I had to go twice to the sit-in of the Muslim Brotherhood near Cairo University by Nahda Square in Giza to understand the dynamics of what is happening there. The sit-in has been demanding the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, ousted by the military on July 3.
On the first trip, I was accompanied by my Mada Masr colleagues Sarah Carr and Dalia Rabie on Tuesday afternoon. We had two objectives: One, to listen to eyewitnesses from those participating in the sit-in about the previous night’s violence with residents of the nearby neighborhoods. The other objective was to verify accounts about members of the sit-in detaining and torturing people allegedly trying to attack the sit-in.
On the first visit, many of those in the sit-in told me that they had witnessed the clashes of Monday night with those they called “thugs” on the street of Cairo University near Giza Square.
According to protesters, clashes started when thugs attacked a march that moved from the sit-in toward Giza Square. Khadiga, a Morsi supporter participating in the sit-in, said “We were peacefully demonstrating in Giza Square when we got surrounded by the sounds of gunshots at about 1.30 am. The sounds came from everywhere so we couldn’t identify their source.”
“There were no women in the march apart from us,” she added, pointing to another woman in the sit-in. “However, we didn’t run away. We looked for rocks and kept them in our hands for self defense. Then we started knocking on the steel bars of the bridge to scare the thugs.”
But Mahmoud Gharib, a resident from the area, had a different story to tell.
“When the Brotherhood arrived to Giza Square, they started walking over the bridge. Angry residents came out and started chanting against them. The situation developed into clashes when the Brotherhood members started using firearms. Accordingly, the residents had to respond in the same way.”
Gharib took me by the hand and pulled back the cloth on which he had put on display the things he sells on a pavement in the area, to show me a sign with the words “Enough Movement” written on it. Enough, or Kefaya in Arabic, is a political group that took form in 2005 demanding the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. The sign was put on the façade of a building adjacent to the bridge and had holes in it.
“These are the traces of the Brotherhood’s bullets,” he told me.
In front of Cairo University, a small sand spot surrounded with rocks had a sign with the words, “Here the martyr died” on it. Islam, a member of the Raya Party, founded by Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and a member of the Hazemoun
Group said that in this spot, a martyr fell during the Monday night clashes.
Many of those taking part in the sit-in confirmed that snipers were shooting from the top of nearby buildings of Cairo University, particularly the Faculty of Engineering, from which the shooting reportedly killed a man and a girl.
Khadiga showed me a hole in a tent at the sit-in, and said that the girl had run away to this tent when the bullet hit her in the head. There were no traces of blood to be seen, however.
I started asking about the detention of some people captured in the sit-in. Islam, who had continued to walk with me, confirmed that there are people who are arrested as they try to attack protesters in the sit-in. He told me that these are usually kept in a spot underneath the stage of the sit-in and that they prefer not to hand them in to the police because they are immediately released.
We moved toward the stage, in front of the Faculty of Engineering to investigate the spot where people are detained. After a conversation between Islam and one of those responsible for the stage, Islam said that all information can be found in the media center. At the media center, Brotherhood members denied that there were any detainees, saying that the protesters have no capacity to detain anyone because this would constitute a security threat to the sit-in, especially if families of those detained try to storm it to liberate their relatives.
However, Islam promised to show me those detained on my second visit.
At 5.30 pm, I went for a second visit when Islam called me to tell me that there was a group of infiltrators arrested at the sit-in. He told me that the media committee of the sit-in had taped the interrogations with these infiltrators. Islam said he could help me see all this evidence, provided I come back on my own and pretend that I am part of the sit-in and not a journalist.
I met Islam in front of the stage of the sit-in, around which there was a sense of tension. No-one was allowed to come close to the stage but everyone was talking about those being held beneath it.
Before I lost hope in seeing the so-called infiltrators with my own eyes, a group of youth wearing scarves on their heads arrived, with a 20-year-old man they had captured. They took him underneath the stage silently without responding to any of the questions that other protesters asked them about who the man was, where they captured him from, and what he was doing.
Meanwhile, there seemed to be an inspection operation by the security committee of the sit-in around the Orman Garden, which is located on the other side of the Faculty of Engineering. We asked in front of the stage who the man was who had just been captured and put underneath it, and a protester told us that he was arrested in the garden with a firearm. Another protester said he had no ID.
The men wearing scarves on their heads left the stage, sending a confident and at the same time sly gaze to everyone outside. One of them headed quickly toward the garden. I followed him with Islam until we reached a one-story building inside the garden, about 50 meters away from its fence. There, a group of protesters around the building were trying to capture a man on top of it. Some of them climbed the stairs to reach the top of the building, so we followed them. When we reached the top of the stairs, I found two masked men sitting on the floor of the roof, and next to them there was a firearm. A man in his 40s screamed at us to leave immediately so that we would not spot the masked men.
“These men are not from the Brotherhood, but they have been with us since June 28,” said the man in his 40s. Islam explained to me that these men on top of the building of the garden are from the security committee and the firearms they have are used to fire birdshots. He added that they were there to defend the sit-in and to arrest any infiltrators or thugs.
Islam explained to me that these youths cover their heads scarves to hide their faces during clashes since they are armed and shouldn’t be identified. He also said that they belong to Islamist movements that are participating in the sit-in and not just the Brotherhood.
“There are some members of the Jama’a al-Islamiya who came to the square during clashes with security and fired live ammunition at the police, ,” Islam told me.
Islam confirmed that these men do not usually take part in the sit-in but only come when they are needed. He also said that no one in the sit-in beats up anyone else, but they are simply protecting their peaceful sit-in. “It is not normal that people come to kill us and we don’t defend ourselves.”
As we were touring the sit-in after the situation had calmed, we came close to the women and families section. This seemed to be in another world. While the other side of the sit-in was busy capturing infiltrators and thugs, in the families section, a prickly pear vendor was selling his wares to the women. Members of the security committee asked him for his ID as they looked at him sceptically. They smiled reservedly when he showed them his ID and left to the other side, before their smiles quickly disappeared.
We tried one more time to go to the stage, but we were denied access. I went to the media center and introduced myself. I explained that I saw with my own eyes a man being detained underneath the stage and that it was in their own interests to prove to me that captives in their custody are in good shape.
Heba, one of the members of the media committee, tried to help me. She went to one of the members of the security committee and came back to report to me that she was told that there are no longer any detainees and that they had been handed to the police.
“Hazemoun are the ones responsible for the stage. But we are from the Freedom and Justice Party. The members of the security committee asked us not to interfere in this matter and to leave it to them,” she told me.
I went to the stage and told the security guard there that I am a journalist and that I was sure there were detainees inside. He told me that it was not possible for me to enter and denied once again that there were any detainees. He told me also that there is a back door through which they let them go and hand them to the police, after offering them juice and treating them properly. He said that we were standing there and we couldn’t hear any sounds of torture coming from inside.
But those around the stage said that detainees are usually tortured badly so that they confess who had sent them to the sit-in. A 16-year-old boy there came close to me thinking that I was one of the guards of the stage, and said to me, “Why don’t you put all the detainees on the stage and torture them in front of everyone to teach a lesson to others?”