Cairo puts faith in bullet and bulldozer

In the last of a series, Robert Fisk reports from Mahras, Upper Egypt, on the draconian methods being used against Islamist extremists - and their inn ocent families
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Egyptian police did a thorough job on the Zeidan family home. They smashed down the walls, trashed the furniture and bulldozed the remains into the mud. Just down the road, behind a stand of palm trees, they wilfully destroyed the home of Ahme d Khalifa. It is now a heap of bricks and splintered wood, picked over by the neighbours who live in the little cul-de-sac off the Cairo road. Collective punishment, Israeli-style, is what the authorities are dishing out to the people of Upper Egypt.

Drive the highway north from Mallawi to Mahras and the story is all too clear: acre after acre of burnt sugar cane plantations, set alight by the police for fear of the Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) who live in the cane fields and use the cover provided by the bunches of thick, harsh stems to ambush police convoys and government cars and the tourist trains that race up the night-time tracks west of the Nile to Cairo. For miles, the cane fields lie in cinders, a broad plateau of ash between the road and the tributary canals off the Nile, witness to the Egyptian government's failure to crush its Islamist enemies. In Lebanon, the Israelis ploughed up the banana groves by the highways in 1985 for the same reason - just as they now destroy the homes of wanted Palestinians.

Even the Egyptian policemen at the checkpoints are frightened. Beside their green-painted armoured vehicles on the canal roads, they stand heavy in flak-jackets, ordering drivers to pass at speed for fear of assassination. The villagers - so normally cowed in Egypt by the power and brutality of the authorities - seem to have acquired a new courage to talk. "They did this on the night of 4th to the 5th of January," the tall man in the blue galabiya gown announces as we walk discreetly down the broken road in Mahras. "They destroyed Ahmed Khalifa's house first, then they drove the bulldozers down to the homes of Mohamed and Abdul Salaam Zeidan. They destroyed six houses in this street and arrested 400 men from each village."

The scattered bricks are cheap, hand-made, some of them already sinking into the mud along with broken chairs and torn clothes. A woman walks up to us, smiling, holding a baby in her arms. "They did this without warning," she says. "The families here were Sunnis." To be called a "Sunni" in Upper Egypt is a sign of respect, someone from a religious family. And the man in the blue galabiya quickly tells us the story. "The sons of Mohamed Zeidan are on the run. They are both members of the Gamaat. There was another son - he was not in the Gamaat - but the police came and shot him in the head, right there in front of his father. I was standing here. I saw it." And the man in blue moves his arm in an arc, the distance between himself and the death of a young man 35 days ago. "They shot him," he repeated. "They were in police uniform. He had done nothing wrong."

Punishing the families of wanted men is a new phenomenon in Upper Egypt. But there is nothing strange about the man's testimony. In the sugar cane fields around Mallawi, the Egyptian police are boasting great victories over the Gamaat.But the bodies brought back to the Mallawi morgue usually show gunshot wounds in the back, below the shoulder blades, sometimes in the back of the head. Summary execution is what some young men in Mallawi call it; human rights groups have been complaining for months that reported "gun battles" are little more than assassination raids on suspects' homes.

Sometimes the deaths appear to be even more premeditated. Fouli Tawni, for example, was shot dead by police in the cane fields outside Mallawi on 15 September. His father, Mohamed, told human rights workers that he was taken to the town's mortuary a month later to identify his son's remains - he says there were bullet holes in the head and chest - and that police told him he would meet the same fate if he did not bury his son "quietly".

Three weeks after this incident, eight members of the Gamaat were killed in the cane fields outside Mallawi. Eye-witnesses later told Egyptian human rights investigators that the eight had earlier been arrested but were taken into the fields for execution by police. Villages said all had been shot in the skull. Another Gamaat member. Raqab Mawsad, was allegedly left to bleed to death 10 hours after he was shot on the roof of his house.

"Now the police are arresting families of suspects and holding them hostage for the wanted men," a Mallawi businessman says. "Sometimes - though not often - they take women, too. Torture is now routine, not only in the police headquarters but even in small police stations. The normal method is beating, interrogations while blindfolded, electric shocks behind the ears and to other sensitive areas of the body. It's now the practice to bulldoze the houses of the parents of Gamaat men. This started after seven policemen were taken off a bus and killed on the 2nd of January."

Among those detained over the past months have been 27 youths under the age of 17. At least 22 houses have been destroyed in Mahras, Roda, Itqa, Denda, Muchet and Mallawi.

"Before the fighting started here last summer, there used to be co-ordination between the Gamaat and the police," the businessman says. "It was a sort of gentleman's agreement. But that's all over now."