The battle for the 'martyr' of Damanhour

Yasmine Fathi , Wednesday 28 Nov 2012

In Nile Delta city of Damanhour, both sides - the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Morsi protesters - claim slain 15-year-old protester as martyr to their respective cause

Muslim Brotherhood member Islam Fathi who was killed on Sunday (Photo: the FJP official Facebook page)

Residents of Damanhour in the Nile Delta agree that Islam Masoud, whose battered body arrived at the city's hospital this week, was only 15 years old when he died – but that's about all they agree on.

Thousands of residents took part in Masoud’s funeral march on Monday, while others stood crying as they watched the teenager's coffin being carried to its final resting place.

Weeping locals dragged their feet behind the boy’s dead body. “Is Islam a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?” they whispered to each other as the march progressed. “He’s not, is he?”

The question over the 15-year-old’s political affiliation is looming large over the city. Masoud was killed after three days of street battles between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and opponents, after President Mohamed Morsi announced his controversial constitutional decree last week.

Both sides have been quick to claim that he is one of them, and to claim the moral authority that the loss of a "martyr" brings. Masoud’s death marks his side as the aggrieved party; it will also garner it public sympathy, which both sides desperately need.

“Islam is not a member of the Brotherhood,” says activist Mohamed Samy, who says he witnessed Masoud’s death. “He was fighting on the side of the revolutionaries.”

Fellow activist Mahmoud Salama says that Masoud’s elder brother Ahmed is a member of the Constitution Party.

The Brotherhood, however, insist that Masoud is one of them. Ahmed El-Meseery, Muslim Brotherhood youth secretary in Damanhour, claims he went to prison with Masoud’s uncle, a fellow Brotherhood member.

“His whole family is from the Brotherhood,” El-Meseery said, speaking at the group’s Damanhour headquarters.

“They just claim he's not in order to blame the Brotherhood for his murder and make them look like killers.”

“They,” says El-Meseery, are the remnants of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) and “some” opposition groups who want to get rid of the Brotherhood.

“They are collaborating together to defeat the Brotherhood and create chaos,” argued El-Meseery. “They want to turn Egypt into Syria or Iraq.”

Damanhour-based activists have a different story. They claim that the people of Damanhour are turning against the Brotherhood.

“There are no thugs, no NDP members,” says Salama. “It is us, the people who are disillusioned with them and don’t want them anymore."

Damanhour is traditionally one of the biggest Brotherhood strongholds in Egypt. Brotherhood member and physician Gamal Heshmat represented Damanhour in parliament in 2000. He, and Brotherhood Secretary-General in Damanhour Osama Soliman, also won seats in the first post-Mubarak parliament in 2011, which was dissolved in 2012.

While the Brotherhood is gearing up for new elections, some locals say they don’t stand a chance.

“The people of Damanhour only sided with them because they were the underdog,” says Hazem Metwalli, a shop owner. “But now they have proven that they only care about their own people and ignore all other factions in society. It will be a miracle if they win again.”

Shams El-Husseiny, a grocery owner across the street, echoes this sentiment.

“Maybe they will win again in the movies or something. But not in real life,” says El-Husseiny. “They used to buy votes by distributing sugar and oil to people. But those days are over.”

Many Damanhour activists claim that the fact that the Brotherhood headquarters was attacked in Damanhour and several other governorates, including Alexandria, is proof that they are losing popularity.

But Soliman, who was in the office during the attacks, claims the assailants were nothing more than hired thugs.

"We saw NDP members paying them money to burn our office,” says Soliman. “The others were gangsters who were on drugs like Tramadol.”

The three days of fighting between the two factions horrified the usually quiet city. Molotov cocktails and pellet bullets were exchanged. Both sides claimed that they were peaceful and unarmed, accusing the other of having weapons.

“We were protesting peacefully in the square, when we saw members of the Brotherhood coming with batons to beat us,” says Salama. “They started it.”

The role of the security forces has also become the source of heated debate in Damanhour. During the three days of fighting, it was the Brotherhood that called the police and asked for help. Activists say that the security forces then used a heavy hand to quash them.

“Damanhour became a scene of horror,” says Salama. “They ran after us into side streets away from the square and fired an unbelievable amount of tear gas. They even fired tear gas into the garages and onto roofs of residential buildings, because that is where we used to hide.”

However, Brotherhood member Soliman, who was inside the group’s office during the clashes, says the security forces purposefully ignored their call for help. He claims that on the night Masoud died, he called the police and asked them to come at 7pm. They didn’t show up. He then tried to call them repeatedly every half hour, asking for help, but they still did not arrive at the scene of the clashes.

“When I made that first call at 7pm, there were no injuries and no deaths,” Soliman says. “By 8:30, the clashes had escalated and that is when Islam died. They finally arrived at 10:00, after it was too late.”

Soliman adds that the prosecution also released all 25 suspects arrested during the clashes.

“We find this to be very strange,” says Soliman. “And we demand that the general prosecution investigate it. Why did the police ignore our pleas for help?”

However, lawyer Mohamed Abu El-Ala, who was with the suspects while they were questioned, says that they were not thugs at all.

“They were protesters and three were from the Brotherhood,” he says.

Brotherhood member Ahmed Nassar accuses the police of conspiring against the group. He argues that they are making the Brotherhood pay for the events that occurred on 28 January 2011, when police stations across the country were torched.

“They are still angry with us for this,” says Nassar. “That’s why they didn’t help us when we asked.”

He added that Morsi’s decision to retry all police officers accused of killing protesters during the revolution has also triggered the wrath of the Ministry of Interior.

The division in the city continued during Masoud’s funeral march. Tension was felt as both Brotherhood supporters and activists followed the young’s boys casket as it was carried through the streets.

When the march reached the graveyard in which Masoud’s body was to be laid to rest, a tense calm prevailed over the mourners.

“This is the strangest funeral march I’ve ever attended,” admits Salama. “We were fighting yesterday and now we are both paying our respects for the death of Islam. The Brotherhood is behaving like victims. But Islam is not one of them. He is a revolutionary.”

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