A make or break moment for Egypt’s President Morsi

New Statesman
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Egypt is steeling itself in the run-up to nationwide protests against beleaguered President Mohamed Morsi on the first anniversary of his inauguration.

 

Sunday’s demonstrations, which organisers claim will “make or break” the Muslim Brotherhood president, are spearheaded by a grassroots campaign Tamarod, meaning “rebel”. It aims to secure enough signatures to a vote-of-no-confidence petition to outweigh the 13 million votes that brought Morsi into power.

Tamarod say they have already collected at least 18 million, and will present them to Morsi.

As tensions rise, rumours abound that the army may intervene, just one year after handing power to a civilian chief.  Defense Minster Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi cryptically said Sunday that the military “stayed out of political matters” but has a duty to “prevent Egypt slipping into a dark tunnel.”

Meanwhile the police, historically hostile to the Brotherhood, vowed to protect state institutions but not the group’s headquarters, which have recently been targeted in firebomb attacks.

Tamarod spokesperson Eman El-Haghy tells the New Statesman confidently that they will call on the head of the Constituent Assembly to be interim president. “The president has dragged our country backwards… he has not fulfilled the revolution’s goals.”

Tamarod say political forces will choose a transitional president and technocratic government to draft a constitution before elections: a tough call for an opposition that critics say hasn’t united around anything except dislike of the Brotherhood.

Nevertheless the mounting anger against Morsi is significant.

“I don’t think it gets more serious than this,” says Hisham Hellyer, Cairo-based non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute.

“He doesn’t have even have a monopoly on the Islamist trend, the different [ultraconservative] Salafi parties are not deserting him but they are getting there. The more left-leaning Islamist parties are joining protests.”

Certainly the non-Islamist faction who backed Morsi during elections – largely to block his rival, Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq – are now organising demonstrations.  The National Salvation Front, Egypt’s largest opposition bloc, has meanwhile rejected any dialogue.

Protesters are demanding “bread, freedom and social justice,” the same grievances they voiced during the revolution.

Egypt suffers from a flailing economy; bread, water and fuel crises; and a brutal police force which hasn’t been held to account. Many say the recently-ratified Constitution was hastily drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

Basic rights continue to be violated.

According to Human Rights Watch, bloggers and journalists are increasingly being prosecuted for “insulting” officials. State torture remains endemic; defamation and blasphemy prosecutions are increasing.

“The economy is not doing well,” says Ahmed Galal, Director of Cairo-based Economic Research Forum.  “The budget deficit is growing, and there is sluggish economic growth at a time of growing unemployment.”

Continued unrest and no political consensus means foreign investment has dried up, Galal adds. “Most of Egypt’s economic problems would be resolved if a political settlement is reached.” Something Morsi has yet to do.

Hellyer says the president also picked fights with institutions like the interior ministry and judiciary “without correct political support.”

One embarrassing example was when the High Constitutional Court rejected the electoral law last month, meaning Egypt won’t have a parliament until 2014, even though the president had already called elections.

Morsi himself faces direct judicial challenges: Shafiq is appealing the results of last year’s presidential poll.

Even the Brotherhood admits expectations have not been met.

“The first year has been much more troublesome than we had expected,” says Gehad El-Haddad, an advisor to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, adding that the government’s performance has not been “optimum”.

State institutions, El-Haddad says, are the problem. “They are unprofessional and corrupt and actually challenge the president’s initiatives.”

El-Haddad also maintains that the media distort Morsi’s record. Despite the hype, he believes there isn’t widespread demand for Morsi’s resignation.

Hellyer says Sunday’s protests, if successful, are dangerous. “The propensity for violence would increase. It’s very bad for the story for Egyptian democracy, as it says that government can be thrown out after a year.”

“The only way Morsi leaves is by the military forcing him out, which involves violence and social disorder.” Clashes have already broken out in several governorates in the lead up.

Activists maintain they will keep their protests peaceful with marches “with people holding whistles and red cards to signify that it is game over,” El-Haghy explains. There will also be protests outside Egyptian embassies in cities around the world – including New York and London.

“We told the world that 30 June, the day we gave him our vote, will be the day we withdraw our confidence.”

Whether Morsi will exit the pitch early remains to be seen.

