In the small, rural towns of Minya, everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. So it was odd that the mechanic in the town of Bani Mazar knew so little about his brother.
Hossam Abdel Fattah is a pious doctor, he said, and well-loved in the neighborhood. But he didn’t know where he was at the moment – just that he was on the run from a death sentence that an iron-fisted judge handed down to him and 528 others. He didn’t know if his brother was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, either.
Others claimed Abdel Fattah’s allegiances were a matter of public record. Omar Abdel Baset, the head of the student union in Minya and Abdel Rahman Mohamed, the head of Students Against the Coup, said the doctor’s membership in the Islamist group was well-known.
The doctor is one among 529 men, mostly from the village of Matay, that were sentenced to death on March 24 by a court in Minya, 250 km south of Cairo. They were accused of the premeditated lynching of the deputy police chief on August 14 of last year, a day that has become an inflection point in the methods of protest that shaped much of the summer of 2013.
Security forces besieged protest camps full of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi in the capital, killing over 600 in one day. Across Egypt, Morsi supporters, Brotherhood and sympathizers alike, violently responded. In Matay, they stormed a police station, killing a policeman and allegedly stealing all the weapons inside. Christians, who make up around half of Minya, were blamed and targeted for their support of the military’s ouster of Morsi. Their homes, businesses, and places of worship were set ablaze.
Sherif Ibrahim, a Christian lawyer, said chants in the marches around Minya threaten Christians with slaughter once Islamists return to power. He represents another lawyer whose home was torched. Everyone was glad with the verdict, but didn’t celebrate, he said, of the Christians in Minya. “This is justice.”
How many of the 529 people sentenced to death in Minya were members of the Brotherhood, and how many were actually involved in the break-in at the police station, is a matter up for dispute. But almost everyone here agrees the verdict was meant to be forceful – the realization of swift justice or a threat to dissidents. And almost everyone is confident that less than 529 nooses will be prepared. For one thing, many of the defendants who were out on bail have disappeared. The town they have left behind is full of suspicion, conflicting versions of events and fear.
Ahmed Eid is a lawyer who defended some of the 529. Sitting in his family home, his father and wife said that he received a call from one of Matay’s investigators on January 25 of this year. After arriving at the police station, he was arrested and has been held without charge ever since, they said. His two children hug a picture of their father, as they sit in the unlit apartment next to Eid’s wife, Maha Sayed. The sunlight outside the apartment dims and brightens as curtains blow in a breeze. It seems like clouds are flying by.
“What is Ikwhan, does it mean someone that prays dawn prayers like me?” asked Eid Ahmed, Eid’s gruff father. “That’s what they called him when he defended the accused.” Sayed claimed that nine relatives of the accused were recently arrested.
The missing Muslim Brotherhood doctor’s reticent brother said he wasn’t afraid to talk to journalists, but his body language said otherwise. He rocked on the edge of his seat, and played with his hands.
Hanaa Gamal, whose husband is also on the run, put it into words.
“Now we are afraid to speak. We’re all wearing black, the whole city,” she said as she bounced her infant on her knee. Her husband, Ahmed al-Korany, was home on bail when she gave birth. The government-appointed preacher fled soon afterward, when he heard rumors that the judge in the case would rule harshly.
That was probably to be expected. Tarek Fouda, the head of Minya’s lawyers syndicate, said that Judge Saeed Youssef is well-known for his severe sentencing in a special court created last fall. In one weapons case, said Fouda, the judge handed down a 15-year jail sentence, instead of the 6-12 month standard sentence.
“Between you and me, we as a people need harsh sentences, but we all need procedural justice,” Fouda said. “I have no problem with 300 being executed, instead of 500, since this was an organized terrorist attack.”
Fouda spoke from his ground floor office near Palace Square, where pro-Morsi protesters in Minya used to gather.
Now it’s impossible to approach the 20th century villa, say Abdel Baset and Abdel Rahman, the student activists. Instead, protests are held on very short notice in friendly areas, and marches stick to routes along which a few hundred people can disperse easily.
Flash protests seem to be the tactic of choice in today’s Minya. Posters take too long to glue to walls, so demonstrators prefer graffiti. Around the provincial town, stencils of a military general feature one-word captions: “traitor,” “murderer.”
The governor of Minya, Major General Salah Zeyada, challenges the authenticity of the protests. He said that most of them, as well as the sectarian conflict in Minya, are caused by an American plan to divide Egyptians and create another Iraq or Syria.
Protestors attempted to storm the governorate building that hosts Zeyada’s office on August 14 but failed. Security is still high, and the window aprons are filled with sandbags invisible from the street.
The confident and intimidating governor also challenged protestors’ motives. He said they are paid between LE100 and 200 to protest, but instead lounge away in coffee shops.
The two student leaders disagree, and say that demonstrators have been joined by others appalled by the death sentences. Fouda, the lawyers syndicate head, also believes the harsh sentences has benefitted the Brotherhood more than the government. The governor’s personal opinion is that the verdict won’t be carried out.
But in Matay the message has been received, says lawyer Ahmed Shebab, a member of the 529’s defense team.
“People don’t do much of anything, because they’re afraid they’ll be sentenced to death.”