Matariyya, Egypt's New Theater of Dissent
On June 6, two police officers will stand trial for torturing Karim Hamdi, a 27 year-old lawyer, to death on a cold February evening inside the Matariyya police station in eastern metropolitan Cairo. The identities of the officers are protected by a gag order, but the widely publicized images of their victim’s bruised and battered corpse have put the police station and its restive environs in the national spotlight.
In a six-minute online video describing Hamdi’s arrest on February 23, the lawyer’s mother, a plump, composed middle-aged woman clad in black, said she was home with her son when they were jolted by the noise of the external metal door to her flat in the al-Marg neighborhood being broken. “We opened the door and they stormed in. Karim was sitting next to me on that couch beside the door. They grabbed him by his clothes and said, ‘Come, Karim.’ They knew who he was. They took him outside, barefoot.”
The police searched the small apartment—damaging furniture in the process—and confiscated Hamdi’s briefcase, passport, ID card and three mobile phones, the attorney’s mother continued. When she asked the officers where they were taking her son, they told her to look for him at the local police station.
A long vigil at the police station that night yielded nothing. When she resumed looking the following day, Hamdi’s mother found out that her son was in fact at the Matariyya police station but that she was not allowed to visit him. She went home.
At 6:00 the following morning of February 25, her brother was summoned to the police station. Hamdi was dead. His uncle was asked to sign a document citing low blood pressure as the cause of death, which he refused to do.
“Why take him to Matariyya police station when we are residents of al-Marg, which has its own police station?” Hamdi’s mother asked.
A Death in Custody
On a typical Friday morning, Matariyya square is sprinkled with fruit and vegetable vendors who huddle under an array of faded beach umbrellas, most of them red and blue, to shield themselves from the bright morning sun. Compact pickup trucks packed with merchandise are parked on both sides of the square to deliver goods. Mounds of trash are strewn across the rails of the Metro line that cuts through the square, and on both sides of the pavement. Toktoks (automotive rickshaws) manned by teenage and child drivers speed noisily in all directions before disappearing into the labyrinth of alleys that are so characteristic of this traditional, middle- and low-income neighborhood, and form the larger part of its landscape.
Nothing about the square makes it instantly clear why it was the first alternative gathering place for supporters of ousted Islamist president Muhammad Mursi shortly after police dispersed a massive encampment of the Society of Muslim Brothers and sympathizers in August 2013, killing hundreds. Or why it is that since that time, Matariyya has emerged as a new theater of dissent directed at what critics call the “counter-revolution”—four years on from the 2011 uprising that overthrew Husni Mubarak.
Less than a kilometer from the square on al-Kablat Street, metal barriers block the road. There sits the Matariyya police station, a sand-colored five-story building that belongs to the municipal authority and which has acquired nationwide notoriety for its association with the deaths of approximately 15 men allegedly fatally tortured there over less than two years.
On February 25, Hamdi died inside the police station 48 hours into his detention. The forensic report said he suffered broken ribs, severe internal bleeding in the brain and injuries to the neck, chest, hands, legs and knees, as well as in the genital area. Two other men were also allegedly tortured to death around the same time as Hamdi in the same police station, according to press reports and human rights groups. Since then three more men, one as young as 19 and one as old as 63, have died there, the latest on May 23.
But it is the case of Hamdi, who faced charges of belonging to the Muslim Brothers, participating in their protests and possessing illicit weapons, that has caused the loudest outcry, its political ramifications still unsettled. Two photographs might explain why.
The last picture taken of Hamdi alive was captured and released by the Interior Ministry itself, shortly after his arrest. His curly brown hair disheveled, he is dressed in a striped blue sweater, both hands tied behind his back, next to another young man. Both are kneeling before a table piled with guns, knives and balaclavas, items allegedly in Hamdi’s possession and taken by the police. A faint red bruise is visible on the bridge of his nose. His eyes avoid the camera, but his face is troubled, betraying the look of a man dreading his fate.
The final image of Hamdi was captured by friends at the Zaynhum morgue after the autopsy, during ghusl, the Islamic ritual of washing the whole body before burial. His thin, wet corpse is naked save for a black cloth covering the pelvic area, where visibly red bruises spread across the torso, back, knee and ears, testifying to the injuries cited in the forensic report.
