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Egyptian Police Are Accusing Students of Being Islamists and Killing Them

Mohamed Reda died ten days ago and most people have no doubts about who killed him.

In the video, an Egyptian cop fires what looks a lot like a shotgun into Cairo University. Firing and reloading and firing again. Another officer waves at the students running away, a second shotgun in his hands. In another video, 19-year-old student Mohamed Reda is lying on the floor, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

Mohamed Reda died ten days ago.

Most people say it was the police – that is, most people apart from the police. The Interior Ministry claimed they didn't fire anything other than tear gas on November 28, although videos from outside the university suggested otherwise. Then an initial forensic report said Mohamed had died from three "gunshot wounds", although the conclusion prosecutors drew blamed "Muslim Brotherhood students" inside the university. In the end, interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the birdshot rounds used were not police issue: it had to have been someone else.


However Dr Hazem Hossam, one forensic pathologist at Cairo's Zeinhom morgue who has seen the final autopsy report, told me that Reda was killed by four-millimetre birdshot rounds, the same type that killed dozens on Mohamed Mahmoud street during the protests against the constitution in November 2011.

All photos by Abdelrahman Elshamy

The shooting brings back other dark memories of Mohamed Mahmoud street and the four-day cavalcade of violence between anti-government protesters and police it witnessed, now ingrained in Egypt's revolutionary memory. One officer – "The Eye Sniper" – was charged with deliberately aiming at protesters' eyes. There are videos from those days showing police ripping birdshot into crowds of flesh, shooting from the ground, from rooftops, at close-range; a how-to guide in police brutality. An independent fact-finding commission later found police had deliberately used excessive and lethal force: "deliberate killings", they called it.

But then, like now, authorities denied the MoI had cartouche rounds in the armoury. Again, video evidence – and the bodies lying in the morgues – proved otherwise.

The university has launched an investigation, while students filed a claim against the police at the prosecutor's office earlier this week. Other videos and photos from the incident also showed the police were responsible. When a journalist asked what the response would be if it turned out the police didn't do this, Reda's mother (sat at the front wringing her hands, visibly devastated, throughout) turned round angrily: "When has the Interior Ministry ever said anything and it's not been lies? When have they ever released an honest report, or said anything and we've known that it's true?" The room applauded.


Most people are in no doubt about who killed Mohamed Reda. And now students have become a leading force in pushing for the government to take accountability. Universities are one of the few places left where Egyptians are protesting regularly and defiantly against the new law on demonstrations, which rights groups and activists have dismissed as "repressive" and "draconian".

After Cairo University's president openly blamed the Interior Ministry, students on campus are hoping the administration will deliver on its initially outspoken criticism. But are students and staff working together against the authorities? "I wouldn't go as far as saying we're unified," said investigation committee spokesman, Ramzy Mohamed. "Call it collaboration. We are waiting to see if they'll prove their solidarity." Meanwhile, professors have joined an open-ended strike in solidarity with their students.

The majority on campus never experienced the old Mubarak-era police presence. The incursions, tear gas and shootings are new. Most here started college after the 2011 revolution, when security guards replaced the control of Interior Ministry police. Engineering student Mostafa Ahmed told me, "These are students who've never smelt tear gas before and now they're seeing the blood of their colleagues."

I ask second-year civil engineer Mahmoud Khairy if he feels secure. "No, I don't," he replies, bluntly. "The police force that should be protecting us is the reason we're being killed. Most of us don't feel safe at all."


The fact this has happened before doesn't help. Last month, another student named Abdel Ghany Mahmoud was killed by birdshot when police stormed Al-Azhar University during protests. The campus in east Cairo has an avowedly Islamist student body. Then authorities and university administration defended the raid, blaming students for "hindering the educational process". It was another step in the government trying to restore order at universities across the country, using police inside campuses in a way not seen since before the revolution.

"Only the oldest students here know the meaning of state security on campus," engineer Ahmed Hammad said. As a student union rep read out a statement about the Reda investigation, a crowd of hundreds cheered and chanted behind us. Others are standing beside the colourful new mural remembering student martyrs killed recently – including another engineering student, Mahmoud Abdel Hakeem, shot on this year's Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary.

This isn't as simple as students versus the police; Egyptian politics is rarely that simple.

"There is a big conflict between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt," said Mohamed Abd El Salam, from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. "And because it's happening outside, it's happening inside universities as well."

The Muslim Brotherhood dubbed Reda "the anti-protest martyr" two days after he died, which some claim is an attempt to claim him as their own. "Egyptian youths – especially students – have been the powerhouse of all activities in liberty squares across the nation, and the beating heart of the Revolution," it said. And yet there are plenty of activists who would say whatever revolution the Brotherhood's is, they don't want to be a part of.


"The Brotherhood are trying to exploit this anger against the police for their own political benefit," Abd El Salam claimed. "But at the same time the police are trying to exploit it, building up this propaganda that anti-coup students killed Mohamed Reda. And this is bullshit." Mohamed's death has been a far more difficult one for the authorities to explain away. Everyone I spoke with said he was not Brotherhood, or affiliated with any political group. Moral hypocrisy maybe, but the murder of a 19-year-old on campus has outraged more in Egypt because he was not an Islamist.

Whatever divisions exist in Egyptian society right now, they are not as viscerally apparent at Cairo University. Waiting next to a lamppost bruised by a birdshot round, an anti-Brotherhood student called over a pro-Morsi supporter to chat with us. "The only tensions are with groups who are pro-coup or pro-Sisi," Mohamed Said, a Brotherhood supporter, claimed.

"We've seen our colleague die, there is a new momentum now. Everyone is angry."

Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomWRollins

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