Tereza Hanna -Nader Shukry
24 Sep 2014 1:15 pm
A recent attack waged by the Copts of the village of Gabal al-Teir in Minya, Upper Egypt, on the local police station has resulted in a brutal backlash by the police.
The story goes back to some two weeks ago when the 39-year-old Coptic woman Iman Sarofim, a mother of five children, left home and never showed up again. The woman’s family reported her disappearance, and the police promised to find her and bring her back.
It was discovered that the woman had left her family of her own accord, with the Muslim man Samy Ahmed al-Gilfi. Since the woman is no minor, it is impossible for the police to force her back home. Sarofim’s family and their neighbours and friends in Gabal al-Teir saw this as police failure and that the police had gone back on their promise.
No policeman charged
On Monday 16 September, Sarofim’s eldest daughter—a 17-year-old girl—went out into the village square crying and weeping that none of the villagers had been able to help bring back her mother. The women gathered around and sympathised with the girl; many started wailing and beating their breasts. The emotional scene moved the men and they headed to the police station in a demonstration to protest what they saw as police inaction. The protest turned violent when the Copts attacked the station with stones and Molotov cocktails, damaging two police trucks. Nine men were injured, among them three policemen. The police used tear gas to disperse the protestors.
In the late evening, the police broke into the homes of villagers suspected of the morning attack. They avenged themselves brutally by breaking furniture, robbing belongings, terrorising women and children, and leading the men out tied with ropes and pulled through the village streets as though they were beasts of burden. To say nothing of the horrible insults and abuse they used against the villagers. Some 35 men were caught, but 23 were directly released and 12 detained. The 12 were released last Tuesday.
The senior police officers attempted to contain the crisis generated by the junior policemen by charging the detainees with “attack against policemen” instead of the actual “attack against a police station” since the latter falls under terrorist acts and warrants a harsh penalty. But none of the policemen was charged with any violation.
The media was up in arms against the police abuse and brutality. But all the complaints came from unnamed individuals.
The police take the law in their hands
There are efforts by Minya politicians and rights activists to abort any potential fully-fledged sectarian crisis.
The al-Mubadara al-Shaabiya (The Popular Initiative) political party has called for concerted efforts by the Muslim and Coptic village elders to bring about peace and justice.
“The police, the official authority charged with upholding the law, have themselves taken it into their own hands,” says Badr Sidrac, the founder of the Karaama Insaniya (Human Dignity) movement in Upper Egypt, and prominent member of the al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar (The Free Egyptians) political party. Mr Sidrac insists that the brutal reaction of the police to the Copts’ attack was absolutely out of proportion. “Instead of catching only those suspected of the morning’s violations against the police,” he says, “they broke into the village very late at night, waged harsh collective penalty against their women and children, and intentionally violated the villagers’ homes and belongings.
“The police placed themselves in the position of adversary to the villagers; the villagers attacked the police station in the morning and the police attacked their homes at night. This cannot be accepted,” Mr Sidrac says. “Where is the law in all this? The villagers did violate the law and are being prosecuted, but how about the police? Justice should be imposed equally in case of everyone.”
Last Wednesday, the prosecution ordered an investigation into the behaviour of the policemen who had broken into the village of Gabal al-Teir and attacked the villagers.
Wife gone missing
Perhaps the most comprehensive report on the Gabal al-Teir incident has so far been the fact-finding report issued on 20 September by the Huraass al-Thawra (Guardians of the Revolution) political party in Minya, the head of which is the lawyer and activist Muhammad al-Hambulli.
The report says the incident began with an official complaint filed at the police station of Samalout, Minya, by the 46-year-old Effat E. who goes by the nickname Sameh. Effat is an English language teacher at the local school, and is married to 39-year-old Iman M.S. M. In the complaint he filed on Wednesday 3 September, he said his wife was missing and accused Samy A.A, who goes by the name of Hamada and belongs to the neighbouring village of Beni Khaled, of abducting her.
Effat said he had been married to Iman for 19 years now and they have together five children. He said there were no extraordinary problems between him and his wife. On the day she disappeared, he said, she had gone to visit her mother, wearing a home robe and slippers. “When a long time passed and she didn’t come home,” he said, “my children went to their grandmother’s house to find out if there was anything amiss, but they didn’t find her. I tried to search for her, but there was not a clue to where she could be.
“Some two hours later,” Effat proceeded, “I received a phone call from a man who told me he was Samy’s brother. He said Samy had abducted my wife.
“That was on Wednesday 3 September. I rushed to the police station where I filed a complaint,” Effat said.
Effat says that the following day a police officer came over to question him thoroughly. “I told him Samy was my friend; we were so close that he used to visit me regularly and spend long times with my family.”
