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Short tempers and street violence in Egypt

Poor villages and cities are strained by clan rivalries, a broken economy and growing public anger.

August 30, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Street vendors sell vegetables at a crowded neighborhood in Cairo. Police have returned to many parts of Egypt, but pockets of lawlessness remain.
Street vendors sell vegetables at a crowded neighborhood in Cairo. Police… (Khalil Hamra, Associated…)

Reporting from Giza, Egypt — The air is mean on butcher row.

Blood mixes with water, flowing past white boots and long knives. Scrubbed cow intestines brim in silver pails and flies bristle green and black in the sun. Prices rise and boiled hooves go unsold. Tempers are short, and at dusk, when the metal shutters rattle closed, men with machine guns roam.

The police are gone, scattered since the revolution, when mobs angry at decades of extortion and abuse torched the station house and stole the weapons, a scene repeated across Egypt. There is little law in the Moneeb neighborhood, except the army, but the soldiers don't come until the night gets pretty shot up and men like Tammam Tawfik hide and wait for morning.

"No police," says Tawfik. "None at all."

Two men died in a gun battle this month. Taunts about turf and respect were tossed between a youth belonging to the butchers' clan and another belonging to the shopkeepers'. A gun was pulled, then another, and an hour later 200 men and boys were hurling Molotov cocktails in the darkness.

"There are better weapons on the street since the revolution," says Adel Mohamed, a balding man with a quiet voice who sells varnished cabinets across from butcher row. "All the vengeances stored up from the past are being taken out now. There's no authority and no law. There are jobless, angry people with a lot of time on their hands."

Violence is tormenting Egypt as it struggles to build a democracy. Clan rivalries, a broken economy, criminal gangs, arms smuggling and a rage no longer suppressed are straining poor villages and cities that have yet to see the rewards of revolution. Police have returned to many parts of the country but there are pockets that echo with lawlessness.

A traffic accident in the village of Nagaa Eweis this month escalated into a war between families that killed three people and wounded nearly 30. Two people died in the city of Biba when clans armed with high-caliber guns and gasoline bombs clashed after an argument between a motorcyclist and a pedestrian. Days later, 25 people were injured when residents of two Cairo neighborhoods attacked one another with stones and knives after a scuffle between street vendors.

"Can't you hear the arguing behind you?" says Khalil Mahmoud, a thin man in a tunic with nervous eyes and black-stained hands shoveling charcoal into white sacks in a Moneeb alley. "Look at that man yelling. He's angry. He has a family to feed. If you have money problems and business is down, it's easy to be provoked. I'm losing income. I sell charcoal to kebab grills but nobody can afford a kebab meal these days."

Girls haggle over vegetable prices with a man on the corner, and mothers haul propane cooking canisters beneath open windows and drooping laundry. Hassan Rawi, holy verses drifting around him from a distant radio, brushes away steel shavings and rust in his metal shop. God is great.

"We had cops before but they never really stopped anything," he says.

"But now people feel they can do whatever they want," says Soad Helmy, inspecting Rawi's handiwork and sweating in her head scarf and matching blue abaya. "We've never seen these big guns before."

"It's not as bad as Somalia," says Rawi.

***

Thirty years ago, this neighborhood was farm fields skirted by desert and shadowed by the pyramids. It changed when villagers from Egypt's south traced the Nile River north toward the clamor and promise of Cairo. Bricks were stacked and the untrammeled expanse that once glowed in starlight was smothered by apartments, schools and mosques. The slaughterhouse went up; shops lined the streets. The neighborhood's prosperity, scarce as it was, dwindled. Bread lines grew, and garbage now lies so thick over the canals that egrets walk upon it.

People here are accustomed to saying: "I'm not the only one suffering."

Order had been kept by street cops and clans. Many say the neighborhood was relatively safe until the police collapsed during the revolution and families got hold of weapons from the south. The fresh bullet hole in the slaughterhouse door is jagged. No one knows who's hiding a gun and who's not, and a man keeps his gaze on a stranger longer than is polite.

"The police robbed the country, yes, but at least they were ruling this neighborhood," says Hany Nems, a butcher, sitting next to a soaking cow skin and a boy swinging a hatchet, breaking bones and hanging meat on hooks.

"We're all on our own now," says Nems' brother, Nasser.

Boys throw rocks at wild dogs on butcher row and a young man with slicked-backed hair delivers ice blocks with his horse cart. Adel Mohamed opens his shop's metal shutter and light falls upon polished cabinets. He came north a quarter-century ago and is bothered these days by the butchers across the street.

"They're causing the problems," he says. "They fight every day over business and money and we have to live with the stink."

He washes his face and hands and follows the call to prayer.

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