Death on the Nile

In a small Egyptian town, a corpse washes ashore. And then things get really ugly.


LUXOR, Egypt — In Luxor, the hotels are empty. Dozens of luxury cruise liners are docked on the banks of the Nile. Every cab driver and every restaurant owner in this city in Upper Egypt, some 400 miles south of Cairo, bemoans the crippling loss of tourism.

There is no hint of the violence that occurred just a 10-minute drive from here, where life-long neighbors in the village of Naga Hassan turned on each other on July 5. The bloodshed began with a Muslim man found dead along the Nile in the early morning; hours later a frantic mob had killed four Christians and damaged or set fire to 24 Christian homes.

The attack happened as the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy from the presidency. In other parts of Egypt the same week, militant Islamists burned down three churches and killed three Christians. This is not the first outburst of violence against the Christian community, which is overwhelmingly opposed to Morsy, over the past year: In April, police and Muslims joined forces in three days of attacks on Christians in Cairo, resulting in the deaths of six people and the wounding of another 100 Egyptians.

But in Naga Hassan, the few thousand or so residents were not overtly religious or political — and yet they suddenly turned on their friends. The killings are an example of deep-seated prejudices against Christians that lurk beneath the surface here in Egypt. They also reflect the broader instability and rampant lawlessness that has infected the country since dictator Hosni Mubarak fell in early 2011. Whether soccer fan clubs battling police for days, a hostile mob massacring Shiites in a Cairo suburb last month, or Morsy supporters and their opponents fighting in the streets — these days, bloodshed starts easily in Egypt.

"Under these circumstances people are encouraged to vent their frustration or resort to violence," said Hisham Kassem, an analyst on Egyptian politics and former publisher of the Egypt daily al-Masry al-Youm. With the ouster of Morsy, only time will tell if the military is able to impose a modicum of control — or if scenes of mob violence like those in Luxor reoccur.

* * *

The episode here started as a private affair. Hassan Sidqy Hefny, a 52-year-old Muslim, and two young Christian men, Majdy Iskander and Shnouda Romany, were out on the banks of the Nile, according to police and prosecutors. By 2 a.m., Hefny was dead. One theory held by police and locals is the three men indulged in drugs and sexual activity before the two Christians beat and stabbed Hefny nearly to death, then finished him off by drowning him in the Nile. By 3 a.m., the police were called to pick up Hefny’s corpse from the area’s dirt corniche.

Even in the early morning hours, the news — and the outrage — spread quickly. At 4 a.m., the police received another phone call: The two teenagers were fleeing for their lives as mobs chased them and surrounded Christian homes, demanding retribution and throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. There are conflicting accounts of how the young men got blamed for the murder. Muslim residents said the pair were spotted near the body; some local Copts said the two were intoxicated and wandering by the water when they found Hefny.

Hundreds of Naga Hassan’s Muslims gathered over the course of the next few hours, attacking the homes of the village’s Christians. Some Christians say Romany was thrown into the Nile and left to drown, while Iskander took refuge in a house. A few policemen watched the situation unfold, afraid they would be overrun, as a mob of roughly 300 Egyptians surrounded where Iskander had taken refuge. Someone caught a glimpse of him on a neighbor’s rooftop; they stormed Iskander’s hiding place, and beat him until they were satisfied he was dead. When they were finished, police went inside and saw Iskander was still alive. They pretended he was a corpse, wrapped him a blanket and carried him out in a police truck. About a dozen officers then arrived and fired tear gas to disperse the mob.

It should have ended here — and maybe it would have a couple years ago, before Egypt’s political scene turned so turbulent and violent. But that afternoon, just three days after Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the army’s ouster of Morsy, the bloodshed proved harder to contain. Mobs gathered again before sunset and soon set upon their Christian victims. For them, it didn’t matter who killed Hefny. They wanted revenge.

Habib Noshi Habib heard the shouts outside his home. A cousin phoned him. "The town is on fire," he warned.