At this point, the story warrants a pause from the fact finding report to point out a few social norms in Egypt. Egyptians in general are very wary about friendships that are too close for comfort, where all family and personal barriers are dropped between friends. More often than not, such ‘’friendships’ breed social problems that threaten basic family ties and carry dire consequences. When the friendship involves families and friends of different religions, the matter takes on further ominous proportions because relationships or romance between a Muslim and a Christian are socially unacceptable.
In many of the cases of ‘abducted’ Coptic women brought to the attention of Watani, it turned out that the women were attracted to Muslim men with whom they dealt closely as family friends who spent long times in their homes. When an abducted Coptic woman is underage, she must be found and handed back to her family because the law bans her from marrying or converting since she cannot be trusted to take such life changing decisions at a young age. But when the woman is of age, she would be exercising her full personal freedom by taking any such decisions, and no one is entitled to interfere. In case of Iman, according to Mr Sidrac, the fact that she is a married woman compounds matters. She has to convert first to marry Samy if this is what she wants, otherwise she could be charged with bigamy. But her conversion to Islam automatically puts an end to any existing marriage with a non-Muslim.
A priest for a brother
Effat told the fact finding commission that he met Minya Governor Salah Ziyada and Security Chief Major General Usama Metwalli. That was the third day after Iman had gone missing. “They both promised me she would be found and returned. They sympathised with me because they understood that, if she’s not returned, sectarian conflict might erupt between the Muslim majority Beni Khaled and the Coptic majority Gabal al-Teir.”
It did not take much for the police to inform Effat that his wife had eloped and would convert but, he said, he saw all this as rumour mongering.
“On Sunday 14 September,” Effat said, “I called Samy and reproached him. He said that he had committed a grave mistake, but that the matter was now out of his hands and he could not take a unilateral decision on it. He said he had to go back to his accomplices to persuade them that my wife should be returned. When my brother, who is the priest Fr Yu’annis, tried to call Samy, the latter absolutely refused to discuss the matter with him.
“I haven’t been able to go out of my home for some two weeks now, “Effat said to the fact finders. “I can’t face the wrath of the villagers who feel that my wife and I are at the bottom of all the trouble that has occurred in the village during the last couple of weeks.”
Effat was referring to a hidden dimension of the Gabal al-Teir incident that can only be understood within the concept of the strong extended ties of family and community in rural Egypt. The fact that the woman abducted is sister-in-law of a priest extends the social disgrace from the immediate family circle to the Church circle and the wider Coptic community of Gabal al-Teir. That much was later confirmed by the testimonies of the villagers. They told the fact finders that a strong rumour was circulated in the village to the effect that the priest’s sister-in-law had eloped, and that her possible conversion would be a strong blow to all the Copts. They were already being taunted by the villagers of Beni Khaled, the majority of which are Muslim. That was sufficient to work up their collective wrath.
The report goes on to say that a number of angry Coptic youth gathered and headed to the police station to demand that the missing woman should be found and returned. Some of them began throwing stones at the police vehicles parked outside, damaging parts of them and smashing their windshields. The scene got more violent, with the youth hurling abuse at the police officer on duty. The officer fired shots in the air to disperse the protestors, but they started to set fire to tyres and block the roads leading into the village.
Clashes between the police and the villagers resulted in nine injured, among them three policemen.
The villagers gave the fact finders slightly different reports of the police raid of Gabal al-Teir, but the main facts remain the same. The police invaded the village and indiscriminately assaulted the villagers. They broke into homes and searched them in an abominable manner, the villagers said, all the while abusing and insulting the residents in the most indecent language imaginable. More than 25 homes sustained damages, and over 14 cars were smashed. One villager said that EGP37,000 were stolen from his home, and that his losses amount to some EGP400,000.
Finally, 12 Copts were caught and detained by the police.
The villagers, the fact finding report said, were divided over whether or not it was important now for the missing Coptic woman to be returned. Whereas the husband’s [extended] family demanded her return, many of the villagers said they couldn’t care less about her return at his point; they were outraged that her and her husband’s erroneous behaviour had brought upon the village a big calamity. The first priority, the villagers said, was that the detainees should be released. “The police have already avenged themselves,” they said. “Now it is time for conciliation.”
When the fact finders asked about allegations that the detainees were tortured by the police, the reply was that no one has been able to see any of the detainees, so how can anyone confirm that they were tortured?
The Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim met representatives of the Gabal al-Teir villagers last Tuesday. The Copts said that the meeting was fruitful; the Minister confirmed the missing woman had converted to Islam, and stressed that the Gabal al-Teir problem will be resolved and justice served.
24 September 2014