Problems on hold
I patiently waited, even slowed myself down, before tackling the recent events that took place in the village of Gabal al-Teir in Samalout, Minya, Upper Egypt. At Watani, we have learnt to be very cautious when reporting of ‘forced abductions’ of Coptic women or girls until we are certain that what we print or post is the absolute truth. Hasty allegations and conclusions that claim the women have been abducted to force or lure them into conversion to Islam serve to inflame sectarian sentiments and strife beyond control, even when the allegations are later proved to be severely lacking in accuracy. Bitter experience has proved this time and again to be true.
It is a fact that that the Coptic woman who had gone missing for some 25 days beginning early September, and on whose account all hell broke loose between the locals and the police is today back home with her family. It is also a fact that she insists she is Christian and never converted to Islam. This comes in stark contradiction with what the Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim told representatives of the Church and Coptic community in the wake of the violent events. The contradiction amazes me since conversion is a process that has to be legalised through an official procedure at al-Azhar. So how can the Minister have volunteered such information without reference to al-Azhar, the supreme authority in charge of authenticating conversions to Islam and registering converts?
Does the return of the ‘kidnapped’ woman mark the happy ending and draw the curtain down over the entire incident? Definitely not. And this is what I will focus on today. The way the police handled the events cannot be merely brushed over even after the return of the woman and the Interior Minister’s confirmation that all damages caused by the police raid against the villagers will be fully compensated. Because accepting a settlement based on material compensation while the police are allowed to get away with brutality means we tolerate law breaking, human rights violations, and out-of-court settlements that involve relinquishing the legal rights of the Coptic victims. It implies that we accept the police going back to their previous savagery and horror practices.
Those who followed the details of what took place in Gabal al-Teir were shocked and horrified at the revenge the police inflicted on the village Copts who had violently protested the inaction of the police to bring back the abducted woman. But before venturing into this, let me explain what I mean by the title I used for this article. The Egyptian saying goes: “He couldn’t beat the donkey so he beat the saddle”. The proverb denotes someone who, unable to confront a major source of nuisance or problem, goes on to attack a related trifling one. Ever since the overthrow of the Islamist President Muhammad Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime by massive public will and military support in July 2013, Egyptian civilians, police, and military have had to sustain a notorious bloody backlash by the MB. This backlash peaked after the police broke up the Islamist five-week-long sit-in in Cairo on 14 August 2013. Ever since, we have been plagued by an unending string of terrorist operations and regular, violent MB demonstrations which became part and parcel of our Friday afternoon routine. I often stood astounded and furious at the leniency with which the police handled these demonstrations, securing the protestors’ safety, allowing them to wreak havoc along their path, and finally resorting to tear gas to disperse them. I always wondered: “Is this all what they can do? Just block their way and let them run away? Don’t these security wizards know that the terrorists flee only to come back the following Friday with another violent demonstration? Can’t they surround the demonstration, catch the demonstrators and bring them to justice?” We never heard that the police chased the terrorists or broke into their homes, abused or humiliated them or their families or ruined their belongings as they caught them. We never heard of collective punishment inflicted by the police against the terrorists. So much for “They couldn’t beat the donkey”.
In case of the Coptic-majority village of Gabal al-Teir, the Copts’ wrathfully demonstrated on Monday 16 September in front of Samalout police station demanding the return of the missing woman and denouncing police inaction. They hurled stones at the building and damaged the police vehicles parked outside. The police fired shots in the air then used tear gas; this effectively dispersed the Copts and they went back to their homes. I do not defend the violations the demonstrators committed, whatever their motive. Perpetrators of violence should be caught and brought to justice. But how did the police do this?
The afternoon passed peacefully enough but the Copts were in for a brutal surprise. Come midnight, the police stormed the village in a horror scene of breaking into homes as families peacefully slept, terrorising and abusing the women and children, ransacking and smashing furniture, belongings and electric appliances. The men were dragged outside, divided into groups and each group tied together as a flock of farm animals. They were marched thus to the police station to a background cacophony of beating, filthy abuse, and insults of ‘apostates’. On the way, the policemen smashed some 14 vehicles parked in the village streets.
The collective punishment did not target the morning demonstrators, but was meted at random; the mere fact that the residents were Coptic earned them a generous dose of police brutality. Then we pretend we’re living under a State that upholds the law and outlaws discrimination. The gruesome acts were carried out by the State apparatus charged with implementing the law, and which attempts—or claims to attempt—to cleanse itself of the brutality against which Egyptians revolted. And all this against who? Against the defenceless Copts who have proved time and again their steadfast love and faithfulness to their nation, and who suffered and are still uncomplainingly suffering on this head. Indeed, the police couldn’t beat the donkey so they beat the saddle. The police practised savagery while Minya Security Chief Usama Metwalli washed his hands of the incident and ordered an investigation on the matter. To him I say: it is the duty of the prosecutor general to order an investigation. As for you, you better resign. The time for police savagery is forever gone.
5 October 2014