The town of Mahallat Ziyad, scene of the lynchings.
Last Sunday, two high school students from a small town in the northern Egyptian governate of Gharbiya were accosted by a mob in the neighbouring town of Mahallat Ziyad. Mahmoud Essoudi and his pal Abderrahman were accused of stealing two propane gas tanks, as well as kidnapping a young local woman who had recently gone missing. The mob attempted to hand them over to local police chief Mohamed Mustafa, but according to Mahallat Ziyad resident Taha El Akhdar, “the police would not take them in”. So, instead of entering into police custody, the two teenagers spent the next four hours being beaten and tortured by the mob. As they succumbed to their injuries, they were strung up to the rafters of a building next to the police station. The bodies hung for over an hour as the crowd surrounded them, shouting and snapping photos.
Hamdi Essoudi, Mahmoud's father, remains adamant that his son was in no way guilty of the crimes the mob killed him for. "Two days after my son was killed, they found [the girl the boys were accused of kidnapping] in Cairo. She had simply run away from home for family reasons,” he said. According to Essoudi, the mob was acting solely on rumour: “Mahmoud never had problems with the police. He has never been accused of anything. My son got a thousand dollars a month. Why would he steal two gas cans?"
Though acts of vengeful public barbarity are rarely as harsh and severe as the Mahallat Ziyad lynchings, vigilante "justice" is on the rise in an Egypt hamstrung by the lack of a fair and efficient judicial system. It can't help, either, that the police force is seen as rampantly corrupt, accused of numerous recent human rights abuses: “Police don’t work. The government doesn’t work. This is why people try to work with their hands,” Madgy El Assoui, a bus driver from Mahallat Ziyad, told me. “I think it's better to work on reforming the police and the judicial system rather than enforcing the law [ourselves]. It’s hoodlumism."
The Essoudis are considered to be a prominent family within their local community. Hamdi owns two machinery workshops, one in the town of Minyat Sammanoud, another in Kuwait, where he lives full time. Hamdi’s business employs a large sector of the town. After the boys were killed, residents of Minyat Sammanoud burned the bridge connecting the two villages. “If they only killed them it would be easier for me," said Hamdi, whose son was aged 17 and still at high school at the time of his death, despite reports elsewhere that he was unemployed and in his twenties. "What happened to him was not human at all. It’s now a fight between two villages, not just a fight between families,” he continued. Essoudi promised to seek revenge against his son's attackers, using the word qassas, an Arabic iteration of "vendetta".
Like others I talked to, Hamdi also placed blame on the Egyptian state: “The police did nothing for us, and they won’t do anything else. How can we live like this?” he said, adding, “If they don’t do anything, I will become the biggest terrorist against [current Egyptian president Mohamed] Morsi.”
Mohammad Abdel Latif, a Mahallat Ziyad native, was present during the attack. “All we wanted was a confession,” Latif said. While they were being beaten, confessions were recorded from both Mahmoud and Abderrahman. “Their deaths were an accident,” Latif added, though he didn't provide any explanation as to why, even after the boys confessed and subsequently died, the crowd decided to hang both their bodies from a building. Like others, Latif condemned the action, saying: “Egypt doesn’t need more chaos or instability. We should support reforming the legal and police systems in this country.”
Unsurprisingly, everyone I contacted in Mahallat Ziyad denied any serious involvement in the lynching. They seemed genuinely remorseful that such a violent event could take place in what is a small and otherwise fairly congenial community. They feared that due to the brutality of the attacks their town would forever be branded as unstable and its residents as ruthless barbarians.
However, at Friday prayers at the nearby Antar mosque a less conciliatory tone was struck. A local sheikh – a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – spent his time in front of Mahallat Ziyad's Muslims espousing the virtues of vigilante justice: "'Whoever attacks you, whoever tries to do you harm, you should take rights into your hands. You should always be armed,’” Taha reported the sheikh as having said, adding, “Who gave this sheikh the right to talk about this? This is going to lead to civil war.”
Since the attack, Captain Mohamed Mustafa, the highest-ranking police officer in both Mahallat Ziyad and Minyat Sammanoud, has not appeared in public: “I can’t do anything. I’m hiding here. I can’t work. It’s now five days after the accident and I can’t do anything. The highest members of the families are negotiating. This will probably end with money,” he said. Mustafa was tight-lipped about the case: “I do my investigations, I do my reports, then I give it to the prosecution office. It’s their job," he said. Like others interviewed for this piece, he continuously passed blame onto other branches of the government, saying, “The problem is not us, it is the prosecution and investigation office.“
While the only people who seem to want to take responsibility for enforcing law and order in Gharbiya currently are baying lynch mobs, what happened in Mahallat Ziyad, its residents claim, was an accident. There was no premeditation involved in the killings of Mahmoud and Abderrahman, just confusion, high emotions and misunderstanding.
Premeditated or not, the lynchings are part of a growing trend in Egypt. Since its new president assumed power in June 2012, 14 people are rumoured to have been lynched in the Al Sharqia governate in which Morsi was born. Recently, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have announced plans to form civilian police groups, who will patrol areas around the country; arresting people they deem to be criminals. As Egypt struggles to establish stable democratic rule, it seems likely that more deaths like those seen in Mahallat Ziyad are on the horizon.
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