Al Jazeera: Nowhere to hide, Egypt’s vulnerable eyewitnesses

Click for original articleCairo, Egypt – Ahmed el-Said Salem, 19, said he witnessed his friend being killed by police at a downtown Cairo protest during the downfall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Salem was later beaten and hospitalised by security forces in March, his family says, apparently to keep him from testifying about it.Yet under Egypt’s new draft of the Witness Protection Act, the same police force accused of abusing him would be put in charge of his safety.

The draft law, discussed by Egypt’s beleaguered Shura Council last week, was slammed in a recent report released by three Egyptian human rights organisations. They said they fear increased intimidation for witnesses to police crime, which is reportedly on the rise since 2011.

However, rights groups had little opportunity to present their concerns to lawmakers. Egypt’s legislature said it would host an open consultation with NGOs and the media, but discussions were held in private.

Follow spotlight coverage of the struggling young democracy

Salem, meanwhile, has been locked up in a mental institution, his family says.

“The police report says Ahmed is mentally ill and was carrying documents outlining an Israeli plot when he was arrested,” said Nadia Loutfi Mahmoud, his sister-in-law.

She has a letter from his school stating he was a happy, psychologically sound student. Mahmoud alleged Salem was drugged while in detention at Cairo’s notorious Gabal Ahmar police camp, before being sent to a psychiatric hospital in Abbasiya.

“We wrote to the Ministry of Health asking for an immediate psychological re-assessment, but they replied saying, according to the law, his case will be reviewed in six months. So he’s stuck.”

Salem’s determination to testify and the implications of the new draft law will mean he will remain trapped indefinitely in the archaic Egyptian mental health system, his mother Wafaat Mohamed Mostafa said.

Vague regulations

Osama Diab from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) co-authored the recent report condemning the draft law.

“Our main concern with the current Witness Protection Act is that it doesn’t encourage witnesses to testify, at a time when discussions about implementing a transitional justice process and truth commissions – which is highly reliant on testimonies – is mounting,” said Diab.

The authors say the language of the legislation, which is just 10 articles long, is dangerously vague.

Unlike the United Nations model law, the document fails to properly outline what a witness is, or what should be the composition or activities of the police-run “protection unit”.

In addition, under Egyptian law refusing to testify is illegal. However, according to Article Nine of the new constitution, witnesses “found to have lied” will receive an “aggravated prison sentence”. This, Diab says, puts witnesses in an impossible position: forcing them to testify even if they fear the consequences of their testimony.

Meanwhile, those who disclose a witness’identity are “subject to imprisonment for at least a year” and a fine, which could end up being a lighter punishment than “lying” witnesses, Diab adds.

It will also only protect blood relatives of the witnesses – unlike similar legislation used in other countries, which covers anyone affected by the testimony.

The law puts witnesses and their families under the care of the security forces at a time of little police accountability and security sector reform. In the two years since the January 25 revolution toppled Murbarak’s regime, only three police officers have been jailed for wounding or killing citizens.

The combination of reported police crimes going unpunished and President Mohamed Morsi publicly praising the security forces, effectively gives officers the green light to abuse witnesses, rights groups say.

Widespread intimidation

Witnesses to police crimes are typically bribed, beaten, threatened with jail or even kidnapped, EIPR lawyer Reda Marey told Al Jazeera. Even though the state should legally pursue all murder investigations, once families or friends drop the complaints case against police are often shelved.

Cases of intimidation are widespread across Egypt, Marey said, citing examples in the Damahour, Giza and Daqahila governorates.

Mohamed Marzouq, a worker from Cairo’s lower-class district of Marg, was reportedly taken from his home by police shortly after the 18-day uprising against Mubarak’s rule began, detained in a flat, and allegedly tortured after he filed a case against his local police station for injuries sustained on January 28, 2011.

  Ola Mohamed Ibrahim’s brother died in police custody [Bel Trew/Al Jazeera]

Terrified, Marey said, Marzouq dropped the charges. When civil society groups encouraged him to file a lawsuit claiming he retracted his statement under duress, he said he was badly beaten with a gun by the same policeman.

Last year, one of the more shocking examples of police interference took place in the impoverished Nile Delta town of Mit Ghamr.

On September 16, 2012, Atef Bahbah was reportedly tortured to death in a police station as he attempted to help an assaulted woman file a report, following a violent security raid in the area.

When angry locals assembled outside the police station, security forces opened fire with automatic rifles, reportedly killing another resident, Said Asaalia.