According to Muhammad ‘Uthman, head of the northern Cairo division of the Bar Association, Hamdi was interrogated by the prosecution on January 23 after his arrest and asked to return the following day. Instead, he was moved to the investigations unit of the Matariyya police station, where two officers from state security grilled him for four hours.
“Hamdi’s co-defendant was in the next room, and he heard his screams and pleading with the officers,” said ‘Uthman, who also heads Hamdi’s defense team. “By the time they were finished Hamdi was in very bad condition.”
Too incriminating to ignore, the graphic picture circulated instantly on social media, and resonated among local lawyers, who reacted with rare furor against the security apparatus. Hamdi’s early and unjustified death was viewed as a threat to the entire profession and the personal safety of all lawyers. Even the Bar Association’s chairman, a Nasserist lawyer who supports President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, felt compelled to file a complaint with the public prosecutor against the Matariyya police station. In response to the uproar, two police officers were arrested and charged with second-degree murder, which is punishable by life sentence.
Matariyya has been compared to the northern Sinai, where a low-level Islamist insurgency grinds on; to the village of Kirdasa in the southern reaches of Cairo, where protesters killed 11 policemen in 2013; and to the working-class district of Imbaba in the 1990s, when the Gama‘a Islamiyya militant group declared a republic there. It has also found its match in science fiction, likened by Egyptian Twitterati to the impoverished District 12 in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, where a revolt overthrows the authoritarian rulers of the Capital.
Matariyya is the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, the pre-dynastic cult center for the worship of sun gods (prior to 3100 BC). Few Egyptians outside the district are aware that the only obelisk (of Senusret I) in Cairo still stands in the heart of the neighborhood, albeit hidden from view by the concrete-and-brick buildings that tower over it. A few meters away on Matarawi Street is the sycamore tree under which the Holy Family is believed to have sought shelter during the flight to Egypt.
Under the Mamluk sultans and their Ottoman successors the area was a summer retreat with parks and gardens. Its transformation, starting in the mid-1970s, into one of the many informal settlements that house two thirds of the city’s population is a common side effect of the metropolis’ gargantuan expansion. As Cairo-based economic and urban planner David Sims notes in his book Understanding Cairo, any single informal area in the capital is likely to contain a heterogeneous mix of inhabitants with a wide range of incomes. With a population of 6 million, Matariyya is no exception, although its urban fabric by virtue of its ancient history might set it apart.
It is also a neighborhood with a homegrown Islamist presence since the late 1980s. The memory of the Gama‘a Islamiyya’s fighting with security forces, leading to assassinations, violence and mass arrests in adjacent ‘Ayn Shams, is not too distant.
The Republic of Matariyya, as many residents fondly call it, acquired its recent quasi-mythical status early in 2015 during the fourth commemoration of the January 25, 2011 revolution, when at least 23 were killed in confrontations between police and protesters. It is no coincidence that the district’s recognition as a hotbed of Muslim Brother-led protest emerged out of the revolution’s anniversary.
Year after year, the occasion—a fresh reminder of the popular uprising against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime and its security arm—has served as a barometer of the state of democracy in the country. If the outpouring of protest to both celebrate the nascent revolution and rally against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—Mubarak’s de facto successor—was tolerated at the first anniversary, political tension under Mursi’s rule in the second year resonated in incidents of violence and seven deaths.
The third anniversary, in January 2014, was the first since the military took over in the aftermath of Mursi’s ouster. According to the independent statistical website WikiThawra, a staggering 107 people were killed in clashes across the country, 79 in Cairo alone. Significantly, 34 of these deaths occurred in the neighborhood of Alf Maskan, just a street away from Matariyya, where at least 29 others died when security forces disbanded a sit-in of hundreds in the square 24 hours after it had begun.
While weekly rallies raged on across the nation—despite a law banning them in November 2013 and the government’s designation of the Muslim Brothers as a terrorist organization the following month—Matariyya remained a point of attraction for Muslim Brother-led demonstrations after every Friday sermon.
At the commemoration of the January 25 revolution in 2015, at least 23 demonstrators were killed, according to the Health Ministry, most of them in Matariyya.
