July 2013 was a time of great turbulence and deep bitterness in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi had been overthrown in a coup by the army chief General Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi. Dozens have been subsequently killed and injured in clashes; the jails were being filled after sweeping arrests.
A video appeared showing an attack in Alexandria which was particularly vicious and shocking even amid the daily unfolding violence. It showed men chasing a group of teenagers who are forced onto a roof and then up to a ledge where, terrified, they desperately try to take refuge. They are caught, one of the boys is savagely beaten and others thrown down to the concrete roof from the ledge. A woman is heard crying in the background: “Help them, someone please help them, they will kill the poor boys.” The men who had carried out the attack could then be seen walking away, one of them carrying the black flag of al-Qaeda on his shoulder.
This is one of the three videos which were posted by Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the right-wing extremist group Britain First – founded by former members of the BNP – which Donald Trump retweeted to his 44 million followers. After being criticised by Downing Street for this, he rounded on Theresa May, writing (again on Twitter): “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive radical Islamic terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom.”
The video of four years ago was taken, of course, in North Africa. There was no British connection whatsoever to what happened that day in Massir Street in Alexandria. And, as with so many of the tweets, sent out by the current US President on an industrial scale, this one is wrong in what it claims.
I recall going up from Cairo to Alexandria on 9 July with two Egyptian colleagues, a translator and a driver, to try and find out what had happened. We were, I think, the only foreign news organisation to make the journey at the time – certainly the only Western one – and we arrived with little knowledge of what was going on.
Only sketchy details were coming out of Egypt’s second city, which had experienced some of the worst of the strife. At the end of the previous week, four people were killed in protests in Cairo while 17 had died in Alexandria. The capital had been relatively quiet for a little while but lethal attacks, many of them targeted, had continued in Alexandria.
I talked to one of the youths who survived the assault. He gave a harrowing account of what had happened. Amer Saleh described the rage in the face of the man who hacked at him with a butcher’s knife, the sheer relief when he managed to escape and then the shock of seeing his best friend, Hamada Badr, lying in a pool of blood. Hamada later died from internal injuries.
“The man was so close his spit was coming over the hand I was holding up to try to protect my face. He was trying so much to kill me that he overbalanced and stumbled. That was when I ran; that’s what saved me,” said Amer, then 16 years old. His hand had almost been amputated; the doctors at the hospital were worried they might not have been able to save it.
The man with the knife was screaming “Allahu Akbar”, said Amer. And that would certainly fit into the narrative of the Islamist terrorism. But it was not quite that simple; the reality was much more complex.
Alexandria, traditionally a liberal metropolis, had voted in a progressive candidate in the national elections two years previously, before backing the Muslim Brotherhood in the run-off which followed. But when Morsi forced through a decree granting himself wide-ranging extra powers, protestors burned down the Brotherhood offices in the Sidi Gaber district and the mood in the city turned against him.
There were repeated skirmishes in the streets. Amer and his friends were pursued and set upon when Brotherhood supporters marched against Morsi’s removal and entered Sidi Gaber.
What happened was dreadful and totally unjustified. It was not, however, part of an Islamist terrorist campaign which Donald Trump, and the right-wing extremist group whose postings he promoted, would want people to believe. It was, instead, the result of violent passions which had erupted due to a particular political and religious crisis in Egypt at the time.
The violence was not one way. Fifty-one Muslim Brotherhood supporters had been shot dead in Cairo by the military in just one incident: the same military which had been receiving billions of dollars in aid from Washington and had removed a democratically elected government – albeit one which may not have been to Western taste – in an armed putsch.
One supporter of the Brotherhood in Alexandria, Abdulrahman Ali told me: “You have seen how they killing our people in Cairo. They have carried out a military coup to imprison a legitimate president. They are opening fire on peaceful demonstrators. What happened on the roof – there are lot of things said that are not true. Some of those who are against us are government agents, and I have heard that the men who did the attack on the roof were hired to discredit us.”
These allegations were nonsensical. Amer, Hamada and the other boys were not government agents and they were not being aggressive. As Amer pointed out: “We don’t have guns, we weren’t throwing stones, we didn’t have knives.” Supporters of the Brotherhood were, in fact, killing people in the city just as they were being killed elsewhere. The men who had attacked the teenagers were not hired to discredit the Brotherhood.
The al-Qaeda flag was carried by a man called Mahmoud Hasan Ramadan who was arrested along with an accomplice Mohamed al-Ahmady and sentenced to death by a court eight months later. Ramadan was hanged in March 2015; al-Ahmady’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
All kinds of rumours and lies often surround situations like what happened in Alexandria in times of conflict and confusion. One needs to avoid believing the most convenient rumour. At the end of the day what one was left with on this sad occasion was a boy dead, and others maimed and shocked, with saddened families.
I recall Hamada’s father, Mohamed Abdul Aziz Badr, a gentle and dignified man, talking about his son: “The boy they killed, my boy, was 19 years old, 19 years and four days. I remember seeing him in hospital. I thought he would be all right. But he was in bad pain. He kissed my hand and said, ‘Father, I am going to die’. We lost him a few hours later – my wife has not stopped crying.”
Hamada, said his father sadly, was killed because of ignorance and hate. Casually spreading a video of the attack with a false narrative cannot but help but add to that pool of ignorance and hate, creating the conditions for more violence, lives lost needlessly and families left grieving.
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