucks like the slaughtered American soldiers in Black Hawk Down. But as they lay there in the hospital in pain last month, few people heard their stories—few people, that is, outside the Egyptian army and security forces. And many of those soldiers and cops who did hear what happened to their comrades talked about “terrorism,” about “justice,” about “revenge.”

Another word is tha’r, the ancient practice among Egyptians, especially rural Egyptians, of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—the vendettas that clans and tribes carry out against each other in the name of honor, dignity and justice. “At the village level it is very strong,” says Gilles Kepel, author of Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East. “And it is all the more prevalent when state institutions are weakened.”

Amid the carnage of Egypt’s tumultuous revolution, the atmosphere of vendetta has grown, and is key to understanding why a society so desperate for peace finds itself racked by so much continuing violence. Beyond clans and tribes, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian security forces are engaged in a blood feud that makes all talk of reconciliation and “inclusiveness,” the political buzzword among American and European diplomats, somewhat meaningless.

When millions of Egyptians poured into the streets in June to demand the ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi, the inept front man for what had become a Muslim Brotherhood regime, most of them had no idea how many murderous scenes would follow. But once the military seized control of the government in July under the command of Gen. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt’s new strongman, the lands along the Nile saw more Egyptian-on-Egyptian bloodshed than anyone in the country can remember.

Most international attention focused on what happened in Cairo: the clearing of demonstrators from two sites in mid-August that resulted in hundreds of deaths, mostly among the ranks of the Brotherhood and its supporters.

“They will take revenge,” said one of the village elders, “but don’t worry, we are alert.”

But at the same time, in more isolated venues, and far from the cameras of Al-Jazeera or CNN, security forces came under ferocious attack.

“We never imagined that the violence could reach this point,” said Qadry Said Refay as he lay in the police hospital. The 37-year-old cop based in Fayoum, about 60 miles south of Cairo, had multiple head wounds, a broken right arm, and a deep, guttural cough.

On the morning of August 14, the same day the Brotherhood demonstrators were cleared away by Al-Sisi’s forces in Cairo, Refay reported for duty as usual in the ancient farming town near Egypt’s biggest oasis. The police station got a call: Brotherhood sympathizers were massing for an attack. Refay thinks there were thousands of them. Probably the numbers were smaller than that. But the four officers and 20 cops soon found themselves under attack by men with guns and Molotov cocktails closing in on all four sides of their little compound. After several hours the mob started coming over the walls and breached one of the gates.

“I was sure I would lose my life,” said Refay.  In the middle of the fray he took off his uniform shirt, untucked his t-shirt, and put his gun in the back of his belt. He tried for a few seconds to reason with the attackers, but they swarmed over him. They took his pistol. They slashed his face with knives. “The last thing I can remember,” he said, “is one of them reaching to the ground, picking up a stone, and smashing it on my head.”

Then there are only flashes of consciousness. Refay said he knew that he was tied to a vehicle and dragged through the streets, because, “I remember waking up along the way.” He remembered somebody shouting from the vehicle, “Look! This is an example of what we’ll do to the police,” or something like that. An ambulance tried to rescue him. It was attacked and chased away.  

Someone posted a grainy video of Refay under attack: he is on the ground, his face and hands bloody as he’s clubbed again and again until he loses consciousness and the sticks are red with gore. He said he hadn’t watched it himself.

Two officers and two regular cops were killed that day in Fayoum, Refay said. That night, he woke up about six miles from the police station, lying battered in a pile of trash. A bystander brought him to the local hospital, and he was eventually transferred to the police hospital in Cairo, where a chief doctor said there had been more casualties over the last few months than he’d ever seen at once.              

The fifth floor of the hospital had been reserved for police casualties from the fight with Islamists. “All of the police officers you will meet here are young officers from the police stations,” said Dr. Badr Hegazy, one of the hospital’s two vice presidents. “They’re an easy target.”

Twenty-one-year-old Mahmoud Nagy, unconscious in a bed down the hall from Refay, was a case in point: he’d taken a gunshot to the gut when Brotherhood sympathizers attacked his station in Minya, on the Nile about 140 miles south of Cairo. He was whisked away from the scene of the attack, but his tormentors assaulted him again in the local hospital. When doctors tried to move him to safety, wrapping his body in a cloth to pretend he was dead, the mob outside went after him again, Hegazy said.

Elsewhere on the fifth floor, Lt. Wael Muktar Mahmoud, a 30-year-old officer in the civil protection unit, sat in a chair beside his hospital bed with jagged scars running down his nose. He also had a long knife wound down his back, Hegazy said, one of multiple stab wounds. His left shoulder was fractured. He had multiple head injuries too, and blood filled his right eye.