Local lawyer Ayman Sakr, who has worked on the Mit Ghamr case, told Al Jazeera how he was pressured to step down. “The very day I went on [Egyptian channel] ONTV to talk about the two murders, the police accused my brother Youssef of being a thug; blocking roads and stopping trains.”

Among the eight other residents slapped with similar charges, two were Asaali’s relatives: a warning shot to the community, residents say.

Bahbah’s own wife Ateyad was offered 200,000 Egyptian Pounds ($28,500) to retract her testimony incriminating the police, Sakr added. She said she was told the authorities would jail her brother if she did not back off.

“She subsequently re-wrote her testimony a month later, which now reads that her husband died after falling heavily on his head.”

To date, none of the police officers are known to have been called in for questioning, and no forensic reports have been released. The policeman identified by residents as shooting Said was transferred to a different police station.

Better than nothing

The government maintains it is working on security sector reform and laws such as the Witness Protection Act are a step in the right direction.

“I can’t stress how important this legislation is,” said Taher Abdel-Mohsem Ahmed, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and a Shura Council MP, who is working on the law.

Abdel-Mohsem Ahmed said the FJP had been pushing for the act before the Ministry of Justice drafted the document. He also maintained the problem was not with the police per se but with remnants of the former regime inside the Interior Ministry.

“The ministry will create a separate unit of specially chosen members of the security forces. If you look at the situation that we are in, there is no other solution than that the police protect us.”

The president, the government and the FJP, Abdel-Mohsem Ahmed added, were committed to security sector reform – but change will take time, and so people “must be patient”.

The Ministry of Interior declined to comment about the criticisms levelled at the ministry and the draft legislation.

But there is little to reassure those desperate to receive justice for their loved ones.

“I still don’t understand how you get to be the judge and the executer?” Bahbah’s sister, Ola Mohamed Ibrahim, asked from her small home in Mit Ghamr. “I don’t care what laws they author, I lost my brother, and I just want someone to be held to account.”

Karim Ennarah, an EIPR researcher who worked on Bahbah’s case, said the only way to protect witnesses was for civil society to make their stories public, while putting pressure on the state.

“This shaky transitional period – marked by inability to implement anything – will continue, as long as there is no real commitment from the ruling elite to ensure police accountability,” Ennarah said.

“Any attempt to pretend that Egypt’s institutions are functioning normally and are capable of enforcing laws like these, will be met with a different reality.”

Follow Bel Trew on Twitter: @Beltrew

Unkindest cut: 13-year-old’s death spotlights widespread FGM in Egypt

As a 13-year-old girl dies, Bel Trew reports on why female genital mutilation may be on the rise again in Egypt, where 91 per cent of women are circumcised

 Sohair El-Batea’s story is not uncommon in Egypt: a 13-year-old girl from a Nile Delta village was sent for an illegal circumcision by her parents to the local clinic. Something went wrong and she died en route to hospital.

The autopsy revealed Sohair, whose sisters had been cut by the same doctor, died from “shock trauma”. Staff at the hospital, who tried to revive the teenager, told her mother the doctor drugged Sohair without the supervision of an anaesthesiologist.

Sohair’s father, a farmer, defended his decision, telling local media that neighbours recommended the physician, someone with “a remedy for everything at low prices”. The family was allegedly told by the clinic to say nothing further.

Human rights groups feared that, as usual, nobody would be held accountable for Sohair’s death, and, sure enough, on Wednesday, the doctor responsible was released without charge.

Sohair’s is not the first death to make headlines. In 2010 another 13-year-old, Nermine El-Haddad, bled to death in a hospital, post-operation. Three years before that, two girls of a similar age died, leading parliament to criminalise the practice. One of their mothers told local media she paid just £5.50 for the operation.

Despite the practice being illegal, Egypt has among the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world. In the post Arab Spring upheaval, and with Islamist MPs pushing decriminalisation of the practice in Parliament, activists fear FGM may become more acceptable.

It is estimated that a staggering 91 per cent of women between the ages of 15-49 have been cut, according to the latest survey released in 2008, meaning a cross-section of society, from working-class rural communities to middle-class professionals, put their young daughters under the knife. “It occurs across class boundaries but is of course linked to lack of education and information,” explains Sally Zohney, a feminist working on the issue.

Female circumcision is practised in both Muslim and Christian communities, although Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church and Al-Azhar, the country’s leading Islamic authority, have condemned it. Al-Azhar refuted claims that FGM is sanctioned by Islam.

