Egypt's 'killing culture': As police and politicians lose their grip, mobs take justice into their own hands
Egged on by communal acceptance, mob killings of alleged criminals have been spreading across rural areas of Egypt amid a chronic security vacuum and a surging crime rate. These brutal vigilante executions have been on the rise with at least 17 reported since the 2011 revolution.
Sharqiya – the third largest governorate by population, located east of the Nile Delta – is plagued by the most frequent street justice murders. During the last two and a half years, its villages have witnessed over a dozen mob killings.
Online videos and eyewitness accounts show a pattern: the mutilated body of the victim is usually strung up and sometimes set on fire. The police are notably absent.
The latest mob killing was reported in the early hours of Friday, when hundreds of locals in the Qataweya village, situated in Sharqiya's capital Zagazig, killed the son of Muslim Brotherhood figure Rabie Lasheen. The victim was Youssef, a 16-year-old secondary school student.
Having ransacked the house of Lasheen, a leading member of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the crowd set his apartment and three cars ablaze, before they dragged his teenage son into the street and attacked him using bladed weapons.
Thinking he was already dead, the assailants dumped his inert body in the street.
Youssef was taken to hospital where he shortly succumbed to his injuries.
Lasheen's son was accused of shooting a 28-year-old man for insulting his father over his affiliation to the FJP in a Facebook post. An auto-rickshaw (tok-tok) driver in his 40s was accidentally gunned down in the shooting as well. The vengeful crowd included members of both men's families.
The police were again completely absent while the mob assaulted Lasheen's son and damaged his property. Media reported that only two policemen were dispatched to the crime scene at dawn after the end of the violence.
Mob killings in Sharqiya are usually collective punishments for repeated thefts, as well as many other crimes or acts of thuggery.
The villages located near the city of Belbies, 20 kilometres from Zagazig, suffer from the most recurrent recorded instances of mob killings, alongside almost daily carjackings, kidnappings and other crimes.
At Belbies Police Station, which has jurisdiction over these villages, officers admit they cannot do anything to restore law and order: no proper preemptive or responsive measures are taken in the governorate.
"What do we do when we receive reports about such incidents? Absolutely nothing," Major Mohamed Dabbous told Ahram Online sarcastically.
"It happens in an instant; no way would we make it to the crime scene on time, especially if the road is blocked and that happens quite frequently here [due to protests, riots or other types of disturbance]."
His colleague Captain Mohamed Farag explains that little legal action can be taken against the killers.
"Even those who clearly appear in videos are usually released in the end, because the prosecution can't prove that this person actually killed the victim."
"There are always crowds of people in the videos that typically only show a bit of the incident. The accused would say that he just hit or hurt the guy, but didn't kill him. The video cannot prove otherwise."
Farag went on to explain that they usually arrest "whoever is wanted by the general prosecution." The problem is an entire community is usually involved.
"When a whole village kills a man, do you think it is possible to arrest all 10 to 15,000 residents? Of course not."
A plain-clothed low-ranking policeman in Captain Farag's office adds that killing suspected outlaws has become the unofficial "policy of the governorate."
He stresses that if the police went to a crime scene of a mob killing and asked who the killer is, everyone would reply: "I am." It has become something to be proud of.
In Belbies' Gandia, where 31-year-old outsider Mustafa died at the hands of a mob mid-March, residents were tight-lipped over the crime. Mustafa's death follows at least one similar incident in the same small village.
"Why are you inquiring about what happened [to Mustafa]?" asked one villager suspiciously when asked about the violent death that took place only a few steps away from where he was having breakfast. "It's long over now." The murder had only taken place the fortnight before.
Mustafa was beaten to death by scores of Gandia village residents, who accused him of theft.
He tried to escape by jumping in the sluiceway that follows the main road but was eventually caught, tied up, beaten, stabbed and slashed to death, before his blood-covered body was hung from a tree in front of the village. An online video showed part of the ordeal.
The infamous incident hit national headlines after the victim's father, Sabri, provided medical documents to the media proving his son was psychologically disturbed and had been wrongly murdered.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Sabri says he is not sure why his son was in Gandia but keeps calling for retribution against its residents while ruing Sharqiya's "barbarism."
"The governorate is plagued with lynchings," Sabri explained, "anyone can be indiscriminately attacked and killed in such an atrocious way; it's just absurd and horrendous."
However many citizens in rural and urban areas in Sharqiya endorse mob killings as long as the victim is a "criminal."
"Of course bandits and thieves deserve to be killed, I would kill one myself," said Wael Shahin, a 26-year-old local environmental health officer. "If you are robbed, you would also feel that they deserve such a cruel fate."
Shahin justified people taking matters into their own hands by the fact that when thieves are turned over to the police "they are released in no time and will once again terrorise, steal or kill."
Outlaws, he concludes, must be killed and the public must make an example out of them.
Other residents echoed his sentiments, confirming that they believe executing a thief is quite accepted in Sharqiya.