On that day there were 12-hour battles in alleys so narrow protesters could block them with garbage containers to hinder the forward progress of police. There were rooftop exchanges of live ammunition, fireworks, flares and broken bottles. Dozens of armored personnel carriers roved the neighborhood’s few main streets—then emptied of parked cars and pedestrians—as police snipers pointed their rifles at targets from above.
There was a consensus among the people I interviewed in Matariyya that the real death toll exceeded the official figure. Human rights lawyers Samih Samir and Muhammad Fathi, who live in the neighborhood, said they personally witnessed family members forcing their way into the hospital’s morgue and absconding with the corpses of loved ones killed by live ammunition during the confrontations, so as to bury them as swiftly as possible, as per Muslim tradition. The bodies removed this way would explain the disparity between the official death toll and the actual one, which the two lawyers claim exceeds 40.
Samir, who appeared unfazed by the chaos and violence, is still shocked by the process. “When a hospital receives a body riddled with live bullets and releases it with a document saying the deceased committed suicide, that’s not just dangerous, it’s illegal,” he said.
A stray bullet killed 21 year-old Ahmad Muhsin, a popular mahraganat (a local techno genre) DJ known as Ahmad Zu‘la on the evening of January 25. At the hospital, officials attempted to persuade the DJ’s family to approve a document stating that the cause of death was suicide. It was only after the news spread that pressure mounted on the hospital to produce papers stating the real cause of death. The perfunctory investigation concluded that the person who shot a bullet into Zu‘la’s head, fracturing his skull, is “unknown.” A few days later his friends created a Facebook page in his memory and called it: “Ahmad Zu‘la, the martyr of Matariyya, killed by the Interior Ministry’s bullets.”
When I went to the neighborhood days after the January 25 violence had ceased, APCs and police trucks were still patrolling the main streets.
“Every household in Matariyya knows someone, a neighbor, friend or family member, who was either arrested or in some cases killed,” said Muhammad, a resident and regular protester in his late thirties. He works as a private chauffeur and asked to be identified by his first name only.
Listing groups like the non-Islamist April 6 opposition movement, salafis (Muslim puritans) and Ultras Nahdawi, a movement for fans of various soccer teams which was formed in 2012 to support Mursi’s presidential bid, Muhammad argued that it is difficult to define the political association of protesters, himself included.
A father of five, Muhammad says he is not afraid of protesting despite the serious risks involved. His father, who owns a local grocery store, is a supporter of President al-Sisi and he objected, calling the demonstrators rabble rousers. “It’s a generational thing,” Muhammad said matter-of-factly.
Muhammad’s cousin, Ahmad, a fruit merchant, joined the conversation. “If our bread wasn’t threatened, if life was sweet, what on earth would compel people to protest and risk their freedom or, for that matter, their lives?”
On the evening of April 21, unidentified gunmen on motorbikes opened fire on the car of Wa’il Tahoun, a colonel and former head of investigations at the Matariyya police station, killing him and his driver. The gunmen chased Tahoun’s vehicle soon after he left his house near Matariyya, and then escaped unscathed after loosing more than 40 rounds at the police officer.
The assassination of Tahoun—a controversial figure with a long history at Matariyya—has become a metaphor for the kind of explosion to which this area is prone. It is widely viewed as a qualitative escalation of the violence targeting police and military personnel, spurred by Mursi’s ouster in July 2013.
What began as a rebellion by Islamist militants in northern Sinai expanded, on a smaller scale, to the Nile Delta and Cairo, where assassination attempts were made on senior security officials and at least two high-ranking officers were killed near their homes. Four security directorates have been bombed. The suicide bomber who blew himself up as part of the November 2014 attack on the Daqhaliyya security directorate in the Delta, killing 14 policemen, lived in Matariyya.
Even before Tahoun’s murder was investigated, it was perceived as an echo of this violence, but one that has emerged out of this stage of the political conflict on the microcosmic level of Matariyya. Tahoun might have Islamist enemies, but criminal motivations for his murder were not ruled out. A previously unknown group that calls itself Katibat al-I‘dam or the Execution Battalion claimed responsibility for the assassination to avenge Karim Hamdi and vowed to pursue an undisclosed “hit list” of security personnel involved in torture.
(Incidentally, or not, Execution Battalion is the title of a 1989 Egyptian film about an honest protagonist who is unjustly imprisoned. When he is released, he gets together with others who have been so wronged, and they take justice into their own hands.)
