In Upper Egypt, police avert eyes from ethnic bloodshed

In Aswan, inter-tribal and ethnic tensions run high. Dozens died last week in two days of clashes while the Egyptian police focused on breaking up a local Islamist demonstration.

Sabry Khaled/El Shorouk Newspaper/AP
A man walks by defaced graffiti which is believed to have sparked days of clashes between a Nubian family and members of an Arab clan, in the southern city of Aswan, Egypt on April 6, 2014. Dozens died in two days of street clashes that residents say were ignored by police in the area.

As the crowd bayed outside Noura's house, a paramedic pointed to his body bag, motioning for her to get in. “He said it was the only way to smuggle me out alive," she recalls. "As he zipped it around my body, I knew we were all alone. There were no police to be seen." 

For two days last week, bands of young people fought openly in the streets of Aswan in Upper Egypt, using knives, Molotov cocktails, and automatic weapons. By the time fighting had yielded to a truce between Nubians and a local Arab tribe, dozens were dead. And still the Egyptian police, tasked with public security, were on the sidelines. 

While the two feuding sides offer very different versions of events, a sense of abandonment runs through both narratives.

Since former President Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow last July, Egyptian authorities have embarked on a fierce crackdown – worse than any witnessed under the rule of Hosni Mubarak – in the name of restoring public order. More than 16,000 people, many thought to be supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, have been arrested, and Egypt’s security forces are once again in a position of unbridled power. 

But communities who are not part of the ongoing power struggle between Islamists and the military are being left to fix their own problems.

The police have traditionally allowed tribal or ethnic feuds to be settled by the communities, on the understanding that there will be an equal number of deaths on each side and tribal elders will eventually step in to strike a truce. In Aswan last week, this approach yielded devastating results.

Police look away

The violence was sparked by offensive graffiti, scrawled across walls of a local school. According to eyewitnesses, it read: "No more Beni Helal after today."

Two days of mediation failed to reduce tensions between Nubians, an ethnic group hailing from northern Sudan and upper Egypt, and members of Beni Helal, a local tribe. On April 4, four Nubians were shot dead. Residents say the police stepped aside when Nubian residents retaliated that night, attacking Beni Helal residents and looting their homes. Vicious clashes left 14 dead in a single area.

Even in an area with a long history of inter-tribal and ethnic disputes, the intensity of the bloodletting was unprecedented.

Locals insist that the police were present that night, but that they focused their attention on breaking up a local pro-Morsi demonstration instead. 

When the crowd of Beni Helal youth reached Noura’s house, she fled to the rooftop with her young relatives. Downstairs, three people were shot dead and a third young woman was taken hostage. Noura, a Nubian, believes her house was targeted because of its proximity to a Beni Helal neighborhood.

“We called the police so many times,” says Noura, pointing a shaking finger at the screen of her cellphone. It shows 10 calls were made to the emergency services that night. By the time paramedics arrived, the situation outside was chaotic so leaving in the body bags seemed the only way out. She was eventually taken to the hospital.

Charred houses

A short walk from Noura’s house, in the neighborhood of Seil el Shaabi, the Beni Helal are also reeling. The streets are quiet. Telltale charring remains visible on houses and shops that were burned that night.

Addressing a community meeting, Saleh Abdel Azziz says his son Gamal was killed after seeking refuge in the house of a Beni Halal clan member allegedly involved in an earlier incident that left four Nubians dead. That night presented Nubians with an opportunity for revenge. When the father finally found his son’s body, his throat had been slit.

“If the police had brought a tank, or tear gas, they could has dispersed these problems. But they didn’t,” he said. “This is a conspiracy against us. The police are on the side of the Nubians.”

Neither local police in Aswan nor the Interior Ministry in Cairo could be reached for comment. 

Karim Ennarah, a researcher with the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says the state’s neglect is directly responsible for the escalation in Aswan.

“There is a tolerance for the notion that an equilibrium [of deaths] must be reached, and this allows for the perpetuation of these kind of dynamics,” he says. “We see the police intervene quickly in other situation where they say they need to exercise state authority – I’m talking about demonstrations. But in this case, they needed to stop the violence from happening, that was their job.”

Entrenched hatred

The ferocity of the fighting was also driven by decades of animosity between the two groups, who both complain of state neglect and are competing over scarce land and other resources in Aswan.

Throughout the 20th century, Nubians were forcibly displaced from traditional homelands in southern Egypt, most famously during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, south of Aswan. Many displaced Nubians moved to the city and set up their own neighborhoods alongside predominantly Beni Halal areas. [Editor's note: Due to an editing error, this paragraph has been changed to correctly reflect the chronology of displacement.]

Decades later, with formal employment out of reach for many, and some in the Beni Helal forced to make their living on the black market, competition between the groups is fierce.

This neglect has bred a strong collective identity of victimhood within both communities. Inciting violence has been a way of restoring honor, locals say. 

As for trust in Egypt's security forces, not much remains after last week's spasm of violence.  

“Where were they when we called for help?” demands Amera, a young Nubian woman, as she displays scars on her feet. She says she was dragged out of her house on Friday night, across shards of broken glass.

“I was on the phone [with the police], begging. But still they didn’t listen.”

Merna Thomas contributed reporting.

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