Last week's deadly siege in Assiut has uncovered police complicity in the buildup of one clan's drugs and weapons empire. Reem Nafie reports
As the Nile flowed calmly past the island of Nekheila, the village's palm trees were as still as ever. Children were walking home from school in the blazing sun with their shool bags hanging from their tiny shoulders, and women went about their daily business, cooking, cleaning, buying groceries, and chatting with the neighbours. Except for the extensive presence of security forces, complete with cars, armoured trucks, and bulldozers, the scene seemed typical of calm southern village life.
But this was not your typical village, nor was this a typical police siege. Nekheila -- an island in Assiut 320 kilometres south of Cairo -- was the home of a notorious gang leader named Hamed "Ezzat" Mohamed, whose family ran a drugs and weapons business, and basically controlled most of the island.
The villagers did not seem at all perturbed by the heavy police presence. Passers-by would stop to share a joke or two with the police conscripts who lined the streets awaiting orders from their superior officers. Why wasn't the scene more chaotic, with people panicking and fretting over their safety? "Why would we be?" asked a woman named Sa'deya. "We are used to the police being here. Everyone is just surprised that they are serious this time."
The hostages being held by the gang leader felt much the same way. After spending nearly a week in forced captivity with little food and water, the nearly 100 hostages that had been trapped in Ezzat's fortress were finally freed on Tuesday, when the violent siege ended with the death of four gang members and the injury of a police officer. Ezzat was also captured and is currently in the hospital recovering from attempted suicide.
Ezzat's lengthy criminal career had led to hostage situations before. Convicted for killings, rape, drug cultivation, and arms dealing, Ezzat has been wanted by authorities for several years. His clan, Awlad Hanafi, ran a 300-acre empire, planting drugs on land they had illegally confiscated from the original owners.
"We all thought that it would be a two- day siege as usual and everything would be over," Salwa, one of the hostages, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Last September, when Ezzat's brother Hassan was killed in a land dispute that turned violent, the island was cordoned off, and village residents placed under a 24-hour curfew. Because the police knew that Ezzat was planning to avenge his brother's death, they patrolled the village for four days, aiming to take the gang leader down.
Soon enough, Ezzat had collected a group of hostages and was threatening to kill them. He bargained with the authorities, promising to free the hostages if the police backed down, and left town. They did, and the hostages were freed.
In November, after Ezzat actually managed to kill six people from the family that had killed his brother, another siege took place, and 20 villagers were taken hostage, and then freed, in yet another bargain with the authorities.
Residents had gotten used to becoming bargaining chips when necessary. "Ezzat was so powerful that we always knew the authorities would let him go," said Ibrahim, a grocer who was taken hostage during the November standoff. "When we were taken hostage, we didn't really worry. We knew he wouldn't kill us because the police would never kill him."
Last week, when police began closing in on the island, Ibrahim said he got a phone call from Ezzat, who asked Ibrahim to "come over and be his hostage. I willingly went, knowing he would compensate me later on, and I wouldn't be harmed," Ibrahim said.
Now that Ezzat was in police custody, Ibrahim felt he could speak of such matters without fear. Other residents echoed this feeling, saying they were happy the "evil boss was now gone". Following Ezzat's capture, women ululated and men celebrated, shooting their guns in the air, relieved his "reign" was over.
While none of the hostages were harmed this time as well, the police's attitude was different, for once. For the past decade, the Hanafis seemed to be going about their illicit business right under the police's nose. This time, General Mohamed Shaarawi, a high-ranking Interior Ministry official, was dispatched from Cairo to head the police operational base in Assiut. "When the interior minister found out about the situation," Shaarawi said, "he ordered that the family's control of the island be broken, and their 300 feddans confiscated."
But why had authorities acted so differently this time? Interior Minister Habib El-Adli was quoted in the papers as saying that, "several cases of bribery are definitely involved in this situation, and those who are involved will be punished".
According to police sources in Nekheila, "many officers were given hefty annual salaries by the Hanafis in exchange for their silence."
A 22 February incident may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. On that day, Ezzat's brother Hamdi was involved in a gun battle with a rival clan, and shots fired by him ended up hitting a train travelling on Egypt's north-south railway. The government had clearly had enough. Shaarawi said, "we can not tolerate them harming others as well?" As a precautionary measure, the government halted all trains travelling from Assiut to Sohag.
The Nekheila battle has also catalysed the ministry's interest in other parts of Upper Egypt where illicit activity has become rampant. According to police sources, one of the victims of the Nekheila siege was a major drug dealer from Naga' Abdel-Rasoul, an island 40 kilometres north of Nekheila. The police is speculating that he may have been attempting to help Ezzat escape. Shaarawi refused to comment on whether Naga' Abdul-Raul would be the government's next target.
El-Adli, meanwhile, urged the doctors treating Ezzat in Assiut to try and keep the gang leader alive, so that the police would eventually find out which officers cooperated with him.