On 6 August, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stood by the banks of the new $8bn Suez Canal channel, and spoke to world leaders, television cameras, and the Egyptian people. President Al-Sisi spoke of how the nation constructed its “gift to the world for the sake of humanity”, working while the “powers of terrorism and extremism were at war with Egypt and the Egyptians”.
During the celebrations, billions of dollars in large-scale military hardware were paraded, French Rafale fighter jets circled the air as a €1bn navy ship sailed down the canal.
“The great people of Egypt announce to the world today the message of the New Suez Canal: that we triumph over terrorism with life and over hatred with love…I assure you all that the Egyptian State renews its determination to pursue the path of political and social reform so as to realise the aspirations of its people for social justice and dignity,” Al-Sisi said.
From Suez to Sanoris
Amid the president’s speech and the triumphant nationalism of Egyptians celebrating in city squares, a small story was overshadowed by the events of the day. In a village called Sanoris, in the agricultural governorate of Fayoum, five men were shot dead by the Egyptian police.
Photos of the five men, lying prostrate and close together, began to circulate across Fayoum and local social media. Their bodies were bloody and disfigured, showing signs of bullet holes and apparent signs of torture, with one man appearing to have a severed arm.
Later, pro-government media caught on to the story, and tabloid-newspaper Youm7 published an account which reported local police as saying that the men were militant Islamists and were targeted at a farm in Sanoris by security forces. A fire-fight is said to have ensued and all five died, with no police officers reported as injured.
The names of the five deceased men, who all come from Fayoum, are: Abdel Nasser Alwany, Abdel Salam Hitita, Abdel Aziz Hiba, Ayman Mahmoud, and Rabei Murad.
“Where is the law?” Emad, nephew of Abdel Nasser Alwany, asks. “How come a defendant is shot in cold blood at the crime scene?”
Emad, alongside other family members and eyewitnesses, have told Daily News Egypt their accounts of Thursday’s events, in a narrative that strongly contradicts the official line.
Hassan Elwany, another nephew of Abdel Nasser, told Daily News Egypt that his uncle and four companions were praying at the family-owned farm in Sanoris, when they were raided by Special Anti-Terror Forces, and were arrested and bound.
“When word spread about the raid, my uncles [Abdel Nasser’s brothers] went to the farm to check on the men, they were also arrested and tied,” Hassan said. The five men were blindfolded and shot, after two hours and torture, Hassan said.
“They kept transferring the bodies around the farm and took pictures of them, while putting weapons around them,” he added.
According to Hassan, after an hour they removed the bodies and detained his other uncles who arrived later in Homeland Security. They were not released until they would sign the burial certificate with the police’s list of accusations, which included attacking police and killing the daughter of the officers, Hassan Elwany said.
Emad added that his uncle was an active member in organising and participating in Muslim Brotherhood protests, and politically active since 2011. Earlier this year, he was arrested on charges of assaulting an officer, and was acquitted. Emad said: “The police continued to raid his house and harass his family, and that is when he went to live in the farm where he was killed.”
The Ministry of the Interior have said they understood the men to have been involved in several attacks on police personnel. One of the deceased, in particular, was alleged to have been involved in the killing of a police officer’s daughter and the officer’s lawyer friend the previous Sunday. The ministry has singled out Abdel Salam Hitita as responsible for the death of Colonel Sharif Sami’s four-year-old daughter ‘Jessie’, described by state media as ‘the youngest martyr of terrorism’.
Other charges held against Hitita, who was a teacher in Sanoris, include attacking the Sanoris Court, firing at gas transportation and police cars, and torching ten electricity towers.
Abdel Tawab Elwany, the brother of deceased Abdel Nasser, says he witnessed the shootings that killed his brother.
“Abdel Nasser and I own the farm where he was hosting the guests, when we heard that police had stormed the area we went to the farm. I found heavily armoured police had tied and blindfolded the men. I tried to intervene but I was tied up and then witnessed the shooting… I was arrested and taken to the police station,” Abdel Tawab said.
“After the shooting, someone with a camera entered to take pictures of the bodies after the forces put some weapons next to them,” Abdel Tawab added.
He says he remembers screaming at the officers to arrest the five and not kill them, and also remembers telling the security forces to charge him as they said they found weapons on his farm.
“Abdel Nasser was never violent. He has five children who I am now responsible for. This oppression will not stand, and will end soon,” Abdel Tawab said.
The Ministry of Interior press office spoke to Daily News Egypt, but referred to a statement published two days after the killings.
“The operation was conducted with the permission of the prosecution. When the forces started to attack the individuals, they replied with fire and were killed,” a spokesperson said. “The raid is part of the minister’s orders to establish pre-emptive strikes to stop terrorism.”
According to the ministry’s statement on Saturday, two days after the event, the operation was part of “measures to apprehend fugitive Brotherhood leaders who are involved in targeting police and military officers and planting bombs at public institutions”. The statement adds that “upon collecting enough evidence from Homeland Security that Brotherhood leaders were hiding in a private farm to plan targeting personnel of the army and the police, judges, and civilians, the prosecution authorised the operation”.
