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A year later, Egyptian neighborhood awaits justice

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BEN HUBBARD | January 30, 2012 01:58 AM EST | AP

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CAIRO — A year later, the neighbors still speak of those killed the night they attacked the police station: The young man shot in the neck while carrying off his wounded friend; the bodybuilder who took a bullet in the hip; the 15-year-old girl shot in the face while standing on her roof.

On that day, Jan. 28, 2011, the world was focused on Tahrir Square, the downtown center of the popular uprising that would end the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But in neighborhoods across Cairo, residents were targeting the local face of Mubarak's oppressive rule: the police station.

In the poor district of al-Zawiya al-Hamra that day, 1,000 protesters rallied in the shabby park in front of the station. Some threw rocks, then gas bombs, then the police opened fire, residents said. By morning, 45 residents and one police officer were dead and smoke still rose from the torched station.

On the anniversary of those deaths, "martyr" posters adorn neighborhood walls, and the lack of justice for the dead remains an open wound. Residents complain that no police have been punished, and it is unlikely that those facing trial will be convicted.

In a wider sense, their feelings one year after the uprising reflect those in many long-neglected parts of Egypt: That the revolution was necessary but its benefits have barely reached the common person.

"We feel that we are living among free people, but we haven't seen anything concrete yet," said Omar Ali, 46, who struggles to pay rent on a windowless flat by fixing computers.

But like many here, he is optimistic that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party holds nearly half the seats in the newly elected People's Assembly, will serve the neighborhood well. The Brotherhood won heavily in al-Zawiya al-Hamra.

"They do what is right, they won't oppress us and they fear God," Omar said.

Al-Zawiya al-Hamra, a crowded grid of squat apartment blocks amid smoggy boulevards, typifies the decades of governmental neglect that helped fuel the uprising. It sprouted on agricultural land in northern Cairo in the 1960s when the government built blocks of drab, low-cost public housing and has since swelled to more than 300,000 people packed into just over a square mile (2.7 square kilometers).

Many streets are trash-strewn and unpaved, and public school classes often have 70 students. The government shuttered the local hospital for years for "maintenance," and even now it often turns patients away, residents said.

Unemployment rates are high. At night young men pass the time around wood fires on street corners. Crooks and drug dealers have long operated in the area.

Under Mubarak, the police station was the government's most prominent local face, and it was often an ugly one. Officers beefed up meager salaries by extorting locals and taking cash from drug dealers to look the other way, said Sayeed al-Sayid, a local lawyer. They often ignored poor residents' calls for help.

"Those with money would enter the station and leave right away," knowing they'd be helped, al-Sayid said. "They would pay for police service."

That frustration was common throughout Egypt, and protesters across the country attacked police stations, torching 99 in a few days. In many cases, police shot and killed protesters before fleeing.

The gunfire in al-Zawiya al-Hamra started around 7 p.m. and lasted until midnight, said Mohammed al-Sayid, a nearby butcher. Police fired on men near the station, but also hit people more than 200 yards (meters) away, he said, recalling residents collapsing on the sidewalk.

"It was like faucets of blood," he said.

Bullet holes mar the walls of his shop. One bullet pierced the metal pan he uses to weigh meat. Bullets whizzed into the bedrooms of his neighbors. One bullet passed through the sleeve of a woman upstairs before lodging in her kitchen wall.

Lamie Suleiman, 63, said his son Girgis was shot in the neck while carrying a wounded man. Fathallah Ibrahim, 61, said his son Mohammed, a weightlifter, was heading to his metal workshop behind the station when he was shot in the hip. Both died soon after.

Samira Qilada was watching from her roof with her daughter Mariam, 15, when the girl collapsed.

"I went to see what happened and saw a river of blood from her face," Qilada said. A bullet shattered the girl's jaw. She died the next day.

Relatives of the dead have compiled a list of 45 people killed that night.

Anwar Awad, an officer in the station, said police were first told to fire in the air, then to protect the station.

"After people started attacking the station, (the police) were told that anyone getting close to the station or throwing stuff or firing at the station should be shot," he said. One officer, Abdullah Mahmoud, was shot dead in the chaos, he said.

Awad blamed the attack on criminals trying to settle scores with the police – an argument police have used, sometimes successfully, in court cases. Awad has been accused in one such case, but says he wasn't present at the time.

More than a dozen cases against officers in al-Zawiya al-Hamra station are in the courts, though many doubt they'll receive murder convictions.

Prosecutors didn't do forensic analysis on the bullets that killed people to match them with rifles, said Mohammed Mahmoud, a lawyer with the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information who has worked on police station cases around Cairo. Accused officers have not been detained, leaving them free to pressure families to drop their cases, he said.

One officer from al-Zawiya al-Hamra, Mohammed al-Sunni, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death. After 11 months in hiding, he turned himself in this month, saying he could prove his innocence. He will be retried.

Neighborhood residents point to small ways life has changed since Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11. Some said police no longer stop them to demand cash. Others said illegal building has boomed since no one checks for permits, which used to require heavy bribes to obtain.

But with the near absence of police, crime has risen.

"Before the revolution, if someone got robbed, he might get his things back. Now, he won't," said William Bishay, 57. "Before, people would sell drugs in secret. Now they do it openly."

Residents strongly backed the Brotherhood in the elections, many saying their religious credentials will keep them honest. Some reasoned that as Egypt's most organized political and social organization, they would govern effectively.

The group's lawmakers in al-Zawiya al-Hamra say they have plans to improve things.

Kamal Mahdy, a new Brotherhood lawmaker who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, said he has contacted neighborhood heads and the police station and is planning "field visits" to discuss cooperation on local issues.

"We'll try to bring everyone in and build justice between them all," he said.

Restoring security is the biggest challenge, he said, because of bad blood between residents and police. He said some security officials have also been reluctant to work with the Brotherhood, an outlawed group before the uprising.

He said supervision over the local budget will make sure it is spent well.

"We won't let anyone shortchange us," he said. "As long as there is a local budget, we need to make sure it is actually spent on priorities. It doesn't make sense that we have a place where the sewers break everyday."

And for justice in the killings a year ago, Mahdy said the new parliament would pressure the interior and justice ministers for speedier trials.

In al-Zawiya al-Hamra, the relatives of the dead keep in touch. Many give photos of their "martyrs" to people they meet and carry coroner's reports with them to read aloud to anyone who will listen.

"It's like we were living in a white world and now it has all turned black," said Makram Nazir, father of Mariam, the girl shot on her roof. He sat in the family's modest living room under a shrine of photos of the smiling teen, who was to be engaged this year.

"She was the laughter in this apartment, and now that has been taken from us," Nazir said.

Nazir said Egypt's revolution won't feel complete unless there is retribution.

"Those who kill should be killed," he said. "All we want is for the people who killed to be punished."