“Matariya is a republic on its own. It has been so since 28 January 2011,” said Mos’ab, a 21-year-old student from the area.
At least 12 protesters were killed Sunday in Matariya, a working class area in north-eastern Cairo, that has become a flashpoint of anti-government protests since the beginning of the 25 January Revolution. This was particularly so after the “Friday of Anger” on 28 January 2011, that left hundreds dead across Egypt.
Mos’ab, who participated in Sunday’s protests and did not want to mention his last name, said that in January 2011 he saw dozens of police officers and conscripts abandoning their armoured vehicles. They also took off their military uniforms in order not to be recognised by protesters. “That is when we declared our independence,” he said.
On Sunday, protests in the area started several hours before noon, amid a heavy presence of riot police and armoured vehicles. In Al-Trolly Street and Matariya Square, the meeting points of all demonstrations coming from smaller streets, thousands of protesters gathered to chant against the government.
Daily News Egypt talked to protesters and eyewitnesses who participated in the deadly protests. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
Salem said that most of the protesters were Islamists and were repeating chants that called for applying the Islamic Sharia. He added that they are mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood group.
However, Awad disagreed, saying that other groups and movements were participating in the protests, like the 6 April movement and members of other secular and liberal parties.
Clashes started at 1pm, after riot police started firing teargas and birdshot, Salem added. “Protesters then replied with fireworks and rocks, which were met with live rounds from the security forces.”
Salem asserts that he saw a man being shot in the head by live rounds coming from the police side. He added that the police used thugs and had agents in plain clothes: “Some of these thugs were captured by the protesters and beaten. This will definitely create disputes between the residents of the neighbourhood.”
Awad agreed, saying that most of these “thugs” are suspects in cases related to narcotics and other crimes. They “work as agents with police officers to spot protesters and to help detain and beat revolutionaries”.
Matariya is relatively small neighbourhood where many people know each other. When someone is known to have worked with the government, he and his family might face angry reactions from protesters, and the opposite is true as the family might retaliate.
“This creates chaos, as all sides don’t believe in the force of law and will take matters into their own hands,” Awad explained.
However, he thinks that most importantly the high death toll could create a “vendetta cycle between residents of Matariya and the police”.
Since the beginning of the revolution this vendetta has been increasing. “Like I said before it is a small neighbourhood, therefore if one member of a family is killed, the whole street will feel sympathy with him, increasing the tension,” Awad said.
As the night approached, clashes escalated as protesters barricaded the streets setting fire to tires and metal trash cans. Awad added that the police blocked all roads leading to Al-Trolly Street and Matariya Square, leaving large numbers of protesters trapped.
“Many times the police were trying to storm in what could be described as a minor sit-in, but failed miserably,” he said. “During these attempts a number of young men were killed by live rounds, which were fired randomly.”
Ahmed, who visited the protest late at night, said that protesters were gathering around a fire, amid solidarity from the residents. He stressed that there “were preliminary signs of a civil dissidence.”
“At times, the protesters tricked the stationed police forces by throwing plastic bags filled with sand and rocks as if they were TNT explosives, causing the forces to retreat,” Ahmed added.
The Ministry of Interior released a statement Sunday night saying that armed protesters attacked security forces and injured a number of officers, adding the latter regained full control of the situation.
Another protester who Daily News Egypt contacted by phone, said that microbuses filled with men in plain clothes arrested some protesters and “any one they suspected might be protesting”. He added that the lights in the neighbourhood went off in attempt to make it harder for the protesters.
Police forces also were stationed near the Ain Shams metro station in order to arrest any protesters. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said that nine female protesters were arrested while trying to take the metro.
Mohamed Belal, a leading figure in the Salafi Front group, wrote on his official page that he counted ten causalities, and saw serious injuries. Belal thinks that “in order for the regime to fall, we must exhaust it by similar methods of protests”.
“It is highly expected that police forces will stage a security operation to arrest people who participated in Sunday protests, similar to what happened in Kerdasa last year,” Mos’ab added.
Indeed, on Sunday night Ahmed Moussa, a controversial TV presenter in Sada Al-Balad, publically demanded the security to surround the district and carry out a house-to-house search “to arrest militant criminal elements of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
One of the deceased protesters, Mahmoud Magdy, was shot in the stomach by the police forces, his father told Daily News Egypt. He said that his son was protesting peacefully and was not carrying any kind of weapons. “Mahmoud’s friends tried to take the body to a private hospital but they were kicked out,” his father said. “We had to send the body to a public hospital in order to extract a burial permit”.
Other families of the dead protesters were contacted but refused to comment or share information, in fear of retaliation by security forces.
Matariya has been witnessing weekly demonstrations by pro-Morsi protesters, and in some cases by Islamists demonstrators.
Two died last November in clashes between protesters and security forces in what is known as “the Muslim youth Uprising”.
Last January, Matariya saw the worst violence during the third 25 January Revolution anniversary, as pro-Morsi protesters confronted local residents and riot police. WikiThawra, an independent database dedicated to the Egyptian revolution, listed 30 dead and 70 injured in the mentioned incident.
During the events of the 25 January Revolution, the neighbourhood witnessed large anti-government demonstrations and confrontations with the security forces. According to a May 2011 Amnesty International report, angry protesters burned approximately 20 cars belonging to the riot police and clashed with security forces in the streets. Protesters also looted and set fire to two police stations in the area.