Mahmoud had arrived at the hospital unconscious, Hegazy said, and remained in the intensive care unit for two days after a mob attacked him in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo. “This is the worst violence we have ever faced,” Mahmoud said. “This is nothing to be compared with fighting crime.” Mahmoud said the state would handle justice in his case. He was not thinking of revenge, he said.

But vendetta is a two-way street.

In Kirdasah, on the outskirts of Cairo only four miles from the Pyramids, talk of vengeance is commonplace. The town has been a hotbed of Islamist resistance to one regime after another, dating back to the days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Kirdasah was the place they could never tame,” says Kepel.

On August 14, as the government forces smashed the Brotherhood demonstrations elsewhere in the capital, a mob attacked the Kirdasah police station with Molotov cocktails, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, killing at least 11 policemen.

Weeks later, in early September, the locals were still waiting for “zero hour,” the retaliation they knew was coming. During the day, shops were open and the relatively simple, bucolic life of a farming village seemed to go on normally. “But you know, when darkness comes we will all be paranoid,” said one middle-aged resident who did not want to be named.

The burned-out police station, its walls pocked with bullet holes, was covered with graffiti—“This is the price for injustice. God will have victory,” and “Sisi, you are next.” In an apartment a short drive away, a young Islamist man held up his cell phone to show a picture of what he claimed was “one of the police killed here.” He’d kept the photo, he said, “because I feel sorry for him. We feel sorry for the police officers. But we feel sorry for the people who have been killed under them. We feel sorry for both. If there was violence, and then violence back, you have to blame the police state. Because they started it.”

“Of course the police are also looking for revenge,” said one of the village elders. “They will take revenge, but don’t worry, we are alert. Do you think we will wait for them to come and kill us? Believe me, people in Kirdasah are kind people. They weren’t born carrying guns. But beware of kind people when they are angry. If the police came here tomorrow and killed all the men, the next day, there would be triple the number of men. We are waiting for any move from the army. What do you expect if they are coming to our homes? We will defend ourselves. We are insulted in our country. Insulted. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to be insulted in my house.”

Saher Mohamed lost her husband, Gen. Mostafa el-Khateeb, a police commander killed at Kirdasah. They’d been married 25 years and have two daughters, one studying medicine and the other, named Nariman, studying engineering. “God will take revenge on my dad’s killer,” Nariman said three times as her mother talked.

On the “black day”—August 14—Saher remembered her husband waking up early and optimistically telling her, “Today, the sit-ins will be cleared.” She urged him not to go to Kirdasah, and he said, “I can’t leave my men alone. This is a very difficult day.” She called him, worried, at around 10:30 a.m., and he said that people were throwing Molotovs and stones at the station. She called back at 11 a.m., and he said, “Hang up, now. There are clashes.” She said she called his driver at 2 p.m., and a strange voice answered, telling her, “We killed them all.”

Gen. Ayman Helmy, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he didn’t think those who attacked the police in Kirdasah should be dignified with the word “Islamist.” “We are talking about the people who are creating panic among the people,” said Helmy. “This is what you can call terrorism.”

Helmy said the security forces could continue to be targeted. Indeed, the Sinai has been reduced to a state of conflict almost like guerrilla war. “It's possible the police and the army are targeted, to show that the police are not controlling the country,” said Helmy. Those allied with the Brotherhood “are trying to have revenge,” he said. “So now it is more dangerous for us.” But Helmy insisted police would never take revenge on their own. “The policeman always takes pride in controlling himself until the last moment. Revenge is not the word here. And let me tell you something,” Helmy said in early September. “Our number of martyrs since the clearing of the sit-in 107.”

Since then, more than 60 people have been arrested in connection with the attack on the Kirdasah police station, many of them charged as members of a “terrorist cell.” If they are tortured—as the human rights records of the Egyptian military and security forces suggest they will be—the cycle of retribution and murder will most likely continue.

Sherief Abu El Magd, one of the few senior members of the Brotherhood not jailed in August and September, says the possibilities for reconciliation between his organization and the military are negligible. “I myself think that the army will not negotiate,” he said, and those Egyptians who lost relatives when the security forces attacked demonstrations will not forget.

“Families in Upper Egypt are not accepting condolences,” said El Magd. “So they will take vengeance. So I think killing will start in Upper Egypt. And I don't think the [Brotherhood] movement can control this. In Upper Egypt, if families don't accept condolences for their dead, then they set their minds to vengeance.”

El Magd had the practice of tha’r in mind. “This cannot be controlled. Nobody can control Upper Egypt vengeance. And now everybody has guns. They have guns in Kirdasah.  I am not saying that it will be civil war. But at least Upper Egypt will go back to the ‘70s or ‘80s, where people were shooting at police officers just because they were police officers.”

There is no forgiving in Egypt right now, and no forgetting.

With Maged Atef in Cairo