Cutting, which is rarely practised in other Arab countries, has its roots in African tradition. “There is a strong link between circumcising a girl and protecting her honour, her virginity,” explains Zohney. Many believe removing the clitoris will control women’s “desires” and therefore their behaviour. Although often initiated by female family members, many men will only marry girls who are cut, Zohney adds.

Egyptian women are typically circumcised between the ages of eight and 12. “They either remove a small piece or the whole clitoris,” explains Hussein Gohar, an Egyptian gynaecologist and vocal critic of the practice. Little attention is paid to hygiene and the operations are often done without anaesthetic.

In extreme cases, Gohar continues, the labia is removed “which leaves just a hole”.

“You run the risk of heavy bleeding, sometimes to death,” he adds. Other possible consequences include infection, cysts and scarring which can make sex excruciating and lead to “uncontrollable tearing” during childbirth.

The rite of passage is extremely traumatic, says Salma [not her real name], who was circumcised at the age of nine in a rundown Islamic Cairo district. “I woke up one morning to find three women dressed in black in my room. They sprayed something cold inside me, one held my arms, one my legs,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why they were restraining me — I tried to push them away. Then they cut me. They said nothing.”

Salma considers herself lucky: her cousin, who bled for days, couldn’t walk for a week.

Girls are not prepared for what happens, nor is the process explained to them. “I had problems with my husband, I am not interested in sex, it damaged my marriage. It’s like a bad dream you can never forget,” says Salma.

The United Nations children’s organisation Unicef reports that despite the ban on FGM, 72 per cent of operations are now performed by doctors. They can make a tidy sum on the side: prices start at £14, with some raking in as  much as £150.

“Hospitals can be blamed and spotted more easily because FGM is illegal,” says Zohney, who adds that private clinics are the preferred venue, where the quality of care and the level of discretion depend on the price.

Magda Naguib, from the Better Life Association, explains that doctors are recommended by word of mouth and compete for business. “Families visit them early in the morning and late at night because it’s criminalised,” says Naguib.

Doctors often know little about the potential danger of FGM. Circumcision, Gohar explains, is barely discussed in the university medical syllabus. “Some professors in gynaecology even advocate FGM,” he adds. Physicians occasionally perform the procedure without the patient’s consent: Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights relates one story of a domestic helper who noticed her wounds were not healing after a difficult birth.

“Her doctor had circumcised her during delivery on the instructions of her husband,” Shahbender says.

Despite all this evidence, politicians last year discussed allowing doctors to perform FGM. “What Sohair’s case highlights is that it is not a safe procedure, even when it happens in a medical setting,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, a children’s rights researcher.

Other rights advocates fear campaigns against the practice will continue to face obstacles. Local media reported in 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood was offering subsidised female circumcision at mobile clinics for the equivalent of £3. Video footage of the clinics circulated on social media, though no one has confirmed the story and the group subsequently denied it.

Nevertheless the Brotherhood continues to make controversial statements. In March 2012 Azza El-Garf, one of the only female MPs from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), described FGM as “beautification surgery” that should be allowed.

During a televised debate last year President Mohamed Morsi was asked about the problem. “His response was basically to say it is a personal issue between mother and daughter,” explained Zohney.

None of the FJP parliamentarians in Daqahlia governorate, where Sohair died, would comment on her death. Some contacted by the Evening Standard hung up when FGM was mentioned.

“We have more pressing issues,” says Saad Aly Abdel-Holougy, Brotherhood MP in Daqahlia. He did add that the FJP is against female circumcision.

Motaparthy fears the law is not being enforced: “We’re seen little attempt to investigate these instances.” There are still 12 pending criminal cases from 2010 where parents and doctors were accused of carrying out FGM, and activists complain that police tasked with enforcing the law probably circumcise their own daughters.

The most prominent figure to criticise FGM before the Arab Spring was Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the deposed president. “When the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots speak of women’s rights legislation they call them Suzanne Mubarak laws intentionally, to give them a bad name,” explains Shahbender.

The association with Mubarak has become so acute that women’s rights activists chant “we are not Suzanne Mubarak’s dogs” during marches.

One year into President Morsi’s rule, activists say Egypt is backtracking on personal rights: groups complain that the newly adopted constitution does not prevent the abuse of children, and orders women to prioritise family life.

