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Egypt: Threat of Escalating Street Violence

Police, Army Make Little Effort to Quell Fatal Clashes; Investigate Military Killing of Protesters

(New York) – The rising death-toll in Egypt highlights the need for security forces to take urgent action to protect lives and for political party leaders across the spectrum to condemn violence, take all feasible steps to deter their supporters from carrying out unlawful attacks, and call for an end to violence by their supporters, Human Rights Watch said today. Political leaders should make minimizing bloodshed an immediate priority, including by taking all feasible steps to organize political action in such a way that reduces the risk to life, Human Rights Watch said.

Neither the police nor the military effectively intervened in deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood supporters that left 36 people dead on July 5, 2013. In Nasr City, Egyptian military officers using excessive force killed at least four unarmed Brotherhood demonstrators.

“All sides need to tell their followers to refrain from actions likely to lead to violence and loss of life,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, the security forces need to show that they can act professionally and effectively to stop the violence without resorting to unlawful lethal force.”

On July 5 the Muslim Brotherhood called for nationwide marches in support of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsy. Clashes between pro- and anti-Morsy demonstrators, and between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the army, took place in Cairo, Alexandria, Zaqaziq, Fayyoum, Minya, Assiut, Luxor, and al-Arish, based on  media reports and  witness accounts to Human Rights Watch.

In many instances, witnesses said, security forces looked on without intervening as pro- and anti-Morsi supporters attacked each other. Egyptian media reported on July 6 that Mohamed Sultan, deputy head of Egypt's national ambulance service, said that 36 people had been killed on July 5 and the Health Ministry said that more than 1,000 had been injured.

In Cairo, at around 7 p.m., thousands of pro-Brotherhood marchers crossed the October 6 Bridge from the east toward downtown.  Witnesses said that the majority walked down an exit ramp from the bridge leading north along the Nile toward the Maspero state television building.

A smaller number walked down the southern exit ramp, where they clashed with men who had come from a large anti-Brotherhood protest in Tahrir Square, to the south. Video broadcast on television appeared to show Brotherhood members holding guns. A witness said that both sides were armed. Police security forces observed part of the clashes, and army troops were stationed nearby, but neither intervened until around 9:30 p.m., after at least two people had been killed, witnesses said.

To the south, a second pro-Brotherhood march clashed with residents from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. as it passed through the Nile island of Manial in the direction of Tahrir. Police forces arrived for half an hour at around midnight but left when an officer was shot in the leg, and army forces appeared briefly around four hours later, witnesses said. At least five people were killed.

The largest number of dead and injured in a single incident was in Alexandria, where 17 people died in clashes at the Sidi Gabr police station. Human Rights Watch spoke to two witnesses who visited the city’s morgue and were able to provide the names and ages of the victims. The witnesses said that three army armored vehicles and two central security force trucks carrying dozens of police officers were at the scene of the clashes, but only intervened at about 5 p.m., at least an hour after both pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators began firing on each other with pellet guns and assault rifles.

In the Nasr City incident, eight witnesses, whose statements are corroborated by videos posted by Egyptian news media, described what happened. They told Human Rights Watch that beginning at around 2:30 p.m., security forces stationed behind a barbed-wire barricade outside the officers’ club at the Republican Guard headquarters repeatedly fired on pro-Brotherhood protesters who did not pose a threat to their lives or the lives of others, killing at least four people.

The chief of security of the Health Insurance Hospital in Nasr City, where the dead and many wounded were taken, confirmed that four people died. Witnesses said that at various times security forces shot protesters with live ammunition and pellet guns before shooting teargas, a generally non-lethal crowd control alternative.

The Egyptian news channel Yaqeen posted a video of what appears to be the same incident on YouTube. Several reporters at the scene said that security forces fired tear gas at demonstrators who retrieved a man’s body. Human Rights Watch could not identify the victim in the video.

In a news article, a Reuters journalist described a similar but apparently different incident.  The reporter saw "a handful of men" place a poster of Morsi on the barbed wire barrier, and said a soldier "tore it up," according to the article. After the crowd shouted insults at the security forces, troops fired in the air. The reporter then heard shotgun fire, and saw at least eight protesters who had been wounded.

The Egyptian military has used excessive and lethal force in policing demonstrations on several occasions since the ouster of the government of Hosni Mubarak. In October 2011, soldiers killed 27 protesters outside the Maspero building in Cairo, and in December 2011, soldiers killed 17 protesters outside the cabinet building in downtown Cairo, and beat and kicked women protesters.