Not only in Sharqiya, soon in cities?
Several villages in other governorates have also witnessed brutal lynchings over the last two years.
One of the most harrowing took place in Mahalla Ziad village, located in Delta's Gharbiya governorate, in March.
Locals of the village beat and stabbed two men who had been accused of abducting two young boys.
After dragging them through the streets of the village, the frenzied vigilantes stripped the duo and hung their slashed, mud-stained bodies upside down and then beat them again.
One day after that incident sent shockwaves across Egypt, they tried to kill a third man for a similar reason but the police finally stepped in.
Mohamed Mahfouz, a prominent security expert, believes mob killings will spread beyond villages to the cities, including Cairo, due to Egypt's deteriorating security situation.
"For the first time ever in Egypt, people are supporting public murders," he explained to Ahram Online. "That's because they have fully realised that the authorities are helpless, that they live in a failed state."
The "killing culture" Mahfouz continues, would be much more brutal if it does extend to Egypt's major cities.
This is because, Mahfouz believes, the "tribal" set up of a village means that there are always leaders who can contain violence.
"But with Cairo's numerous slums and thugs, it's going to be absolute mayhem."
However, Basma Abdel-Aziz, a psychiatrist at Cairo's Abbasiya psychiatric ward, is convinced that villages are more likely environments for mob killings than cities.
"The concept of enforcing unofficial physical punishments, such as beating, is common in tribal communities; the lynching culture would just be the next level," she told Ahram Online.
Recipe for murder
What can turn a normal man into a cold-blooded killer? Primarily blind revenge, according to Abdel-Aziz. Impunity of outlaws, mob mentality and daily violence are also contributing factors, she says.
"Being subjected to continuous instances of violence and abuse is always a spark, along with a lack of security and the state's failure to fight crime," Abdel-Aziz explained. "When people are repeatedly hurt by criminals or thugs in different ways without retribution, they eventually decide to take justice into their own hands."
The victim is at the mercy of the unrepentant mob who will typically punish him with a slow death and even mutilate the body because this is an act of revenge not for a single abuse, but for all the crimes that have befallen the group, according to Abdel-Aziz.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that this victim is responsible for everything, yet he incurs all the punishment and rage anyway."
Abdel-Aziz, moreover, points out that "group thinking" amplifies the actions of the mobs.
"For instance, if I'm angry at someone and have the intention to yell at him or her, I might hit this person if I am in a group. Someone else in the group might fatally wound the victim instead of just beating him in another escalation and so it continues."
Moreover, she highlights that Egyptians have developed a high tolerance to violence, due to recurring aggression seen in protests and demonstrations across the nation over the past couple of years.
Samir Naim, a veteran sociologist and professor at Ain Shams University, agrees that repetitive clashes have desensitised people to violence and perpetuated brutality.
He specifically points to the "excessive violence by state authorities" as a contributing factor, both under the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the incumbent President Mohamed Morsi.
"While killing someone, people play the role of the police, prosecution and judiciary," he said.
"The leading example is the approach of the authorities, who have been seen on television more than once coming down hard on protesters, dragging them, beating them and even killing them. So the people follow suit when they are acting as law enforcers."
Excessive use of force on the behalf of the Egyptian police force and military has frequently been broadcast since the January 25 Revolution.
On 28 January 2011 (known as the Friday of Rage), news channels filmed former president Hosni Mubarak's police force using firearms against protesters and physically assaulting them in many cities.
In December of the same year, a young woman was dragged, part stripped and viciously beaten by military police in Tahrir Square during an army crackdown on an anti-SCAF protest.
Al-Hayat satellite TV aired a video last February showing a citizen, Hamada Saber, being dragged naked and beaten by Central Security Forces (CSF) during an opposition demonstration in the vicinity of the presidential palace.
"In order for lethal mobs to stop, security has to be reinstated without violence on the part of the authorities and the state must fulfill its basic tasks," Naim concluded.
Egypt has seen worse
However, there were times when Egypt witnessed more brutal public punishments says historian Khaled Fahmy, who is professor and chair of the American University in Cairo's Department of History.
In the 1700s under Ottoman rule Egypt experienced a famine, Fahmy explains, which saw citizens not only resorting to brutal violence "but literally eating each other."
He also cites the notorious execution of Syrian Kurdish student Suleiman Al-Halabi by impalement in 1800, for murdering French General Jean Baptiste Kléber during the French campaign in Egypt.
Yet, executing people in public has not been a common occurrence in modern Egyptian history, Fahmy asserts.
"Egypt has never been like [the ultra-conservative Islamic] Saudi Arabia or Iran over the course of the last 150 years; court sessions have been held in public but penalties behind closed doors, excluding a very few exceptions," he stated.
Fahmy sees the rise in what he dubs a "public killing culture" as a 100-year old regression for the country.
"I would say mob killings to punish offenders comprise a serious setback for Egypt," Fahmy said. "It's a phenomenon that bodes ill for the country's future."
By Sherif Tarek
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