In Rural Egypt, the Appalling Retribution of the Mob

Is the rule of law breaking down in post-revolution rural Egypt? Experienced local human rights activists would probably reply that there was never a strong tradition of the rule of law in the towns and villages of the Nile Delta. But in the new Egypt, one thing is certain: mob justice is on the rise.

Thanks to poor policing and a public tolerance for violent retribution, mob lynching of people suspected of having committed crimes has become endemic in the villages and rural areas of Egypt.

The province of Sharqiyya, on the eastern edge of the Nile Delta and the country’s third most populous province, has registered the highest number of lynchings over the past two and a half years [following Egypt’s revolution]. More than a dozen mob lynchings have taken place here, generally followed by the hanging of the victim and the mutilation of his corpse; repulsive scenes which were filmed and posted online or described in witness testimony.

The latest of these lynchings took place last Friday in Qatawiya, a village near Sharqiyya’s provincial capital of Zagazig. Hundreds of people participated in the killing of the son of a local Muslim Brotherhood figure, a high-schooler, aged sixteen.

The mob ransacked and burned down the house of the victim’s father, Rabie Lachine, an official of the [Brotherhood’s] Freedom and Justice Party, and then dragged his son into the street. There he was beaten up and slashed with knives. Believing the victim dead, the attackers left his body in the street; he was taken to a hospital and died shortly after.

Lachine’s son Youssef had been accused of shooting a 28-year old man who had insulted his father on Facebook. A 40-year-old toktok [auto rickshaw]driver was accidentally injured by the gunfire. Family members of both men were present in the crowd at the lynching.

The news of the teenager’s death spread like a shockwave through Egypt. As in other lynching cases, the police were notably absent during the event. According to Al-Ahram’s local correspondent, only two policemen were dispatched to the crime scene, and hours after it took place.

Mob lynchings deal out punishment to accused thieves and burglars, as well as in other cases of criminality and banditry, social ills that are on the rise in the absence of police.

Reports of mob lynchings have increased in the villages surrounding the town of Bilbeis, 20 kilometers from Sharqiyya’s provincial capital of Zagazig. Here, they are often in reaction of car thefts and abductions of people for ransom.

At the Bilbeis police station, officers admit that they can do little to reimpose a sense of law and order. They say it is the provincial government’s role to try to prevent these events. “What do we do when we receive a report about a lynching? Absolutely nothing,” commander Mohamed Dabbous admits, in a sarcastic tone. “It takes just a few seconds for the event to happen. There is no possible way to get there in time, particularly if the roads are being blocked, as is often the case,” by demonstrations, riots or other violent outbursts, he says.

Moreover, bringing the killers to justice is impossible, says his colleague, Captain Mohamed Farag. “Even those whose faces clearly appear in the videos filmed by passersby aren’t arrested; the prosecutor is supposedly incapable of proving that these people actually killed the victim,” Farag explains. ” There are always a large number of people who appear in the videos, and the videos only show one side of the event. The accused will claim that he only beat up or injured the victim, but did not kill him, and the videos cannot prove the contrary.”

In Captain Farag’s office, another policeman, in plain clothes, implicitly accuses the provincial government of accepting this vigilante justice. “This is the province’s policy, to get rid of outlaws. And if you went out and asked the villagers who was the killer, many would proudly answer that they did it.”

In Gandia, another village in the environs of Bilbeis, a 31-year-old man, Moustapha, was savagely killed by a mob in March. It was the second such killing in this village. Asked about the event, villagers are not very talkative. Moustapha was beaten to death by several dozen villagers after being accused of theft. He tried to escape by jumping into the canal that runs along the village’s main avenue, but he was eventually caught, tied up, beaten and stabbed to death; his blood-covered body ended up hanging from a tree at the entrance of the village. A video posted on the Internet shows parts of the attack.

The notorious incident took on further prominence when the victim’s father, Sabri, appeared in the media, medical reports in hand, saying that his son had suffered from mental illness. His son, he said, had been unjustly murdered; now the father wants to avenge his son for the barbarity of the villagers. “Lynchings have become an open wound in this province,” he says. “Anyone can be attacked, at random, and killed in a horrifying way. This is an absurd and horrible situation.”

In contrast to the mourning father, many people in Sharqiyya, both rural and urban, say they are in favor of lynchings, as long as the victim really is “a criminal.”

“Of course bandits and thieves deserve to be killed, I would kill them with my own hands,” says 26-year-old Wael Shahine, with enthusiasm. “If you yourself got robbed, you would feel that they deserved it too. If you bring him to the police, he will be out again in an eyeblink and will be terrorizing you again, robbing and killing. Outlaws should be killed; the public should make examples of them.”

A woman who did not want to give her name agreed with him. “Those who kill must be killed; that is justice. Maybe killing someone for stealing is unjust, but even that is accepted here in Sharqiyya.”

Sharqiyya may top the list, but it is not the only province to witness these brutal executions over the last two years. One of the most hideous of these lynchings took place in Gharbiya, also in the Delta region, in Ziad, a small village near the city of Mahalla. In early March the men of the village beat and stabbed two men they accused of abducting a pair of young boys. After dragging them through the streets, the frenzied posse tore off their clothes and hung the ragged corpses upside down. The next day, they attempted to kill a third man accused of participating in the same crime, but this time the police intervened and saved him.

Security expert Mohamed Mahfouz believes that given the deteriorating security situation in the country and the apparent powerlessness of the police, lynching may well spread beyond rural areas and into cities. “For the first time in Egypt, people are supporting public executions,” he says. “They have realized that the authorities are powerless, and that they live in a country whose institutions are falling into ruin. With the decline of the police, the culture of murder by vigilantism may find its way into the cities, including Cairo. If this happens the situation will be far more dangerous. Because in the village, there are still those we call the notables or the wise men, who can intervene to put a stop to violence and avoid tragedies. But how will things play out if it happens in a Cairo slum?”

By contrast however, Basma Abdel-Aziz, a psychiatrist at Abbassiya hospital in Cairo, is convinced that the lynchings can be explained by the tribal mentality of the villages. “Corporal punishment and summary justice are more frequent in tribal communities,” she says. Only time will tell.

Sherif Tarek