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A day in the life of Cairo's Matariya Open in fullscreen

Alain Gresh

A day in the life of Cairo's Matariya

Egypt security forces patrol the Cairo neighbourhood of Matariya [AFP]

Date of publication: 2 February, 2015

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Blog: Activists pack the narrow streets of Matariya, risking death to stage peaceful protests against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. And, as usual, local media distort the truth.
Friday, 30 January 2015: In the northeast of Cairo lies Matariya: a poor but far from miserable area. It is full of minibuses as well as "tok-toks" - motorised tricycles whose drivers have scant regard for the highway code.

It is a holiday. Across Egypt at noon most of the population go to the mosque to pray. The weather is pleasant, windy and fresh. On both sides of a large square called Hourriya ["liberty"], there are buildings two to three-storeys high. A maze of unpaved streets a few metres wide leads to the heart of the neighbourhood.

In the central square around the main mosque, hooded policemen sit in armoured vehicles. A policeman in civilian clothes strolls in the square with a gun at his side - a gun with a metre-long barrel reminiscent of a bad western movie. Passers-by appear to ignore the security forces.

In front of a small mosque at the corner of the square, believers listen to the Imam giving his sermon, which is severely censored nowadays. Some unroll a carpet or unfold a newspaper to kneel on to say their prayers. Almost as soon as they finish, cries are heard from a group of between 200 to 300 people that has gathered nearby.

The crowd is mainly young, determined men shouting slogans, who are encouraged by a smaller group of young women. Some hold four fingers in the air - a pro-Muslim Brotherhood hand gesture - while only one raises a picture of their deposed president, Mohamed Morsi.

Everyone there knows the police could open fire at any moment. They all know they could be hit by a sniper's bullet, or that a police officer dressed as a civilian could pull out a weapon and kill them. People are still haunted by the memories of the past week.

On the 25 and 26 January, the fourth anniversary of the revolution that deposed Hosni Mubarak from the presidency, the neighbourhood witnessed what resembled an uprising. Security forces tried to arrest protesters, but found themselves stuck in the narrow passages when they chased them. A total of 15 people died, and it took two days to restore order.

As usual, private and official media outlets who reported on the two days of protest accused the Brotherhood of opening fire on the police, and claimed locals clashed with protesters. However, reading online versions of the event written in English gives a different story, such as Adham Youssef, "The Republic of Matariya", Daily News Egypt, 26 January.

However, people's attitudes seem to change between sympathy, applause and indifference. One neither hears comments supporting the regime, nor senses the presence of the moukhabarat secret police. It is as though the regime has given up on controlling this rebellious part of the city, and is more focused on protests in downtown Cairo that are being monitored by the international media.
     The 15 people killed in Matariya remain anonymous. They were poor, and what is worse, may have been Islamists.

It was in downtown that activist Shimaa el-Sabagh was murdered by a police officer on 24 January 2015. Her murder was captured live on camera, and her radiant face was broadcast across the world. Even director of the government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper issued an elaborate statement expressing his regret over Sabagh's murder.

However, the 15 people killed in Matariya - 22 according to the residents - on 25 and 26 January remain anonymous. They were poor, and what is worse, may have been Islamists.

The bloody events of the past week do not seem to have stopped the youth, be they men or women. During the protests in Matariya slogans were shouted, with an ingenuity that mimicked the 2011 revolution. Cheers confirmed the Brotherhood's presence.

Everyone was united by a deep-rooted hatred, which was a driving element of the 2011 revolution. An emotion most likely bred by the torture many have experienced at the hands of the police and army.

Slogans were shouted such as "the police and the army are one dirty hand", which is a parody of the regime's original slogan: "The police, the army and the people are one hand."

Another slogan referred to the fact that scoring 50 percent on the baccalaureate is enough to be admitted into the police academy, while universities usually require a score of 80 to 100 percent. Thanks to rampant corruption pashas ["officers"] can obtain diplomas.

Another slogan asked: "Officer, why did you kill my sister?" Religious slogans were also chanted, such as: "A state whose symbol is the Prophet will never kneel."


After 20 minutes the security forces' armoured vehicles appeared. Protesters did not panic, but withdrew to nearby streets and continued shouting.The police dared not pursue them and this time the protest, like others taking place in the area, ended calmly.

As expected, the next morning the media lied about what had happened. Some newspapers, such as Al-Shorouk - one of the "less bad" dailies - said clashes had broken out between the demonstrators and locals. Al-Masry al-Youm claimed demonstrators had called for the return of Morsi. I personally did not hear any such calls.

A version of this article was first published by Le Monde diplomatique.

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