Because Tahoun had left Matariyya police station after the 2011 uprising and been reassigned to be deputy inspector for investigations of the broader eastern Cairo area, he was not directly involved in the surge in alleged deaths from torture. But as with any high-profile security-related case, the information blackout on Tahoun’s death means that statements by the authorities on the investigations are impossible to verify. In this vein, an unidentified “security source” told a local paper, al-Shurouq, on April 25, that Tahoun had uncovered evidence against suspects in criminal cases, who, in turn, killed him.
A few days after Tahoun’s assassination, I met with Samir and Fathi, the human rights lawyers who live in Matariyya. They appeared skeptical of the Execution Battalion’s statement. “His murder is more likely to be criminally motivated because Tahoun was involved in a variety of illegal dealings from rigging elections to trading in illegal arms and antiquities. Nothing happens in Matariyya without the station’s knowledge,” Fathi told me.
But the attorneys did not absolve the colonel of responsibility for the grisly reputation of the police station’s detention rooms. “Tahoun might have left the police station but in the eight years that he was working there, he founded its slaughterhouse,” said Samir. Fathi described the place as the “hollow earth, something fit for Gog and Magog,” alluding to the Biblical and Qur’anic figures often associated with apocalypse.
Deaths in police stations, detention centers and prisons are not uncommon in Egypt, but have reached alarming levels since Mursi was deposed and his Muslim Brother supporters were targeted by police. Overcrowded prisons combined with torture and or physical abuse account for the unchecked rise in fatalities in police custody, rights defenders say. (According to a recent report by the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, police stations are filled to 400 percent capacity and prisons to 160 percent.) And while the deaths are occurring nationwide, Matariyya police station stands out for its high mortality rate.
In December 2014 a pro-government newspaper, al-Watan, cited official forensic figures to claim that the first ten months of 2014 witnessed 90 deaths in police custody in greater Cairo. Eight of these people died in Matariyya, which makes this police station accountable for almost 10 percent of all those fatalities.
The police station was among the first to be damaged by arson on the Friday of Rage, January 28, 2011, the official beginning of the uprising that would topple Mubarak 15 days later. Dozens of police stations and offices of the ruling National Democratic Party were torched across the country. The call for demonstrations that day instructed Cairo protesters to march from mosques following the Friday noon prayer to Tahrir Square.
Muhammad ‘Abd al-Fattah, a theater director and Matariyya resident, was at the scene. “It happened so fast,” he recalled. After prayers a few hundred protesters marched to Matariyya square but were met by riot police. Fighting soon broke out. When police tear gas also hit residents and onlookers who were not protesting, they joined what became a violent battle, hurling glass bottles, rocks and just about anything they could lay their hands on at the police.
“The people’s response was startling. There was real anger and it wasn’t just in reaction to that one day. There’s a history,” said ‘Abd al-Fattah.
According to Samir, years of ill treatment, blackmail and human rights violations accumulated until there was “a personal vendetta against the police station.” Back then the facility was located in a spacious two-story building in Matarawi Street. The first person to throw a Molotov cocktail at the station, he claimed, was a 16 year-old boy who drove a police truck he wrestled from the beleaguered security forces, less than an hour after the clashes began. “It was over in less than an hour.”
Many months later, the police station was restored to its original form but its staff and operations moved to the nearby district headquarters. The police continue to be based there behind additional fortifications. The old police station was burned down again on November 28, 2014, as part of nationwide Islamist protests.
‘Abd al-Fattah, who spent over a year working on a project to document the revolution, described that one event as the “only” incident Matariyya experienced in connection with the 2011 uprising. “Nothing happened after that, not until the end of 2013.”
Matariyya is accessible by underground Metro from anywhere in Cairo and by train from the Delta governorate of Daqhaliyya to the north. The directly adjacent districts of ‘Ayn Shams, al-Marg and Alf Maskan offer occasional geographic extensions—largely through the cramped alleyways—for protest spots.
