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Minya's Dalga: The rule of fear

Violence in Upper Egypt's Dalga shines light on long-marginalised village, where both Coptic and Muslim residents remain paralysed by fear

Hanaa Al-Mekkawi in Dalga, Al-Ahram Hebdo, Thursday 26 Sep 2013
Security forces stationed in Dalga (Photo: Ahram Hebdo)

"You can't reduce what happened in Dalga to a burned church and a slain citizen. Basic human rights were trampled. They used to be barely respected, but today they have completely disappeared, maybe forever," says Hussein Abdel Aziz, a farmer from the Upper Egyptian village of Dalga reeling from recent sectarian attacks.

Dalga, located in the Minya governorate, has not always been splashed across Egypt's front-page news. Most Egyptians only became aware of the village following reports of horrific violence targeting Christian residents and property this summer. The town has seen a surge in sectarian strife since the popularly-backed military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July. Located 435km south of Cairo, Dalga was stormed in mid-September by the army and the police in an attempt to arrest those responsible for the attacks.

For perhaps the first time in its history, the town now receives visitors, mostly journalists. The road is narrow, with never-ending traffic jams caused by trucks and trolleys transporting sugar canes. A few kilometres before the village's entry, armed security forces are deployed. They stop cars to search them and check the passengers' identity. Armored vehicles leave the impression that you are entering a high risk zone. The smell of anise, planted in front of the houses, is everywhere.

Dalga, spread across 140,000 feddans, has a population of 120,000, among them 20,000 Copts. Suspicious glances from security officers and local residents do not make visitors feel welcomed. "The state and the media never cared about our problems, why are they suddenly so interested? They are here for their work and when this is all over, we will be forgotten once again," says Gaber, a local farmer, bitterly.

The usually-calm village has been under spotlight since the main pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo and Giza were violently dispersed by security forces on14 August. The same day, in Dalga, thousands of Morsi supporters set fire to a monastery, three churches, and several Coptic houses while trying to establish a sit-in in front of the local Abdel-Rahman mosque. Daily protests were organised, with protesters chanting against Christian residents.

"Since 30 June, we've lived in fear and chaos due to the threats against us and those who protected us. After the army intervention on 3 July, it became a nightmare. Violence reached its peak on 14 August," says Malak Adly, who fled the village out of fear of retribution. His house was ransacked and set on fire. Like dozens of Copts who faced the same violence, he has only just returned.

"We couldn't defend ourselves, nor resist. The only one who dared to do so was slain," says Adly, referring to Iskandar Tanous, a sixty-year-old Coptic barber who tried to protect his family and his house and was slaughtered in front of everyone as a result. After Tanous' body was buried, his killers dug it out to take pictures.

Hundreds of families chose to leave the village for fear of suffering the same fate. Others took refuge with their Muslim neighbors. Though some Muslim families took it as a duty to welcome Christians into their home, others did so in exchange for money.

"We don't know who the criminals are. It was the first time a church has come under attack here," says Father Abraam Tanisa Aboul-Yamine, from the Blessed Virgin and Saint Abraam monastery. He spends his day walking around the ruins of his monastery, welcoming journalists and visitors. He insists that relations between Christians and Muslims have always been good. He adds that he doesn't know who attacked the monastery, which included the Blessed Virgin Church, built in the fifteenth century and now completely destroyed. The church was constructed in a cave at a time when Copts were persecuted and was never completed.

As for the village's Muslims, most of them place responsibility for the attacks on "groups of thugs" from outside Dalga. This narrative – repeated consistently by local residents – speaks to the village's desire to move forward. Even if Muslims were spared the fires and the looting, they share the same feeling of humiliation and fear. For a time, daily life was completely disrupted. Under radical Islamist control, no one could enter or exit the village. Residents welcomed the police and military with open arms.

Today, the fear is still present. The start of the academic year has been delayed. "If we denounce [the perpetrators], they could take revenge. The police and the army will not stay here indefinitely to protect us," whispers local resident Hussein Abdel Aziz, suggesting that those responsible for the attacks are widely known but that the villagers are afraid to report them.

Like many of Dalga's residents, lawyer Salah Abdel-Gaffar believes that "what happened to the Copts was a punishment from God." He adds that "by burning churches, the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to take revenge on Copts and Muslims who supported the army after Pope Tawadros and Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh backed Morsi's ouster at the hands of the military.

What happened in Dalga could have taken place in any other Upper Egyptian village. In the region, Islamists have the final word. For decades, local residents have suffered from government negligence that has left them in extreme poverty and isolation.

"Residents wait with great eagerness for the Friday prayer, their only source of information outside Al Jazeera," says Sayed Gomaa, a local elder. He adds that since the January 25 Revolution, the sermons have been entirely about politics. According to Gomaa, local imams, who are very influential among the local population, have echoed pro-Morsi propaganda.  They compare the former president to a prophet and accuse liberals and Christians of being infidels.

The state is nearly absent from the region, and local disputes are resolved by tribal leaders. Nearly everyone possesses arms. When sectarian violence erupts, Copts wait for informal reconciliation sessions to be organised. "Nothing has changed here since the seventies," confirms Father Youanes.

Local residents say they are ready to lay aside their grievances if the state continues to acknowledge Dalga's existence and addresses their issues. "I am happy like a child when I wake up in the morning, look out of the window and see the police here to protect me," says Salah Abdel-Ghaffar, who is afraid that the police will arrest only those behind the latest sectarian violence and not everyday criminals.

After the Asr prayer, the Brotherhood still organises street protests. They are sometimes armed, and they open fire on police and passing cars. As for most Dalga residents, they are locked up in their homes under strict curfew starting from three in the afternoon, hoping that tomorrow will be better.

This story was translated from Ahram Hebdo

Check The artcle in French here: Delga, la loi du terreur

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