“Instead of gaining new laws for women’s rights, we are on the defensive to protect established legislation,” says Zohney, fearing that the number of girls subjected to this brutal practice will not diminish: “We can’t look forward.”

Egypt’s Khaled Said: Three years on, still no justice

Ahram

On the anniversary of the brutal police murder which inspired the Egyptian January 25 Revolution, Khaled Said’s family prepare for retrial
 In a small bedroom in Alexandria adjacent to the sea, the belongings of a young man: new trainers, a computer console and homemade speakers are quietly gathering dust. Three years of dust, to be precise.

On 6 June, 2010 their owner a 28-year-old called Khaled Said left his desk to walk to an Internet café across the street and never came back.

He was beaten to death by police officers in broad daylight. A photograph of his face on the autopsy table, mutilated beyond recognition, was the breaking point for the nation. Khaled became a symbol: on 25 January, 2011, his story brought millions of Egyptians to the streets.

Exactly three years on, following a revolution, his family are back where they started in 2010.

The two police officers Mahmoud Salah Mahmoud and Awad Ismail Soliman sentenced in October 2011 to seven years in jail for manslaughter are free, after they appealed against what they called a “harsh” verdict. The retrial begins next month.

However, Khaled’s lawyer, Mahmoud Afify, maintains the ruling is not severe enough.

Khalid Said's room untouched three years on from his brutal death (Photo: Diaa Galal)
Khalid Said’s room untouched three years on from his brutal death (Photo: Diaa Galal)

Under Egyptian law, a member of the police force beating someone to death is automatically classified as “torture”, Afify explains, because they are “expected to know better.” This carries a heftier sentence of 15 years, which is what Khaled Said’s family are pushing for.

“I feel like he died yesterday,” says his mother Laila Marzouk sitting in Khaled’s living room, islanded by pictures of her dead son. “We’ve been fighting this for years and we’re are back at the beginning. We still haven’t seen justice.”

Afify believes the ruling was just seven years because, post-revolution, the very people spearheading the investigations are part of the institution under scrutiny: the police force. “Same people, some practices. Nothing has changed.”

With only three police officers serving jail sentences for killing or injuring civilians since the start of the January 25 Revolution and President Mohamed Morsi publically praising the security forces, the fear is that the very killers whose brutality sparked the uprising, will not be found guilty for the crime they committed.

Marzouk says she can only hope that the new judge will be fair.

“I’m trying to believe in him, we see Egyptian people coming to the streets and fighting for an honest judiciary and fair court cases every week. Perhaps all of this will do something for us.”

Laila Marzouk sits behind the iconic portrait of her son Khaled Said on the third anniversary of his death (Photo: Diaa Galal)
Laila Marzouk sits behind the iconic portrait of her son Khaled Said on the third anniversary of his death (Photo: Diaa Galal)

It has been a struggle from the start, Afify explains, listing a catalogue of obstacles.

Immediately after the murder, officers from the local Sidi Gaber police station took the eye-witnesses’ phones and deleted all videos and photos of the crime: a damning blow to the prosecution’s case.

Those planning to testify and their families were subsequently threatened or bribed. The police attempted to prevent Khaled’s lawyer from attending the investigation sessions. The initial forensic report said Khaled died from swallowing a packet of drugs.

“I lost hope in the system then. There were people with pictures of Khaled outside the courtroom saying he was a drug addict,” his mother explains, “The authorities offered to pay for my family to go on the Hajj pilgrimage if we dropped the charges.”

Then, she continues, the police stationed themselves outside the door of their flat and building. “We used to throw water at them from the balcony. They even temporarily detained Khaled’s brother Ahmed.”

It wasn’t until the Alexandrian judge Ahmed Omar bypassed the police and personally carried out investigations himself, lawyer Afify explains, that key eyewitnesses, like the owner of the Internet café where Khaled was killed, felt safe to come forward.

With mounting pressure from the street, the court brought in medical experts from the Universities of Alexandria, Cairo and Ain Shams who rejected the initial forensic report. The evidence began to fall into place.

The street and Internet cafe where Khaled Said was brutally murdered (Photo: Diaa Galal)
The street and Internet cafe where Khaled Said was brutally murdered (Photo: Diaa Galal)

Marzouk talks of being bewildered as she watched the cult of her son grow. The iconic portrait of a young, confident man in a grey hoodie, which is stencilled on hundreds of walls across the country, hangs above her head as she speaks.

