Down in the Delta: Frustration at state failures spurs fiery protests in Gharbiya and Sharqiya

Clashes last Friday in the central Delta governorate of Gharbiya and across the broader Nile Delta are part of a wave of discontent that has seen an ebb and flow of protests and subsequent clashes over the past fortnight.

The ongoing tension in the streets of Gharbiya’s Tanta city, for one, is emblematic of growing anger across provincial Egypt.

The death of Tanta native and protester Mohamed al-Gendy has given impetus to many fellow revolutionaries, who are angered by the suspicious nature of his death and the conspicuous disregard shown by authorities.

“This level of anger seen in the streets is not about Gendy’s death. It is more about the utter indifference toward the case and investigations into his death,” says Atef Daabis, head of the Wafd Party’s offices in Gharbiya. “The government is treating the slain protester like a dog. They’ve shown no respect to the body or the blood that’s being spilt.”

While Gendy’s family and protesters argue that all signs point to him being tortured, security and governorate officials are supporting the official coroner’s report, which attributed the protester’s death to a car crash.

Gendy’s mother and father describe this version of events as ridiculous.

“Do they think we’re idiots? When will they stop treating the people as idiots? It is in fact they who are the idiots,” Gendy’s father says.

Um Mohamed, the slain protester’s mother, scoffs: “Does a car break teeth? Does it burn your face as though with an iron? Does it sear the skin on your back? How many arms does this car have?”

The father interjects, “Next, I’m expected to believe the car gets out and steals his wallet and his mobile, and delivers him to the hospital completely naked?”

A state of disgrace

The sense of loss and injustice felt by Gendy’s parents is profound and made worse by the contempt and disregard shown toward their son’s memory by the state.

Brigadier General Magdy Saad Eddin, the Gharbiya Security Directorate spokesperson, tells Egypt Independent that he believes officials reports that Gendy died as a tragic result of a car crash.

But Um Mohamed contends, “These are lies, and [Saad Eddin] knows that these are lies.”

Authorities and protesters subscribe to two completely different realities. While demonstrators continue to demand justice in the streets, security and government officials appear to be satisfied with the paperwork, hiding behind a rigid bureaucratic structure and placing the onus on witnesses to submit their statements and prove otherwise.

“We don’t hide anything,” says Saad Eddin. “Let them submit their testimonies. We want to know the truth.”

There have been no serious efforts to investigate Gendy’s death, however, and no internal investigations within the Interior Ministry. Given the suspicious nature of the protester’s death, the apparent lack of will on the part of authorities to respond with sincerity or to provide an adequate explanation is indicative of a deeper crisis within the state and its institutions.

“Protesters are directing their anger at symbols of state power,” Daabis says. “On one hand, they’re outraged at the death of Gendy, but they are also enraged at the lies being told and spread by the state and, more importantly, the feigned ignorance by the president. Where is President Mohamed Morsy? Where is he after all this blood has been spilt on the streets?”

Abdel Aziz Abu Suleiman, a Dostour Party member in Tanta, says, “Those targeting the security directorate want to know exactly what happened to Gendy. They want transparency and justice.

“The state appears to be playing the same game as [Hosni] Mubarak’s regime, when they claimed the death of Khaled Saeed was the result of him swallowing a kilogram of marijuana,” he says.

The government’s disregard for Gendy’s death falls in line with the continuing inability to tackle widespread issues such as unemployment, housing, water and electricity shortages as well as enduring nepotism.

Many of the protesters gathered outside the governorate’s offices in Tanta feel as though they’re speaking to themselves. They refer to a lack of political will, pointing to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological desires to hijack the state and move in its own direction.

“Many youth at these protests are angry at the voice of government, the Brotherhood. We’re seeing the result of frustration after taking part in the revolution and seeing that nothing they demanded has been realized: neither calls for freedom, bread, social justice or human dignity,” Abu Suleiman says.

He says there are many parties represented in Tanta, but no party has control of the streets.

“The voice of the youth movements is louder than that of the political parties. More often than not, however, we gather on the streets together in our capacities as revolutionaries and not as representatives of parties,” says Abu Suleiman. “The street is ahead of the political parties by two steps, they think more quickly.”

The brigadier general, however, does not consider many of these youth protesters, nor does he want to use the word clashes.

“These aren’t protesters. To call them protesters would be to sully the names of true protesters. These are people throwing stones, Molotov [cocktails] and sometimes [shooting] birdshot at security forces in stations and headquarters,” says Saad Eddin.

He adds that the incidents between security forces and these groups cannot be called clashes because the police are only defending themselves.

“There is a real need for a protest law,” he says.

Abu Suleiman sees this as proof that the culture of the Interior Ministry must change. “These officers are paid with our tax money. They cannot be above the people. They must serve the people,” he says.

He argues that the ministry and state’s inability to change or reform has led to widespread frustration, political anger and the desire to bring these institutions down using any means.

