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At least 18 die in Egyptian violence

At least 18 people were killed in political violence on Sunday, the fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising, a reminder of the ruthless crackdown the military-backed government has used to silence any echoes of that revolt.

Security officials said three of those killed were militants trying to plant bombs that accidentally exploded in two Nile Delta towns, and three others were police conscripts. At least 12 others were civilians killed by security forces.

As many as 10 civilians were killed in clashes in the Matariya district, a frequent flash point on the northern edge of Cairo, and dozens of civilians were reportedly injured in clashes at scattered protests around the country.

After nearly 18 months of recurring police shootings at street protests since the military takeover in 2013, it was the deaths of two others killed over the weekend that most captured Egypt’s attention.

Sondos Reda Abu Bakr, a 17-year-old high school student, was killed Friday by police officers firing birdshot at a demonstration in Alexandria in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, 32, a left-leaning poet and activist, was killed in Cairo. She was a member of a socialist political party that had supported President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military takeover he led in 2013.

Neither of the women was likely to have posed any threat.

Ms. Sabbagh was walking in a small group of fellow party members on Saturday with a wreath of flowers to lay in Tahrir Square to honor demonstrators killed there during previous protests, according to a witness account and a video recording of the scene. When her group took up the Arab Spring chant for “bread, freedom and social justice,” a contingent of masked riot police officers as numerous as the marchers “fired bullets and gas within minutes,” according to a testimonial posted on Facebook by Azza Soliman, a prominent human rights lawyer who was nearby at the time.

In the video, the police officers are seen firing guns from across a narrow street. A friend, crouching down, grabs Ms. Sabbagh around the waist as she stands upright with blood running down her face. Then he is seen hurriedly carrying her away while the gunfire continues. A forensic report said birdshot fired at close range had pierced her lung and heart, according to news reports.

The deaths on the anniversary of the revolt were predictable, rights activists say, because the swift use of firearms has become de facto police policy toward any unauthorized public assembly, especially in downtown Cairo. On the anniversary last year, more than 50 people died in clashes with the police.

But the arresting stories of the two unarmed women, and most of all the vivid images of Ms. Sabbagh’s death, have dramatized the police violence more effectively than any statistics, rights advocates say.

“She is a member of a very tame opposition party, by no means a revolutionary, and yet she is subjected to this brutal force,” said Amr Abdel Rahman, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“The streets are becoming much less safe for Egyptian activists from any walk of the political spectrum than it was even last year,” he said.

Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, noted that only a small demonstration in support of President Sisi appeared to have escaped police violence. So the police killings, including Ms. Sabbagh’s, had sent a clear message.

“If you object to Sisi, your blood is permissible,” Mr. Eid said, arguing that Mr. Sisi’s police force was clenching its fist even more tightly than former President Hosni Mubarak’s — “with all its monstrosity.”

“We are closer to the Gestapo in East Germany or the Savak political police of Iran” under the Shah, Mr. Eid added.

Unable to dismiss Ms. Sabbagh as a violent agitator or an Islamist militant, Egyptian officials and the government’s supporters have begun to speculate improbably that someone other than the police may have fired the shot that killed her.

“We need a clear answer: Who killed Shaimaa Sabbagh?” the pro-government television talk-show host Lamees Hadidi asked, as though it were a mystery.

A spokesman for the Egyptian Interior Ministry, Maj. Gen. Hany Abdel Latif, raised the same question, saying the police could not have killed Ms. Sabbagh.

“I assure you that all the security apparatuses are working to find out who did this,” he said in an interview. “No one is above the law.” He vigorously disputed the accounts of witnesses and rights groups that the police invariably resort to birdshot when dispersing any crowd. “This is completely unacceptable.”

But he also argued that the police had been justified in breaking up even Ms. Sabbagh’s small march of a few dozen people trying to lay flowers in the square.

The protest law, Mr. Abdel Latif said, bans even small gatherings without authorization, and he said Ms. Sabbagh’s friends had shot off firecrackers in the direction of the police — contradicting multiple witnesses as well as the video.

“They were youth, and they shot fireworks at the police, as well as cut off a public road,” Mr. Abdel Latif said. “The police used tear gas, and six were arrested.”

Still, Ms. Soliman, the lawyer who witnessed the shooting, is standing firmly by her account. “It was the police who killed Shaimaa,” she wrote.

But if the ministry’s official account may not convince many, its tactics have nonetheless deterred them.

Hundreds gathered in Ms. Sabbagh’s hometown, Alexandria, on Sunday to march from her home to the Manarah Cemetery for her burial, and they chanted against the Interior Ministry and “military rule.”

But afraid of coming under attack themselves, some in the crowd also chanted against the Muslim Brotherhood, to be sure that no one assaulted them as a part of the outlawed Islamist groups, said Hakim Abdelnaem, a friend and political ally of Ms. Sabbagh.

“There were many calls for protests,” he said. “But the streets are full of the government, with informants everywhere, and any protests can expect to be immediately attacked by the police. Any group that tries to do anything is faced with very violent confrontation without warning.”

So the mourners canceled the protests, Mr. Abdelnaem said. “It was decided that there was no need to lose more people today.”

Source: The New York Times

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