Soon the mob streamed into Habib’s house, wielding metal rods, shovels, and knives. He counted more than 50 intruders, and even recognized two of them — men who had been close to his family for 40 years. Habib saw policemen standing outside the house, doing nothing to stop the crowds. He swears he heard a policeman exhort the crowd: "Hurry up and finish it off." Whether the policeman’s words were real or imagined, Habib was sure the area’s Muslims wanted them dead. He watched as the mob hunted down his older brother, Moharib, and started to pummel him with their makeshift weapons.

Habib ran for the basement and shut himself in. Moments later, the crowd shouted: "There is no God but God."

When Habib emerged from the basement, his home was destroyed. Moharib and his other brother, Romani, were dead, their faces bludgeoned and covered in blood.

The crowd had also killed a neighbor who was hiding in his house and murdered Habib’s cousin, Emil Nassim Sarafeem, as he fled. Emil had been a well-known political activist with the protest movement Tamarod ("Rebellion") that had helped topple Morsy. The mob beat up four or five policemen who tried to save Emil. Habib had no clear answers whether the murder was due to Emil’s politics or simple hatred for Christians, but he was all too aware of how the last years had radicalized one-time friends.

"Before neighbors protected each other," Habib said. "I never thought this could happen here."

Tensions still remain high in Naga Hassan. While a police crackdown has seen 16 people arrested, Habib believes those who killed his brothers remain free. He now stays at the church just a few blocks from his Muslim neighbors. Ten other families, also displaced by the destruction, live there as well, pacing the courtyard, unsure of what to do next.

"Where else do I have to go?" he asked.

In a home a few blocks from Habib, Mohammed Gilani, Naga Hassan’s local primary school principal, defended his fellow Muslims. He hotly denied that he or anyone else knows the 300 to 500 people who attacked Christian homes. He described them as young locals stunned by Hefny’s death. He added, to nods of approval from several friends, that nobody recognized the culprits in the chaos.

Gilani’s bravado died down when asked how this could happen now. "People are emotional right now," he said. "They have been emotional with everything going on."

Because Morsy was deposed? A pause. "No, nothing like that. It has nothing to do with politics." Why did they attack only Christians? "We don’t have anything here called sectarianism. That’s a made-up word. It was just a shock that somebody died here," he said, pleading to let the town settle its business on its own. "In the end, we have to live together."

Gilani introduced an older Christian woman who lives next door as proof of the brotherly relations among Christians and Muslims. He bragged that they have put a street lamp by her house, so she can walk safely at night. As if to demonstrate their credentials as moderates, he and a few colleagues even boasted they were involved in the campaign to force Morsy to resign.

As Gilani spoke, a phalanx of more than 30 policemen, including plainclothes officers holding revolvers, patrolled outside. They serve as a buffer between the two communities, hoping to prevent a new round of bloodshed from breaking out.

Back in Luxor, police acknowledge that what happened crossed the line from an ordinary murder into communal violence — but they too can’t quite understand how it happened. While there were brutal terror attacks in the 1990s against tourists, no one can recall previous instances of Muslim-Christian bloodshed in the Luxor region.  

It is unclear how the state will address the killings. The prosecutor’s office has made just one visit to the crime scene, and the case is in the hands of a junior attorney. The authorities have pledged to hold the guilty parties to account, but, despite the arrests, the prosecutors have been far from active.  

There are those who view what happened with smugness. The head police officer for all of Luxor, who hails from Cairo, held court in his office recently, wearing a pinstriped shirt and a peach-colored fedora. He called the Christians and Muslims involved "stupid people." He dismissed the locals here as "gays" and suggested the sides should work it out among themselves through "their local customs."

But others are rattled by what they saw. On a late summer night in Luxor, as lizards crawled on a police station wall, one officer sat wide-eyed in the heat, still stunned by the events he witnessed.

He went over in his head how the situation unfolded; how the police felt outnumbered. How they did nothing when the mobs attacked the houses and waited for directions from their superiors to intervene. How the orders never came to push the mob back.

"I beg you, I beg you, ask yourself: What would you have done?" the officer said. "We were in an impossible situation."

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