Obscure Nile Delta village exposes ‘other Egypt’

Abdullah Kamal

Published: Updated:

All of a sudden, the small village of el-Qatawia captured the headlines in politically polarized Egypt. El-Qatawia, located in the Delta province of Sharqia, would have continued to be obscure had it not been for recent grisly incidents triggered by a Facebook comment.

Think tanks look into the Egyptian crisis using pre-conceived moulds based on previously tested standards and accordingly make conclusions of political, economic and legal possibilities. In recent weeks, the Egyptian army's role has been at the centre of attention along with the spiraling effects of an acute economic crisis.

However, two days of blood violence in el-Qatawia should prompt analysts to change their tack and look deeper at ulterior factors, which can cause an unexpected explosion in Egypt.

Sparking the unrest

The unrest in el-Qatawia started with remarks critical of the Islamist President Mohammed Mursi written by a 40-year-old mechanic on his Facebook account. The remarks echoed those made by millions of Egyptians. The mechanic's critique proved fatal, though.

A son of a local official in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party bumped into the mechanic and had a sharp argument with him, followed by a fistfight. The Islamist youngster drew his gun and fired several shots, killing both Mursi's critic and a passer-by.

Infuriated, the villagers attacked the shooter's house with petrol bombs, demanding his surrender. The police intervened after two floors of the house were torched, negotiating an evacuation of the women and children trapped inside. The angry villagers caught the wanted shooter trying to escape disguised in a full-face veil. They dragged him to death on the ground.

The melee ended with three people dead, one injured and a torched house. All this was because of an anti-Mursi remark.

Egyptians usually mock such obscure villages, saying they do not exist on the map. Nonetheless, el-Qatawia has abruptly made headlines, exposing what may be latent in Egypt's depths.

Abdullah Kamal

Murders are not uncommon in Egyptian villages. Usually, they are not politically motivated, except those happening during election campaigning. The incident was the first of its kind in el-Qatawia, which probably has not taken part in the protests that have rocked Egypt in the past two years.

Egyptians usually mock such obscure villages, saying they do not exist on the map. Nonetheless, el-Qatawia has abruptly made headlines, exposing what may be latent in Egypt's depths.

Hundreds of the ruling Brotherhood's members of the so-called electronic committees keep track of comments posted on social networking websites to spot negative or derogatory critiques of the Islamist group. Still, this hunt has not stopped a wave of public sharp criticisms of President Mursi who hails from the Brotherhood.

Around 35 million Egyptians, browsing the Internet, are estimated to have set up 12 million Facebook accounts. The widely popular website has been a tool of incitement, motivation and political mobilization.Yet, the el-Qatawia mayhem marked the first time that killings occurred due to a Facebook comment.

Observers in Cairo and other key Egyptian cities are busy following up Facebook pages famous for heated arguments among different political factions. However, the violence in el-Qatawia points to serious-but-unnoticed interactions, which turn virtual disagreements into real-life battles.

The office of the Freedom and Justice Party in the province of Sharqia tried to play down the incident, saying it had no political implications. When posted online, the office's statement drew angry comments, with one reprimanding the party's local official in the village for having "failed to properly rear" his son. Another commentator wondered how a youngster could be allowed to carry a gun in public; a third dismissed the whole statement as untrue.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an analysis titled "The Brotherhood's toughest challenge is the Brotherhood itself". In that piece, I referred to political tensions gripping the young members of the Brotherhood, who persistently call on their leaders to take stringent, violent steps against the opposition. The child of the local official at the centre of the el-Qatawia unrest is an example.

Significantly, Mohammed Badae, the Brotherhood's supremo, has recently targeted the group's youth with two successive messages, urging them to calm down.

The Brotherhood is in the grip of two types of contradictions, which are increasingly getting out of control. While the group looks at pains to abide by the rules of the political game, many of its leaders and allies make bellicose statements as though setting the scene for an imminent battle. Nearly a month ago, such statements prompted members from the Brotherhood to attack protesters outside the group's headquarters in the Cairo area of Moqattam.

Due to mounting public disillusionment with the Brotherhood's rule, the group's local leaders appear unable to allay the angry people in their areas. Meanwhile, the senior Brotherhood leaders move around driven in cars with dark curtains and heavily guarded. The other day, Minister of Supply Bassem Ouda, who belongs to the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, had to cut short a street tour after a bakery owner attacked him.

The unrest in el-Qatawia exposed public fury, which was so uncontrollable that the province's security chief had to rush to the scene. The situation worsened after killings occurred. The angry villagers blocked burials for hours, a highly significant act in Egyptians' age-old culture that always sees burial as an honour for the deceased.

Proliferation of weapons

Furthermore, the incident points to the proliferation of weapons across Egypt. While the Brotherhood youngster was carrying a gun in public, relatives of his victims rushed to take revenge with petrol bombs and long knives. The police failed to defuse their anger.

The example of el-Qatawia gives a new insight into the Egyptian scene. The village is part of Sharqia, a province teeming with followers of the Brotherhood. Sharqia is also the hometown of Mursi and an ex-supreme leader of the Brotherhood. A house owned by Mursi in Sharqia has been the target of several attacks and protests in recent months.

In-depth analyses of the Egyptian crisis using traditional criteria sound logical. Still, Egypt is fraught with details that stir unexpected incidents. El-Qatawia should serve as a reminder that Egyptian society has such depths that should be heeded due to their implications for Egypt's future.

Abdullah Kamal – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, is now working on a book about the end of the Mubarak era under the title of “The Penultimate Pharaoh.” The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.