Both the past excessive use of lethal force and police failure to minimize casualties during the latest round of violence indicate the pressing need for security sector reform and accountability for abuses perpetrated by the police and military. There should be independent investigations into all killings by members of the security forces.

Under international human rights standards applicable to Egypt at all times, law enforcement officials need to take all reasonable steps to protect lives, especially when aware of specific threats. But they may only use intentional lethal force when it is strictly necessary to protect life.

Political leaders should urge their followers to exercise restraint and call for an end to mob violence against political adversaries, Human Rights Watch said.

After pro- and anti-Morsy demonstrators clashed for six hours in Tahrir square in October 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood started relocating its protests to other areas of town. In December 2012, Muslim Brotherhood supporters marched to the presidential palace and broke up an opposition sit-in, leading to clashes between both sides that left 11 people dead.

Over the past week, mobs have attacked people who appeared to be Brotherhood members in Tahrir and Dokki and Morsy supporters have attacked perceived opponents. In one video taken on July 5 in Sidi Gaber in Alexandria, which went viral, men who appear to be pro-Morsy supporters pushed two young men off a rooftop, then hit one of them on the head with a stone, and a group of four men beat up a third. It is unclear from the video whether the victims survived. One of the perpetrators is carrying a black flag associated with jihadi groups in Egypt and Islamist chants are audible in the video from a crowd shown gathered in the street outside the building. 

Nasr City: Excessive Use of Force
In Nasr City, by about 2 p.m. on July 5, 2013,a crowd of Muslim Brotherhood supporters had marched from Raba’a al-Adweya mosque along Saleh Salem highway to the Republican Guard headquarters. Participants said they went there because they believed security forces were detaining there former President Morsy, whom the military had deposed on July 3.

Human Rights Watch spoke to relatives of Hossein Mohamed Hossein, a 25-year-old English teacher from Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood who was shot twice in the chest and killed, and Mahmoud Mohamed Rabia, 22, a law school graduate from the Nile city of Beni Sueif, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. A pro-Brotherhood activist identified two other fatalities as Mohamed Subhi Mohamed, from Cairo, who was shot in the face and chest, and Mohamed Iman Khalifa, who was shot in the head.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three Brotherhood supporters who said they witnessed the killings of Rabia and another man.  They said Rabia was a friend from their village, Saft Rasheen, in the Beni Sueif governorate. They marched from the al-Rahman al-Rahim mosque along Saleh Salem highway, they said, and arrived at about 2 p.m. opposite the Republican Guard officers’ club. The building was protected by barbed wire, 10 army armored vehicles, three police armored personnel carriers, and scores of army, Republican Guard, and special police forces. Mohamed Abdallah Ahmed, 26, told Human Rights Watch:

We gathered on the sidewalk on the opposite side of Saleh Salem. Most of us sat down. One man walked across the highway, put a poster of Morsy on the barbed wire in front of the officer’s club, and walked back to where we were sitting. The police turned the poster upside down, which upset us a lot. The same man walked back across the highway to fix it.

Then an officer – we couldn’t see how many stars he had or whether he was army or police – shot him in the head with an assault rifle, and then began firing, rapid fire, at the crowd. All of us started running, some of us were running down Saleh Salem road and some down the airport road. The rest of them started firing teargas and birdshot at us.

At this point, we lost Mahmoud. This was at about 2:30 p.m.  Mahmoud was next to me when the firing started but we all ran and didn’t know where he was until we learned he’d been killed. He graduated from the college of law in Beni Sueif University and was supposed to go to Kuwait in a couple of weeks to work. They had already sent him his plane ticket and work permit.

The Brotherhood crowd regrouped and returned to the side of the highway opposite the officers’ club. At around 3 p.m. security forces opened fire again, the three men told Human Rights Watch.

Justin Wilkes, 25, a journalist, told Human Rights Watch that he arrived on the scene at 3:04 p.m., and saw the body of a man who had been fatally shot.  “People in the crowd told me that the army told the protesters not to cross an invisible line, and this guy walked over it, so they killed him,” he said. Security forces then fired “five or six” canisters of tear gas, and he heard automatic weapons fire, Wilkes said. He saw demonstrators carrying away “at least four or five [demonstrators who] were badly injured with blood stains on their shirts.”  Wilkes said the Brotherhood supporters were “peacefully demonstrating the whole time” and that he did not see them “do anything to provoke the army to be shot at.”

A woman who lives in an apartment overlooking the scene told Human Rights Watch during a brief phone call at 3 p.m. on July 5 that she had just seen security forces shooting tear gas and live rounds at the crowd in front of her building. In a second phone call, at 3:10 p.m., she said that one of the demonstrators had been killed, and that she saw other protesters “smear blood on their faces.”