A significant number of protesters who do not live in the neighborhood continue to cross the capital or travel from the Delta to join the weekly Friday demonstrations. A classic case is Huda Mustafa, 17, a high-school student from the suburb of Muqattam southeast of Cairo, who was arrested in Matariyya with dozens of others on April 10. She was previously apprehended for protesting elsewhere but was released after her parents pledged in writing that she would not join demonstrations again. After her arrest for the second time in Matariyya, Mustafa now faces charges of protesting and inciting terrorism, which could land her a long prison sentence if she is convicted.
Similarly, Imam ‘Afifi, a 63-year-old lawyer from al-Qubba, a middle-class district in eastern Cairo was arrested in Matariyya on April 10. After spending one night in the police station, he was transferred to a hospital in a coma. He died nine days later.
The incessant protest in Matariyya distinguishes it from other metropolitan Cairo locales like al-Haram, al-‘Umraniyya, al-Talbiyya and Nahiya, where Muslim Brother-led demonstrations are also frequent but sometimes take a break. This sheer consistency might explain why Matariyya attracts protesters from outside. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the fixation with downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 uprising and the symbol of the January 25 revolution.
In their transformation to places of struggle since the revolution, squares and public spaces have also served as chronicles of milestones along the way. While Tahrir Square’s central location and wide boulevards made it the chosen theater for the non-ideological pro-democracy protests to overthrow Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, the social and geographic peripheries of Matariyya’s intertwining alleys are probably a natural stage for criminalized underground political activism against the zero-tolerance policy of the security apparatus.
In May 2014, WikiThawra estimated that over 40,000 people had been arrested and prosecuted across Egypt since July 2013. While the vast majority of those arrested are Islamists, scores of secularists, including famous youth figures associated with the 2011 uprising, are serving long jail terms. Over a hundred Muslim Brothers, including Mursi, have been sentenced to death. Courts have banned both the April 6 opposition group and soccer ultras.
If Matariyya’s brush with the 2011 uprising was limited to torching the police station, a new accumulation of grievances is fueling the present restiveness, painting a bleak future for the troubled neighborhood.
“The increasing indiscriminate violence of the security apparatus is antagonizing more and more people, including non-Brotherhood actors, thus creating new and bitter vendettas,” says Basim Zakariya al-Samargi, a researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights who lives in Matariyya.
There are no independent records of the number of arrests or violence-related deaths in the neighborhood, but there is mounting evidence that the age of the people involved ranges from 18 to 25, says al-Samargi.
Usama Mustafa, a lawyer handling the case of 38 arrested during the uprising’s anniversary in January, said that the vast majority of his clients are juveniles aged between 14 and 18. Five of them were taken from their homes; others were arrested while looking for deceased relatives in the hospital during the clashes, he said. All face charges of protesting without official permits and some are accused of killing protesters, according to Mustafa.
On May 21, Sayyid ‘Abd Rabbu, 40, a Muslim Brother supporter, died in the Matariyya police station: He was arrested at his home in al-Marg the previous day. The news broke hours after the funeral of an engineering student killed by security forces on May 19 ended in skirmishes with police—and more arrests—in ‘Ayn Shams. According to the Interior Ministry, the student, Islam ‘Atitu, was the mastermind of the assassination of Tahoun and was killed in a shootout at his desert refuge in the outskirts of Cairo.
‘Atitu’s colleagues disputed this contention. They provided evidence showing that he sat for his final exams at ‘Ayn Shams University’s Faculty of Engineering on the morning of May 17 and was not hiding out in the desert.
Like the case of Karim Hamdi, the lawyer tortured to death at Matariyya police station in February, the case of ‘Atitu was so glaring that it became a media sensation, compelling the Homeland Security section of the Interior Ministry to announce an investigation into the circumstances of the student’s death.
Given the acquittals or light sentences in previous trials involving members of the security apparatus accused of killing protesters or torturing suspects to death, few expect this case to go to court or, in the event that it does, to end in a conviction. That is why the outcome of the June 6 trial of the two officers accused of killing Hamdi will convey an important message to both sides of the conflict. Will torture run rampant or will it have repercussions, at least in some cases?
In a short video filmed while she waited at the morgue, ‘Atitu’s mother described the state of his corpse—a broken left hand, broken ribs, bullet wounds and a disfigured skull.
A picture of ‘Atitu inside the morgue was leaked to social media. His entire body was shrouded in white linen, only the face visible. The crown of his head, where the bullets had settled, was wrapped in thick layers of cotton.