The ministry stated that upon reaching the farm, the “mentioned elements fired at the forces, who returned back the fire killing all of them”.
Two days after the five men’s deaths, a police man was killed and three others were injured when gunmen riding by motorcycle opened fire on a police truck on the Cairo-Fayoum road. The attack has been claimed by militant group Revolutionary Punishment. In a short statement online, the group, who have frequently targeted state and private properties, said that they targeted the “Camp David police”, though they did not reference retribution for the five men explicitly.
The deaths of the five in Fayoum come after at least nine Muslim Brotherhood leaders died in similar circumstances in an apartment raid in Cairo’s 6th October City on 1 July, in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “could qualify as extrajudicial executions”.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, the nine men were armed members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were holding a meeting to plan attacks, again a fire-fight ensued and all nine died. Family members and eyewitnesses, however, dispute the ministry’s account, saying that they were organising to provide support for Brotherhood families whose relatives were killed or imprisoned. They add that the men were arrested prior to their killings, and were thus executed politically and extra-judicially. Some have accused the police of carrying out a revenge attack against the Muslim Brotherhood for the unclaimed bombing of Egyptian prosecutor general Hisham Barakat two days previously.
Speaking about the killings in Fayoum, HRW told Daily News Egypt: “We are aware of this incident and looking into it. There are elements of the killings that initially warrant investigation, such as the possible marks of torture.”
“Whether or not the men were tortured, it’s also deeply concerning to have a second incident in which police have used deadly force to kill a group of people whom they were allegedly only trying to arrest. The story is remarkably similar to the one police provided for the killings in Cairo in July, and the photos from Fayoum don’t appear to show any weapons, unlike the photos from Cairo,” HRW said.
Justice and revenge
The similarities between the two cases have also been observed by family members in Fayoum. Abdel Nasser’s nephew, Hassan, said: “[The] strategy is obvious since the assassination of Hisham Barakat the Prosecutor General and the killing of the lawyers in the 6th of October City. The strategy entails killing Muslim Brotherhood to keep the moral of the state institutions high.”
The same opinion was echoed by another relative of Abdel Nasser. Emad Elwany told Daily News Egypt that the practice of killing of suspects in the scene of the arrest “is part of Al-Sisi’s calls for ‘swift justice’ after the assassination of the prosecutor general… Even if they were militants and participated in the bombings and assassinations, they must stand trial. It is obvious that it was an act of revenge, and that the officers had clear orders”.
But there are signs from Fayoum that the state’s harsh strategies may be creating more extremism than they are eradicating.
In a series of videos by news network Rassd, documenting the funeral-cum-protest of Abdel Salam Hitita, his young son Mohamed cries while he tells the camera “I will kill whoever killed my father”.
The child’s mother and Hitita’s widow, known as Um Omar, told Daily News Egypt: “They think they have killed Abu Omar [Hitita]. They kill thousands like Abu Omar. He was never violent and always stood against oppression. I have four children; they will all be martyrs… hundreds of others will follow his cause.”
Emad Elwany spoke of the long-term effects that acts like this can have on a community for generations: “The sons of those killed will grow hatred for the police and the army. They will not stand seeing a conscript walking in the street. It is possible that they will participate in militant operations against the government.”
In a defiant statement following the deaths, spokesperson for outlawed Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Montaser described the police as “psychopaths” who create terrorism.
“Our revolution will not be calmed. Retribution is religion, and we won’t abandon our blood or our religion,” he said.
The Anti-Coup Alliance, a network of Islamist parties supporting former president Mohamed Morsi said: “The Revolution will avenge its martyrs. No murderer will get away with his crime.”
Fayoum has been a key region, outside of north Sinai, that has seen armed attacks target state personnel and facilities. Also on Saturday following the deaths, an electricity tower was bombed in Fayoum on Saturday morning, leading to a power cut for around 20 villages in the governorate, though it has not yet been claimed.
In May, Revolutionary Punishment also claimed the killing of two police officers as part of an operation of “cleansing the country of murderers and criminals… [who] assault unarmed Egyptians in the streets and squares , tortures detainees in police stations and cellars of the National Security apparatus, and kidnaps students from the exam room to murder them,” was their reason. The statement shows how severe government responses maybe provoking radicalism from local communities, or at least being exploited militant groups.
The legality of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence’s practices have been repeatedly called in to question in their handling of ‘terrorist’ threats in the country in recent weeks. During April and May, local activist network Freedom for the Brave documented 163 individuals, including activists and Islamists, who were forcibly disappeared apparently by security forces. Many individuals appeared weeks later in prison facing charges of terrorism and have reported severe abuse.
In one mid-July case, a number of disappeared individuals appeared weeks later in a video published by the Ministry of Defence. In the video, the individuals state they were members of a terrorist network responsible for attacks on the state, in addition to being trained abroad in Syria on the instruction of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, family members have said the statements are fictitious, and believe the testimonies were produced under duress or abuse.
Speaking at the time, a Ministry of Interior spokesperson denied that the police forcibly take individuals in this manner, telling Daily News Egypt that the police forces are not targeting young people, regardless of their political stances and positions, a claim that activists have rejected.
By Adham Youssef and Emir Nader