By far, the town most hit by the Islamist rampage against the Copts was Dalga on the southwestern-most point of Minya province, some 300km south of Cairo.
Even though Dalga—pronounced Delga in the Delta, Dalga in Upper Egypt, and Dalda by its own inhabitants—is home to a 120,000-strong population, includes 35 schools, some 100 mosques, and four churches, and is accessed through 32 access points; all of which qualify it to be a fully fledged town; it is administratively listed as a village, and has one minor police station. The Copts make over 10 per cent of the population.
Forced to pay tribute money
Dalga has always been an Islamist stronghold where family and clan loyalties run high. The fact that the police force in Dalga is inadequate to meet its security needs compounded the security problem. On that fateful Wednesday 14 August, the police station was empty, abandoned ever since it was targeted by heavy Islamist fire on 4 July, one day after the then president Mursi was ousted and his Islamist regime fell. The Islamists had the town under their thumb, a situation which lasted until 16 September when the security forces, covered by the military, finally stormed Dalga and regained control.
The 14 August attack against the Copts in Dalga was widespread and brutal. Two men, Iskandar Toss and Hany Shafiq, were—in separate incidents—beheaded and their bodies paraded—dragged in the streets—through town for resisting the attacks against their homes. An old woman known as the mother of the lawyer Samir Lamei was injured by gunshot. The churches were attacked, destroyed and burned; over 80 Coptic homes, 15 shops and a cattle stable were looted and destroyed, 23 of them burned. More than 24 Coptic families left town.
Many of the Copts who left town did so because their houses had been destroyed and burnt and were no longer habitable. Among those who left, too, were Coptic families unable to pay the tribute money demanded of them by the Islamists who have a notorious history of killing those who do not pay up.
A number of Coptic families left for fear for their safety even though their homes had not been attacked. These homes were seized by Islamist families who promptly removed the original nameplates and painted their own names instead.
Army storms Dalga
In the hours after dawn on Monday 16 September, Egyptian army and police troops backed by helicopters, stormed Dalga. They secured the entrances and exits of the town, and promptly removed the barricades—tree trunks, barbed wire, and rocks which they cut from the nearby mountain—the Islamists had during the earlier weeks set up in the streets. The Islamists put up no significant resistance.
Some 52 MB loyalists—the figure is now up to over 100—were caught, among them the 26-year-old Shady M. with whom were found jihadi documents that included plans to target vital establishments in Minya governorate, as well as a book on Usama Bin Laden. Security officials said the Islamists caught had been implicated in attacking and torching the police stations in Deir-Muwass and Dalga, as well as the 1600-year old church of the Holy Virgin and other Coptic establishments and houses in Dalga. Major General Ussama Metwalli, deputy to the Minister of Interior told Watani that those arrested had all been caught according to arrest warrants issued by the Prosecution-General.
Metwalli insisted that security did not intentionally delay its operation in Dalga, but that the delay was mainly to clinch the precise timing and implement a tight, well-studied plan of action that would secure the required result, preserve the villagers’ lives, and restore peace to Dalga.
The villagers greeted the security march on Dalga with cheers of joy and applause for the army and the police, relieved that, according to eye-witnesses, “security has finally found its way back to our village”. Women were seen ululating from balconies, and families took it in turn to offer the troops tea.
“Now we can sleep our fill”
Security sources say that security operations in Dalga will go on until all the culprits are caught—to date more than 80 per cent of them have been caught—and peace again reigns.
There is wide demand among Dalgans, however, for more police stations in town.
Hani Youssef, one of the villagers of Dalga, told Watani, “We can finally to sleep tight after 76 days [from 3 July to 16 September] of sleeping with an eye open for fear for our safety. Neither do we have to go through the painful indignity of having to pay tribute money or risk our and our children’s lives. It’s almost too good to be true: the fear is gone!”
The village market has regained its dynamism, and commercial activity is robust. Bakeries are back to their normal output, and children are back to schools with very low absenteeism. Movement into and out of Dalga is back to normal.
But perhaps the most upbeat indication is that the Coptic families who had fled Dalga are trickling back. Once the security and authorities warned, a day before their raid against the town, that they would free Dalga of the Islamist terrorists who ruled over it, many Islamists began backtracking. Those who had seized Coptic houses quickly left, and covered the names they had inscribed on them with white paint so as to avert any suspicion. Now that security is back, the Copts are moving back to town.
Fr Silwanus Lutfi of the Holy Virgin’s testified to the fact that, apart from the proponents of political Islam, “There is no hatred or grudge between the village Copts and Muslims. It was the Muslim families who opened their homes to host the Copts who had lost theirs’ during the Islamist rampage,” he said.
25 September 2013