Mongy al-Shfey, head of the governorate’s department of general affairs, also argues that these clashes do not reflect real political dissatisfaction. He says Egyptians, for the most part, are happy and love their country.

Those that continue to flood the streets have their own agendas that do not reflect the revolution or youth.

“They’re being funded. There are some people in this country who do not want stability. Some are gun traders and drug dealers,” he says, adding that he suspects former regime members may be behind the unrest.

Nothing to hide

Shfey believes the state is operating as best as it can, considering the circumstances. He argues that Egyptians have grown accustomed to looking for evidence of corruption after decades under Mubarak and his predecessors, saying, “Everything is transparent. We’ve got nothing to hide.”

Both he and Saad Eddin blame the media for exaggerating the nature and size of protests and the subsequent clashes.

“The media say thousands have gone down to protest, but I only see dozens,” Shfey states.

Back in Gharbiya, Mamdouh al-Mounir, the Freedom and Justice Party spokesperson for the governorate, believes that talk about the state’s inability to provide services is false.

“The majority of the media are too involved in playing politics, just as they were under Mubarak, when all they did was to try and paint as negative an image of him as possible. This is what they’re doing to us,” Mounir states.

He says the process takes time.

“We need to rebuild the foundations and that can’t be done in months. We also can’t do so when our political opponents are trying to destroy the country,” says Mounir.

But Mohamed al-Nagash, a member of a popular committee from Qutur, holds to a different narrative.

“They call us thugs and vilify us, yet we’re the ones working on the street,” Nagash says. “We’re the ones dealing with the realities on the ground.”

The voice on the street tells yet another story: a reality that seems divorced from security officials and the state, and even the discourse of mainstream political parties. It’s about frustration people are feeling on a daily basis over the lack of government services being provided.

“The state’s capabilities are really weak, and this shows itself more in the smaller towns and villages. There, they are deprived of services,” Abu Suleiman asserts.

Outside the governorate offices, different groups have gathered from across the governorate to submit their grievances in person.

“Our demands are not factional. Rather, they’re universal. We’ve come to ask the governor why the government removed our city council head, who was working with us and doing very good work on the ground,” says Walid Shaker, an Adl Party member from the town of Qutur.

He says he was replaced by a Brotherhood member.

“We are against this blatant Brotherhoodization of the state,” Shaker proclaims.

Shaker describes how he and members of the town formed a popular committee to work toward people’s interests.

“There are no local councils to see to people’s interests, whether it is public sanitation, road maintenance, health and many other necessities. So we ask the people what they need and what is missing and work on these issues. It’s been three or four years and no official has entered into villages or into popular districts,” he adds.

He says everything is in “crisis mode” in the town.

“For years, the state has been incredibly centralized, always looking to major urban centers. But when it comes to rural areas and the governorates, there aren’t services. I have rights just as much as anyone else,” says Shaker.

But it’s not only governance that has been Cairo-centric — it’s also the attention to the mounting frustration spurring a growing protest movement outside of the capital.

In Sharqiya, activist Islam Magdy says attention is gradually shifting toward the street movements in outlying governorates, since the opposition and activists have started gaining ground.

“No attention was given to governorates before, it was only Cairo, Alexandria and Suez maybe, but these are not enough,” he says.

Activists are starting to have more presence on the ground, working with the people to “convey the correct image of the revolution,” he adds.

He argues that state media do not want to show the level of unrest in Egyptian governorates, adding that “they are especially concerned with the Delta governorates because of the population’s density.”

The FJP, the Brotherhood’s political arm, won 18 of 30 seats available in Sharqiya during the parliamentary elections held in November 2011. However, the ruling party seemed to have lost ground months later in the presidential elections, after its candidate, Mohamed Morsy, lost to former Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who received 54.9 percent of votes there.

Morsy himself had served as the governorate’s MP in 2000 to 2005. Although 65.94 percent voted in favor of the Constitution in the December referendum, the weeks prior were characterized by mass protests and intense clashes close to Morsy’s family home, spurred by residents’ anger at the controversial constitutional declaration.

Though the Brotherhood maintains a strong support base in Sharqiya, the situation is improving in light of activists’ increased efforts, Magdy adds.

A new political era

The Brotherhood and its political party also seem to have fallen out of favor in Gharbiya.

After securing the majority of seats alongside the Salafi Nour Party during the 2011 parliamentary elections, the FJP’s electoral fortunes have since changed. Shafiq took the lion’s share of the vote during the presidential elections in this governorate as well, trouncing Morsy.

The constitutional referendum late last year also saw citizens turn out to vote against the Brotherhood’s constitution, with Gharbiya coming in second after Cairo, as more than 52 percent voted “no.”

The Brotherhood’s dwindling popularity at the polls here further speaks to the growing dissatisfaction with a government that many feel has failed to offer anything new, or even affect a sincerity of intent when dealing with the people’s demands.

Gendy’s mother would certainly agree.

“I just want [the Interior Ministry] to admit that they crossed the line, and I want the person to be punished,” she says.

Additional reporting by Dalia Rabie

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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