Cycles of violence in Matareya

Tuesday’s assassination of Colonel Wael Tahoun, the former head of the notorious Matareya Police Station, has reignited discussions about violence in the eastern Cairo suburb.

Two masked gunmen shot Tahoun and his driver to death while they were in his car. Violence against the police has escalated since former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s fall from power in July 2013, but Tahoun became the first officer working in a police station to be assassinated in a drive-by shooting.

Several other Interior Ministry personnel have been murdered since 2013. Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Mabrouk, an officer in the National Security Agency (NSA), was assassinated in November 2013, while his colleague Captain Mohamed Abu Shakra was killed in June of the same year. Former Deputy Interior Minister Mohamed al-Saed was murdered in front of his home in Haram in January 2014. Brigadier General Ahmed Zaky, a Central Security Forces officer, was assassinated in a car bombing in April 2014.

Tahoun had a long, acrimonious relationship with Matareya residents, who accuse him of involvement in the torture of political activists, and also hold him responsible for the deaths of dozens of protesters in the January 25, 2011 uprising.

According to local estimations, police violence has claimed more than 500 lives in Matareya over the last four years, further entrenching this animosity.

Abdel Rahman Hassan, a journalist residing in Matareya, says that police forces have been deployed in every corner of the suburb. “Everyone is being asked to present his or her identification to police officers and informants,” he explains.

Although he is generally opposed to the use of violence against state institutions and personnel, Hassan believes Tahoun was a “special case,” given his history with the neighborhood’s residents.

Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms researcher Abdel Rahman Gad, who also lives in Matareya, agrees with Hassan. Tahoun has “so many enemies, it is difficult to determine who assassinated him,” Gad claims.

“Most likely, his assassins are from Matareya. But we cannot say for sure that his killing was politically motivated. Even those with criminal records want to seek revenge against him. Torture at the Matareya Police Station does not differentiate between criminals and political activists,” he explains.

On Wednesday a group identifying itself as the Execution Battalion claimed responsibility for Tahoun’s death, saying they killed him to avenge lawyer Karim Hamdy, who was found dead in his cell at the Matareya Police Station on February 24. An autopsy report concluded that he was tortured to death.

“We declare the start of a wide campaign of revenge against police officers implicated in the killing of January 25 martyrs up until now. Tahoun is not the first, and won’t be the last,” the Execution Battalion said in a statement. The group claimed to have a hit list of police officers implicated in violence and torture.

Aly al-Raggl, a researcher in security studies, says it’s too early to determine who is responsible for Tahoun’s death, but that his assassination marks a serious escalation in the conflict between locals and police officers.

Security personnel in police stations have the most direct contact with the general populace, and officers like Tahoun often have complex relationships with various actors, Raggl explains.

“People like Tahoun are often involved with drug dealers, illegal businesses, smugglers, thugs and political detainees, whether affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or secular. The circle of suspicion is very wide,” says Raggl.

Police violence has led to consequences that cut far deeper than the internal tensions in Matareya. After Hamdy, another lawyer was allegedly killed inside the same police station on Wednesday, triggering yet another wave of anger — this time, from lawyers toward the police and the state in general.

63-year-old lawyer Imam Afify allegedly died in the Matareya Public Hospital after he was severely beaten while in detention at the police station. Eyewitness Abdel Rahman Gamal claimed on his Facebook account that Afify was taking part in a pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest two weeks ago when he was shot and assaulted by “thugs” before he was taken into police custody.

Gamal added that Afify was immediately interrogated, then was admitted to the hospital the next day with internal bleeding. But Mohamed Osman, the head of the North Cairo Lawyers Syndicate, contested these allegations, claiming in a statement that Afify’s injuries were inflicted by area residents, not the police.

Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment on the matter.

Osman pledged to find those responsible for Afify’s death, adding that the syndicate would follow the case regardless of the political affiliations of those involved. He said an urgent syndicate meeting would be held on Thursday to discuss the ongoing conflict between lawyers and state institutions, including the judiciary, police and prosecution.

Islamist lawyer Montasser al-Zayyat has refuted Osman’s narrative of events, adding that Osman’s family has been resisting pressure not to accuse the police of torturing Afify. Zayyat, who heads the “Free Them” campaign to defend lawyers, said that violations against lawyers have reached unprecedented levels.

Meanwhile, the developments of Hamdy’s case further fuelled the tension among lawyers. The prosecution referred two NSA officers to criminal court for allegedly torturing the lawyer. Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat issued a gag order on the case shortly thereafter.

In early March, a group of rights lawyers protested in front of the Supreme Court against the lack of transparency in the case after being denied access to the investigations. On Wednesday night, lawyer Mohamed al-Baker and a group of his colleagues were reportedly summoned for investigations for participating in those protests.

“We have been accused of illegal gathering, offensive chants against state institutions, obstructing the normal workday and threatening public security,” Baker wrote on his Facebook page. “This was the day when we presented a petition to the prosecutor general demanding the lifting of the gag order, and requested lawyers be permitted to attend interrogations.”

Hassan believes that the Interior Ministry’s reluctance to acknowledge its systematic violations and rights abuses is a major underlying cause of the ongoing violence that has perhaps crystallized in Matareya, but affects the whole nation — and which creates a feedback loop of violence being redirected back at what angry citizens perceive as an abusive state.

“The Matareya Police Station is one example,” says Hassan. “Most of the police officers and low-ranking officers there are involved in corrupt business relations and torture. If this status quo continues, there will be more of these assassinations in the future.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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