Are secret militias stirring violence in Egypt protests?
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An amateur video shot during the deadly clashes opposing Egyptian Coptic Christians and police last week has fuelled concerns that organised thugs known as the ‘Baltagias’ have made a bloody comeback in Cairo. According to our Observers, these secret militias, infamous for their brutality under former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, are still wreaking havoc.
On October 9, Coptic Christians in Cairo staged a protest after a church was set on fire near the city of Aswan. The protest was meant to be peaceful, but it rapidly spiralled into violent clashes between security forces and protesters. With 25 dead and over 300 injured, these clashes have been the deadliest since the fall of Mubarak’s government.
As the clashes unravelled, Egyptian state television called on the population to “defend” their army who was “being attacked by gangs of armed Copts”. It also reported that the Copts, who make up 6-10 per cent of the Egyptian population,
were manipulated by foreign powers. The channel then later retracted these allegations, and claimed they were the words of a “nervous anchor.” The anchor, however, said she had received instructions on what to say from government officials.
Meanwhile, Egyptian Prime Minister Seam Charaf issued a call to unity and condemned the violence, which he called the result of a “foreign and internal plot.” Oussama Helkal, the minister of information, stated for his part, that there was no evidence that the protesters had attacked security forces and sparked the violent showdown.
This footage comes from a 25 minute-long video that was posted on YouTube by one of our Observers. It was filmed in the neighbourhood of Maspero on October 9. The original video also included interviews with several protesters (in Arabic), both Christian and Muslim, the day after the attack.
"Some were shouting ‘Allah Akbar!’ (‘God is great!), adding fuel to the fire"
Mohannad Galal is a 27-year-old computer scientist living in Cairo.
Since the start of the revolution, I have been trying to film everything I see. That evening, I arrived in Maspero from the road where the Interior Ministry is, and I found myself, by accident, in the middle of a group of ‘baltagias’ that were joining security forces (in Egypt, militias known as ‘baltagias’, often made up of young men recruited in poor neighbourhoods, were used by authorities to clamp down on protests and dissidents under Mubarak’s rule. They would wreak havoc in demonstrations to justify the police’s intervention.
They were dressed in plainclothes and armed with sticks, knives, long blades and even bricks. What is strange is that some were shouting ‘Allah Akbar!’ (‘God is great!’ for Muslims), a way of adding fuel to the fire but also of making the clashes look like yet another inter-religious conflict which required the army’s intervention (video at 00'46'')
Shortly afterwards, the group began targeting an individual just because he was Christian. In the video you hear the persons attacking him shout “He’s a Christian! He’s a Christian!” (video at 01'50'')
In a neighbouring street, near the Hilton Ramses hotel, I came across another group of ‘baltagias’. I heard a man on the phone, in front of a shopping precinct, say: ‘he is telling them to send out the Christians inside.’ Then the group began mercilessly beating up two Christians. One of them fell head first to the floor, and he continued being beaten by soldiers, police and men in plainclothes as he lay on the ground. You can hear one of the men in plain clothes shout ‘Stop! Come on guys, we don’t want to be caught on camera.’ (video at 04'55'') Luckily, in the heat of the moment, no one noticed that I was holding a small camera.
Later still, when the army charged the protesters, they were once again clearly accompanied by ‘baltagias’.
I believe that the army, backed by this militia, deliberately caused the demonstrations, which were initially peaceful and attended by both Christians and Muslims, to turn violent. It wants to control the situation – it’s still the same system as under Mubarak. You add fuel to the fire, and then pose as a ‘protector’ who is indispensable to the nation.
It is possible that the state television’s call to ‘defend the army’ (click here to watch the video of Egyptian television accusing Copts of killing at least three soldiers in clashes) may have incited some Muslim citizen to join the riots and attack Christians. But as far as I could see, most of the Civilian men beating up Christians were working with security forces and weren’t there by accident.”