Another pro-Brotherhood demonstrator from Mansoura, who said he was 37 and asked not to be identified, said he arrived at the Republican Guard headquarters at around 3:15 p.m.

We were saying “Peaceful, peaceful,” but they shot at us first with birdshot, then they used teargas. Normally they shoot teargas first but not this time. My friend was hit in the face with birdshot. We carried him about 600 or 700 meters away, on our shoulders, to the field hospital in the Rabaa mosque, and they said his case was serious so they sent him to the Health Insurance hospital.

A 29-year-old witness, who asked not to be identified, said that police, standing behind a line of military forces, had fired at the crowd.

Witnesses said that protesters continued to arrive at the site later in the afternoon. Hozaifa Ali Abd al-Zahir, from Imbaba, said security forces fatally shot his cousin, Hossein Mohamed Hossein, shortly before 5 p.m.:

There were thousands of us in the march from Rabaa mosque to the Republican Guard. We reached it at around 4:45 p.m. and started to chant, “We want our legitimate president, release him.”  An army officer came out and said, “We are brothers, we have no problems with you.”

We were about 20 meters from the Republican Guard officer’s club when I saw a police tank [APC], which was parked on the right hand side of the officer’s club, behind the barbed wire, start to drive towards us. [One of the security forces], holding a rifle, began to shoot at us. He shot bullet by bullet, not automatic fire. Hossein was standing next to me, I saw him get shot twice in his chest.

The ambulance was only three meters away from us, so we put Hossein in the ambulance and took him to the field hospital at the mosque. We got there at 5 pm. At 5:30 we transferred him to the Health Insurance hospital and they did an operation but it was too late, he was already dead.

A local newspaper, Daily News Egypt, reported later on July 5 that an armed forces spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, had said the army was investigating the killing of one pro-Morsy protester outside the Republican Guard headquarters, and that the army’s orders were to use teargas rather than live fire to disperse protesters. 

Tahrir Square: Failure of Security Forces to Intervene 
The deadly clashes near Abdel Moneim Riad Square, just north of Tahrir Square, began at around 7 p.m. At least two people died.  Based on accounts by anti-Brotherhood demonstrators and televised footage, some Brotherhood marchers were armed, while one witness said that both sides were armed. Anti-Brotherhood demonstrators found and photographed shell casings from shotguns, pistols, and assault rifles at the scene.

During the clashes on the bridge, Colonel Ali, the army spokesperson, told journalists that the army would intervene and would close the bridge if the situation deteriorated, Daily News Egypt reported. According to the newspaper, as well as witness accounts, the military had stationed troops in armored vehicles on Qasr al-Nil bridge, several hundred meters to the south. The newspaper reported that the army was supporting the role of the Central Security Forces in suppressing violence.

However, witnesses said, security forces did not intervene until about 9:30 p.m., two and half hours after fighting began, and after the pro-Brotherhood demonstrators had retreated back over the October 6 bridge at close to 9:30 p.m. Video filmed by Mosireen, an activist media collective, also indicated that security forces did not intervene until after anti-Brotherhood protesters had already forced the pro-Brotherhood forces back across the bridge. 

The video, consistent with witness statements to Human Rights Watch, shows both pro- and anti-Brotherhood protesters using guns and Molotov cocktails against the other side as police forces look on without intervening. The video shows people running from gunfire coming from the direction of the Brotherhood supporters on the bridge at 7:15 p.m.

At 8:50 p.m., the video shows, two police armored personnel vehicles stationed on the bridge immediately beside clashes, but the police do not intervene. The video supported witness statements that army armored vehicles entered onto the bridge only after the Brotherhood supporters began to retreat.

Adham Abd el-Salam, a volunteer with Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, was in Tahrir when he heard that Brotherhood supporters were coming toward the square. The volunteer group decided to shut down its operations because of security concerns.  “I was between Abdel Moneim Riad and Tahrir and was looking for a taxi to go home when all hell broke loose,” he told Human Rights Watch.  At around 8 p.m., he said:

A guy was shot and fell, his mother and his sister were with him, they tried to do something to help him but they just gave up and started praying. An ambulance came and took him. It all happened within the space of a few minutes. I saw this happen right in front of me.