“I remember walking down the street and hearing ‘we are all Khaled Said’ for the first time,'” she recalls, “Everyone was shouting my name. I was suddenly responsible: they began calling me the mother of all Egyptians.”

Since the revolution, she describes attending most of the funerals of young men tortured to death or killed in clashes with security forces: “I have a close connection with the mothers, we keep in touch, they are all my sons.”

Although public opinion changed after the revolution, the police have not, she adds.

“When the first verdict was announced on 26 October 2011, police fans destroyed the court and attacked anyone supporting Khaled including activists and journalists. They threw cigarettes, papers and rubbish at us,” Marzouk, her son Ahmed and his sister Zahara describe.

A photo of Khalid’s two siblings together was circulated as evidence Ahmed was an American spy married to an Israeli girl. The family received threatening phone calls calling them terrorists.

When the presidential elections kicked off in 2012, Khaled’s mother started to be courted by would-be presidents who, she says, saw political capital in her, as a revolutionary icon.

The then-hopeful Mohamed Morsi phoned her up during the final run-offs.

Khaled Said graffiti on the cafe walls near where he was killed (Photo: Diaa Galal)
Khaled Said graffiti on the cafe walls near where he was killed (Photo: Diaa Galal)

With the retrial taking place next month, Khalid’s court proceedings will have spanned three regimes: Hosni Mubarak, the military and now Morsi.

Despite promises of security sector reform from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the president, analysts have seen no change.

“There has been very little progress, aside from personnel appointments at the highest level in the Ministry of Interior… Mubarak’s state security was superficially rebranded,” explains Mara Revkin, a civil society researcher and Yale law student, working on new Egyptian police legislation. “The police force need to shift from protecting the state to protecting the people, which is a massive challenge that will take a while.”

It is essential to change the culture of fear and intimidation that is pervasive in Egypt’s law enforcement and justice system, Revkin continues, which requires serious institutional reform and commitment from the ruling elite.

Instead, new legislation, like the Witness Protection Act, is being drafted by Egypt’s upper house of parliament the Shura Council, she adds, which if ratified would see the very police force who terrorise witnesses put in charge of their safety.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the president maintain change is happening but it will take time.

“Reforming and purging of the police was one of the main goals of the January revolution and still is because Egypt is in dire need of security, but not on behalf of the freedoms and dignity of citizens,” FJP leading member Essam El-Erian said in press statement in February.

Morsi himself put security at the top of his agenda during his first 100 days in office and has repeatedly pledged reform.

Back in Alexandria, as the family prepares to go through the grueling court process again, promises of change give little reassurance.

“One of the last things Khaled told me before he died was the he was planning great things, he never told me what but it happened,” Marzouk says, “People have told me his death destroyed a wall of fear the country faced and so the street moved. This movement forward cannot be stopped.”

Port Said: Egypt’s city of the dead

Ahram

Families of the condemned and those acquitted speak out after Port Said football massacre ruling sentences 21 to death and five to life in prison

“My brother wasn’t even at the game; he was watching the match from a nearby coffee house. His friends confirmed this but their testimonies were ignored,” claims Intesar, sister of 20-year-old student Fouad Ahmed El-Saby, one of 21 people from Port Said sentenced to death in the recent football killings trial. “There is no evidence linking my brother to the stadium.”

After Saturday’s verdict confirming the 21 executions and sentencing a further five people to life imprisonment for the killing of over 70 Cairo-based Ahly football fans in February 2012, Port Said, its residents say, is a city of mourning, a city condemned.

The air still stings from teargas absorbed into the rubble surrounding the gutted Security Directorate, the focal point of a bloody five-day battle between protesters and police ahead of the final verdict.

Police were ordered to withdraw from the city ahead of Saturday’s ruling in a bid to prevent further unrest, leaving the army to stand guard at the police headquarters. The city is full of tanks.

Mother of death sentence
Families of the condemned gather at Port Said’s Cheef cafe after Saturday’s verdict sentencing 21 to death (Photo: Bel Trew)
Relatives of the condemned, like Intesar, gather at Cheef café, an activist hangout.

They claim their loved ones are innocent, framed by flimsy or false evidence, as the government, not wanting to punish security officials, bows to pressure from the Cairo’s football fans (particularly the hardcore Ahly supporters, the Ultras Ahlawy) to find someone responsible.

The hum of the popular café is punctuated by angry shouts and sobs. It feels like a funeral as people try to console each other.

