CAIRO/MAHALLA: Three days after violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators in Mahalla El-Kobra, a fragile calm had returned to the town on Friday. A day off, shop shutters were drawn and the sun-bleached streets mostly empty. Only broken windows, patterned tent fabric disguising destroyed store fronts and the huge security presence in this small town testified to the anger which exploded this week.
In a side-street well removed from the scene of protests stands the apartment building where 15-year-old Ahmed Mabrouk Hamada was shot while standing in the third floor balcony.
Ali, his father, took us to the spot where his son was killed. There, we saw a large piece of cloth still covered in Ahmed’s blood. To the left, the neighboring balcony is pitted with a vertical line of what appear to be bullet marks.
“It was about 11 pm and Ahmed was playing on his computer, Ali told us.
“I told him ‘go to bed, Ahmed, you’ve got school in the morning.’ He said okay, turned off the computer, and went to bed. We heard noise in the street, and Ahmed got up and stood in the balcony next to me, looking down at what was happening. We saw soldiers and officers dressed in black, and then heard ‘Open fire! Open fire!’
“My son screamed in pain. I looked over at him and found his face covered in blood. He fell to the floor. We called the emergency services twice, but they told us they would not come, so we carried Ahmed to a neighbor’s car.
“We took him to El-Hoda private hospital, they refused to admit him. We then took him to Al-Aas hospital, where he died, said Ali.
Mohamed, a friend of the family, told Daily News Egypt that the bullet which killed Ahmed entered his head through the jaw and exited from his temple, suggesting that he was shot by a gun fired from below.
The fact that the bullet traveled three stories up and went through his head would seem to indicate that it was live ammunition which killed Ahmed: rubber bullets are usually non-lethal unless fired at short range.
In the absence of an official investigation it is impossible to say with complete certainty who fired the gun which killed Ahmed. However, in a statement condemning the use of unnecessary lethal and excessive force by security bodies, Human Rights Watch states that according to the bystanders it interviewed, “no one other than the police fired live ammunition during the demonstrations.
Ahmed’s uncle Alaa El-Shioumy says that the family are not interested in monetary compensation for his death. All they want is an official acknowledgement of responsibility and an apology.
“We want an official statement saying what happened is haram, wrong, an injustice… It’s enough for an official to say that the Interior Minister will not ignore this, and will investigate it. Do human lives have no value? he asked.
Journalists who had attempted to interview the relatives of people detained during the demonstrations which took place on April 6 and 7 were themselves arrested last week, a blunt attempt to silence reports leaking out about the earlier abuses committed by security bodies.
The state-controlled media has presented the two-day uprising in Mahalla as an orgy of thug-led vandalism and looting – a repeat of events in January 1977 when the possibility that President Anwar Sadat would increase the price of bread led to protests in which tens of people were killed during clashes with security forces. Back then the two-day protests – driven by poverty, hunger and anger – were labelled “the revolution of the thieves by the state-controlled media.
An article published in Egyptian daily Al-Badeel on Friday claimed that an official from the ministry of social solidarity, Adalaat Abdel Hady, had ordered that LE 1,000 be paid to Ahmed’s family. El-Shioumy denies that this has happened.
Inside Mahalla, the town’s main square still resembled a garrison, with some 30 security trucks parked there. Backup forces had reportedly been drawn in from surrounding governorates. There was a security presence outside every mosque we drove past (there were rumours that a protest would start after Friday prayers) and government buildings were heavily guarded with rows of riot police carrying teargas launchers.
Daily News Egypt also spoke to Ahmed El-Sayyed, whose son is currently amongst the roughly 215 people detained in Mahalla.
El-Sayyed said that his son, Mahmoud, was arrested on Monday from his shop and was not involved in the protests.
“Some 15 police officers arrested my son while he was in his shop and took him away. I have no idea where he is now. They hit his colleague over the head with a chair – he had to have ten stitches in his head. He told me what happened to Mahmoud, El-Sayyed said.
El-Sayyed was amongst the hundreds of relatives of detainees who congregated outside the Mahalla police station. He was also one of the people who tried to help US journalist James Buck and his translator Mohamed Marei escape arrest after policemen tried to detain them while they were talking to the protesting relatives.
Buck was held overnight and subsequently released. But his Egyptian translator was not.
“The families of the detainees, about 150 people, stood outside the police station every day until yesterday night [Thursday] when the police sprayed water on the protestors, who were mostly women and children, El-Sayyed said.
They told us that if we continued to stand outside the police station we would be arrested too.
The Taha Hussein school in Mahalla, vandalized and ransacked by unknown parties, has been presented by the state media as evidence that the events of April 6 and 7 were acts of criminally-led rioting, rather than an expression of popular discontent, a claim which El-Sayyed disputes. He suggests that the looting of the school, and the subsequent coverage of it, was orchestrated to prove the government’s case.
“The police stood by and watched as youths stole computers from the school and rode off with them. When the [state-controlled] Egyptian television crew arrived, they went straight to that school, he said.
They didn’t film the protests, the people being beaten in the streets, they only filmed the things they wanted to film.
A heavy security presence outside government-owned buildings peppered the Delta town on Friday. Even the public library was guarded, indicating that the authorities believed that state symbols were at risk of being targeted by angry protestors.
American University in Cairo professor Joel Beinin, an expert on the Egyptian labor movement witnessed the first clashes between protestors and security forces on Sunday which started at 4 pm.
Beinin has no doubts that the protest he witnessed in the town’s main square was not organized in advance.
“It was completely spontaneous. There were no placards or posters prepared and I didn’t hear the set political slogans usually heard at protests, he said.
Beinin says that the response of security bodies was violent from the beginning.
“Security bodies responded with violence to the protestors from the start. I saw plain-clothed thugs [employed by security forces during demonstrations] throwing rocks at people, deliberately throwing them upwards so that they would land on people’s heads.
Reuters photographer Nasser Nouri (who caught the first day of clashes in a series of explosive, now iconic, images of protestors trampling on a destroyed poster of President Hosni Mubarak) echoes this. He told Daily News Egypt that police responded immediately with violence to the initially peaceful protest, later using teargas and firearms to disperse the crowd.
Some 150 people – including children – were detained on the first day of protests. Per Bjorklund a Swedish journalist witnessed a demonstration which gathered outside the Mahalla train station.
He showed Daily News Egypt a film he made of thousands of demonstrators converging on Mahalla’s police station, where they joined detainees’ families protesting outside. The procession was completely peaceful, save for a few low-key skirmishes. Violence only erupted
when demonstrators gathered and started chanting “let them out! Let them out!
“I didn’t see any looting, all the violence was mainly directed at the police. Even small traffic police posts were being attacked, Bjorklund told Daily News Egypt.
In a press conference on Friday evening at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo, lawyer Khaled Ali said that there have been widespread violations of the rights of those detained in connection with the events of April 6, both in Mahalla and elsewhere in Egypt.
“Lawyers do not know the exact numbers or whereabouts of detainees because the public prosecution office is denying them the right to visit clients, Ali said.
“In addition, people have been held without charge for more than 24 hours in violation of the law.
“Arrests of journalists in Mahalla are an attempt to terrorize the media into not covering the crimes taking place there, Ali said, in reference to Buck (who also spoke during the press conference) and journalist Amina Abdel Rahman, who was arrested while interviewing people protesting the detention of their relatives.
James Buck’s translator, Mohamed Marei remains in police detention. My question is, why was Buck released and Marei kept in detention? Why are Egyptians treated as second-class citizens in their own country?