Simon Hanna, a journalist, told Human Rights Watch that at 7 p.m. he was in his apartment in a  building on Abdel Monem Riad Square when he “heard on Twitter that the Brotherhood were on the [October 6] bridge,” so he went up to his rooftop to look:

I saw a big crowd on the left-hand side of the bridge coming toward downtown. Between 50 and 100 people went down the off ramp toward Tahrir [Square]. Then the clashes began. It was mostly rocks from both sides, and fireworks from the Tahrir side. At that point I went down into Abdel Monem Riad square myself. The Brotherhood supporters had barricaded the exit ramp with metal plates. Eventually, at around 9:25 p.m., the Tahrir people pushed back the Brotherhood [west] across the bridge, eventually they retreated [further west] in the direction of Mohandiseen and Dokki.

A second witness, Mustafa Bahgat, described the clashes similarly but said that, in addition to throwing rocks, both sides had firearms:

After the rocks, there were shots on both sides, from shotguns. I filmed one brotherhood guy holding a weapon. Then I heard automatic gunfire. At some point residents of the Maspero triangle [to the north of Abdel Moneim Riad square] got fed up and came out to try to chase the Brotherhood away. The Brotherhood made one final charge, then pulled back altogether, like someone had given them orders to retreat. By that point I was up on the bridge as well.

We pushed them back [across the bridge to the other side of the Nile]. People were chasing them. Security forces were stationed on the off-ramp [across the Nile from Tahrir]. They fired in the air and fired teargas at the Tahrir people who were chasing the brotherhood people away.

Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they observed people being shot and wounded during the clashes, which lasted about three hours, until almost 10 p.m. A witness who participated in the clashes said: “I saw three people shot with live rounds, with my own eyes. All the people who got shot were on the Tahrir side, the gunfire was coming from the other [pro-Brotherhood] side.”

Pro-Brotherhood marchers also clashed with anti-Brotherhood residents and protesters on Manial, a large island in the river Nile to the south of Tahrir Square, from around 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the night of July 5 and the following morning. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that pro-Brotherhood protesters marched from Nahda Square, near Cairo University in Giza, along al-Gamaa bridge to Manial island, in the direction of Tahrir Square.

The doorman of a building that faces the street told Human Rights Watch that clashes began in the area where al-Gamaa bridge enters the island at around 8 p.m., and that at some point later on, “people in the street started shooting machine guns,” causing him to run inside. Another witness, Zeina Abdallah, 28, who lives in an alleyway off the main street, also said that pro-Brotherhood marchers arrived in the area at 8 p.m. and that shooting began at around 9:30 p.m.:

People from our neighborhood went out, they weren’t armed, and they saw Brotherhood members with guns. People came down to try to stop them and argue with them. As the clashes began the numbers of people increased. I was standing in the street, watching them. At one point the Brotherhood just started shooting. People on our side were throwing bottles at them, and they had people were shooting at the youths from our neighborhood who were throwing things at them.

A third witness, a 27-year-old man who asked not to be identified, was wearing clothing spattered with blood from the fighting when Human Rights Watch spoke with him in the area of the clashes on July 6: 

The Brotherhood came in aggressively, hitting people, cars, and shops so that no one would get in their way. The police didn’t come until around midnight. They were regular police in white uniforms, with guns and bullet-proof vests, in their big blue trucks. The shooting stopped for about 10 minutes, then started again and an officer got hit in the leg, so the police left. The clashes continued until the morning.

A fifth witness, a 15-year-old boy who lived in the area and participated in clashes against the Brotherhood marchers, told Human Rights Watch that police forces “arrived in the area at around 11:30 p.m. in six big blue trucks.”

“They made a line at the end of the bridge, they pushed forward, and then one of them got shot in the leg,” he said. “The shooting continued and they left at about midnight.” Brotherhood supporters shot at residents with machine guns, he said.

The 27-year-old man said that he saw armed Brotherhood supporters on the roof of the Salahaddin mosque, immediately north of the bridge, shooting at residents of the area.

“Eventually everyone in the area turned out all their lights, because people were shooting at lit places from the roof of the mosque,” he said. “The army came at around 3 or 4 a.m., in jeeps, they came to the end of the bridge and just stood there. The clashes were ongoing, but they didn’t intervene, they just left.” 