“My husband’s lawyers told him the best option was to turn himself in, as there was no evidence against him, so he did,” explains 25-year-old newly-wed Wafaa Mohamed, her veiled face in her hands.

Wafaa’s husband, Mohamed Mahmoud El-Boghadady, 26, a local tuk-tuk (rickshaw) driver, was caught on camera running across the pitch in an undershirt.

“The attorney-general let Mohamed go but he was summoned again when his name was mentioned by [TV sports presenters] Medhat Shalby and Ahmed Shobier; now he will be executed.”

Wafaa, wife of condemned man“I’m dying; even if his sentenced is reduced, he will get life,” Wafaa, wife of man condemned to death (Photo: Bel Trew)

“We only received this verdict because we are from Port Said,” adds Amr Nasr El-din, whose 18-year-old son, a military student, received a 10-year prison sentence.

Nasr El-din claims the witness who testified against his son never appeared in court and failed to recognise him when questioned during preliminary investigations.

They all claim there is a Cairo Ahly fan amongst the 21 sentenced to death, and that one of men facing execution left the match at half time to go to a wedding, which can be proved by the wedding video.

Port SaidMother of Ahmed, 15, weeps after he was sentenced to 5 years in jail (Photo: Bel Trew)

None of the stories professing innocence can be legally verified, however.

Lawyers close to the trial say the court has withheld the evidence and details of each case. Until the information is released, they say, it is impossible to comment on the record about the individuals involved. This indicates a lack of transparency surrounding the trial.

Even the much-hated Port Said police force admits there were problems with the investigation.

In an unusually frank interview at Port Said’s El-Sharq police station, where officers were holed up after being ordered off the streets and staging a strike, some policemen say they are against the verdict.

“It was chaos after the massacre. We didn’t know who to arrest, so we detained anyone at the stadium who had a criminal record and people we thought might be behind it,” says police officer Rahib Mohamed Atef. “We arrested hundreds, so there could be people on trial who are innocent.”

His commanding officer, the station’s deputy chief Mohamed El-Kady, says the subsequent orders by the Ministry of Interior to move the prisoners to different prisons are “evidence that the system is wrong.”

The striking policemen huddle around a TV set, cuddling their guns and protesting their innocence in relation to the massacre.

Acquitted prayThe exonerated pray at graves of protesters killed during recent clashes with police (Photo: Diaa Adel)

 Many of the acquitted, who were released from prison following the verdict, say they found out they had been charged from TV reports or when security forces turned up on their door steps and ransacked their homes.

In addition, some of those sentenced still have not been rounded up by the police.

Mahmoud*, one of the 21 facing the gallows, is currently a fugitive.

“I was sentenced to death in absentia; no one came to take me away and I knew if I entered the police station I would never come out again. If I had really had appeared in incriminating footage from the match they would have no problem recognising me and finding me,” Mahmoud says, adding that he has not been hiding – he continues his daily life, despite facing execution.

“I’m waiting for my lawyer to figure things out before I turn myself in. I’ve had the opportunity more than once to escape the country but chose to stay as fleeing would make me appear guilty.”

Mahmoud claims he was charged because he refused to disclose to the police the names of key members of Port Said’s Ultras, the Green Eagles.

Again with no access to the trial files, it is impossible to verify his story.

However, the very fact a man, who is supposedly a convicted murderer on death row, is conducting interviews in popular café a few minutes walk from the main police headquarters raises concerns about the way the authorities are handling the trial.

Mohamed El-Dosouky
“Port Said is the government’s scapegoat” Mohamed El-Desouky, with his 15-year-old son, after being acquitted (Photo: Diaa Adel)

 “We were never told anything by the police. Mohamed, my husband, was never arrested. I found out he was among the defendants from a TV channel. We called the channel afterwards and he ended up in court,” says Safaa Osman, 39, wife of Mohamed El-Desouky who helped manage security at the Port Said stadium and is one of the 28 exonerated on Saturday.

She hands around chocolates in her tiny dilapidated flat, where some of the acquitted are meeting before they go to the main Port Said cemetery to pray at the graves of protesters who died in recent clashes with security forces.

“It was such a mess, the judge actually asked Mohamed in the court room, are you a witness or a killer? Next thing I know he’s in prison for 13 months and I’m alone.”

Mohamed maintains that after the match, which he attended with his 16-year-old son, he went to the police station “to be an eye-witness to the atrocity.”

His wife tried to stop him. At some point during the confusion he ended up being listed as one of the defendants.

At the gravesides of slain protesters, the exonerated men highlight further issues with the way the authorities handled the case.

“They stripped us naked, beat us brutally and tortured us. I was afraid they would actually kill me,” says salesman Mohamed Nasr Malazy, 29, explaining he was eventually released from Tora prison in Cairo when the prosecution failed to find any proof of the charges against him.

“They even tortured a guy who was already injured and stopped giving us food and water,” adds Khaled Hussein Ahmed Sedik, a 33-year-old electrician, who explains how the witness who testified against him kept changing his story, which led to his release.

Khaled Sedik acquitted“They treated us appallingly in prison” Khaled Sedik, 33, acquitted Saturday (Photo: Bel Trew)

 Back at Cheef café, the human cost of the life sentences and death penalties for the relatives are clear.

“My life is ruined. My two-year-old daughter, as young as she is, keeps saying please God, save Daddy. She doesn’t understand,” says Wafaa.

One of her friends quietly points out that whether Wafaa’s husband is guilty or not, there is little hope of a positive future for the penniless widow of an executed convict in a conservative neighbourhood.

In another corner, Hosny Abdel-Moneim El-Khayat, who is partially blind, holds a picture of his 18-year-old son, Mohamed, who received a life sentence. Hosny, like the others, demands to see the evidence against his child.

“Mohamed’s mother is dying. If my mind wasn’t shielded by my religion, I would have attempted suicide already. They were taking people randomly. My son was arrested outside a shop. Twenty-five years in jail, even if he did commit the murder, is too much for a child.”

A woman behind Hosny interjects to say her son is even younger. Ahmed, she explains, is just 15 years old and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Nasr El-din, meanwhile, joins in, saying he fears a decade in Egypt’s notorious prison system will turn his son into a “thug.”

“He will never be the same person again, he has already lost his innocence, he says he doesn’t have a problem sleeping naked on the ground and peeing in front of his friends.”

Fouad condemned to deathFouad, 21, defendant sentenced to death, although his sister claims he was not at the match (Photo: Bel Trew)

There are a number of theories amongst the acquitted and the relatives of those charged concerning what happened on the night of the massacre.

The majority believe the violence was deliberately instigated by the police who they say failed to secure the Ahly stands as they normally do, ordered the lights be switched off and sealed the exits.

Some point to the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its head, Field Marshall Tantawi. They say the massacre was a government-initiated attack against the highly-politicised Ultras Ahlawy, which, as Mahmoud points out, has a large, countrywide membership.

However, none of them believe Port Said residents were involved: a fact that those close to the case say cannot be true.

Many people in Port Said claim no weapons were used in the killing of the Ahly fans, instead they say the 74 perished in the ensuing stampedes. This view has been refuted by official forensic reports and Ultras Ahlawy eyewitness accounts, which document the presence of knives, sticks and machetes and people being thrown from the top of the stadium.

The only point that the football fans from Port Said and Cairo seem to largely agree on is that the military council, the authorities and the police are somehow involved, and that this is proved by the fact that only two of the nine security officials on trial were found guilty.

The 15-year jail sentence for former Port Said security chief Essam Samak, both Port Said and Cairo football fans say, is not long enough.

Nevertheless the two cities are becoming increasingly polarised. Ultras Ahlawy reportedly set fire to the Egyptian Football Association HQ and the capital’s Police Club, because the verdicts were not harsh enough.

Desperate to secure justice for their slain friends, Ultras Ahlawy celebrated when the death sentences were confirmed.

Dialogue between the two sides seems impossible.

If the 21 being hanged are included, the death toll in Port Said since the verdict was first announced matches the number of Cairo football fans who died in the initial tragedy.

With protests and subsequent clashes on the horizon in both grieving cities, further deaths are expected.

Due to the chaotic nature of the trial, many fear the truth may never be uncovered and, for both sides, justice will not be served.

Police brutality in Egypt on rise

Click for Video: President Mohamed Morsi struggles to calm street violence engulfing Egypt. But as his supporters and opponents clash, rights groups report a rise in police abuse resulting in the abuse of minors.
Click for Video: President Mohamed Morsi struggles to calm street violence engulfing Egypt. But as his supporters and opponents clash, rights groups report a rise in police abuse resulting in the abuse of minors.