Hisham Ahmed Aboueisha, director of the emergency department at Qasr al-Aini al-Qadima hospital, told Human Rights Watch on July 6 that the hospital had received bodies of four people killed by gunshots from clashes in Manial, and was unable to resuscitate another man fatally injured by a gunshot wound to the chest. The hospital received around 80 wounded, mostly from birdshot and stabbings, and admitted about 15 of them. Two people remained in critical condition, one shot in the abdomen and the other in his chest, he said.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to five witnesses and relatives of men injured during the Manial clashes, at Qasr al Aini hospital, all of them Manial residents. Hussein al-Leithy, 18, said that at some point after 9 p.m., Brotherhood supporters on the bridge shot two of his friends, Mahmoud Ashraf and Mohamed Farrag, with birdshot, and that Brotherhood supporters stole the motorcycle of another friend, Mohsen, 16, from the Haram neighborhood.

Ahmed Abdel Moneim, 26, said that after midnight in the early hours of July 6, he and other residents threw rocks at Brotherhood supporters, who “would point their [hand-held, battery powered] lasers at us to mark us and shoot us deliberately.”   Police and military forces “only came at around 3 a.m., around the time of the morning prayer,” he said.

Mohammed Zaki, 25, who was shot with a live bullet in the leg and birdshot in the neck and chest, said that the two opposing sides “exchanged shots” in clashes that continued “for more than four hours” during which time “neither the army or the police were there.”  He said that he participated in the clashes “right in front of Salah Eddin Mosque, there was a huge group of [pro-Brotherhood marchers], some carrying rifles.” Zaki said that two of his neighbors in Manial, Rami al-Mahdi and Abdallah, were killed.

In two other cases, witnesses and relatives of victims did not say which side was responsible for the shootings that injured their relatives. Ashraf Mohamed, the brother of Mohamed Abu Zeid, 33, said that they were together on Ashraf’s motorcycle, driving back home after work when they encountered the clashes and attempted to turn around:

Mohamed was shot with a live bullet in the leg and fell off the bike. A crowd of people started beating him with sticks. I immediately ran toward him and pulled him away.  On our way to the hospital, he told me that the people who attacked him said, “Enough! Let’s throw him in the Nile!” The police and army weren’t present. The doctors removed the bullet from his leg, but he was also wounded in the head.

A Manial resident, Helmy Ahmed, 23, said he was standing on the bridge at 11 p.m. on July 5 without participating in the clashes when he was shot in the abdomen with a live bullet, his father said. Doctors had removed one of his kidneys.

Mahinoor al-Masry, 27, from Alexandria, told Human Rights Watch that she arrived at the at the intersection of Abu Qir and Moshir streets in the Sidi Gaber neighborhood at 4:30 p.m., about 20 minutes after clashes began there.  About 300 local residents and members of neighborhood political organizing committees fought against a larger number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters marching through the area to the Northern Military Zone, an army command center in Alexandria, she said. 

Al-Masry told Human Rights Watch that when she arrived, she heard live fire from automatic weapons and “extremely heavy” shotgun fire, but could not see who was shooting. She said neighborhood residents used light weapons, including handmade guns that shoot birdshot.

Al-Masry said she saw police and army officers issuing orders at the scene, as well as three armored army vehicles, and two Central Security Forces (CSF) trucks each carrying around 70 men. However, neither CSF nor the army intervened until about 5 p.m., an hour after the clashes started, she said.

[Until then] the central security forces were behind us and army vehicles were on the tramway in front of the Sidi Gaber station. A couple minutes later I moved further into the middle of Moshir street. At that time people started shooting birdshot everywhere and many people were injured. . . .  But they did nothing. They were just standing there, very far away from [the frontline]. The people from the neighborhood were running back and forth … until finally police intervened and started shooting tear gas.

Al-Masry added that the army did not intervene at all.

She said that at about 5:30 or 6 p.m., she heard varying accounts that Muslim Brotherhood supporters had thrown a man from the 10th floor of a building. Al-Masry said she later saw neighborhood residents carrying a body that was “completely smashed up.” An hour later, at a field hospital behind the Sidi Gaber mosque on Abu Qir street, she saw dozens of wounded people, most of whom were residents of the neighborhood:

The field hospital was horrible – I’ve never seen so many people injured in my life. There were 20 people with birdshot in their eyes. One of them lost his eye and is still in the hospital now. I saw many people with broken arms and stab wounds. But the police forces started to get hit with birdshot and injured as well, once they started getting closer into the front lines, about 6 or 6:30.

Al-Masry told Human Rights Watch that at a morgue visit on the afternoon of July 6, health officials told her 17 people were killed during the Sidi Gaber clashes. At al-Miry hospital, close to downtown Alexandria, hospital staff said they treated 150 to 200 injured people, most from birdshot, al-Masry said. Health officials told her that at least 500 people had been injured in the clashes and that many were treated at the Armed Forces hospital in Sidi Gaber and the Ras al-Tin hospital. 

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