Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 July 2009
Issue No. 956
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Reactions to a murder

The stabbing to death of a Muslim woman in a courtroom in Dresden, Germany, two weeks ago has provoked a wave of anger in Egypt and other countries, reports Reem Leila

As part of the continuing reactions to the fatal stabbing of an Egyptian woman, Marwa El-Sherbini, as she gave evidence in a courtroom in the German city of Dresden a fortnight ago, the German prosecutor- general this week issued a ban on publishing details about her death at the hands of her Russian-German attacker. The ban was announced following claims in the German magazine Focus that the murder had been premeditated.

El-Sherbini's family reacted angrily to the ban, describing it as an attempt to silence the media and an attempt to conceal the truth. "The ban surprised us," Ali El-Sherbini, Marwa's father, said. "I'm sure they are trying to hide information about things such as the court's delay in summoning the police after my daughter had been attacked, and the security guard who shot Elwi Ali Okaz, my son-in-law."

Okaz, who was seriously injured, was apparently mistakenly shot by a court guard as he attempted to go to his wife's aid.

Ali El-Sherbini added that he believed the media ban was meant to protect Germany's reputation abroad rather than further the interests of the case. "Germany is refusing to allow the media to report the case in order to avoid the condemnation of other countries," he said.

For Egyptians, as well as for Muslims in other Arab and European countries, it has been obvious from the start that this was not an ordinary crime, many people believing that El-Sherbini was killed because she was a Muslim woman who wore the veil.

On 7 July, a day after her funeral, angry demonstrators gathered outside the German embassy in Cairo to protest against what they described as a Western civilisation that was brutal and anti- Muslim. A young woman at the demonstration said the act had been "against Islam", adding that this was a crime "about identity" and the failure to realise that "God created all of us the same. We are all human, created by the same God."

In Egypt, emotions are still running high two weeks after El-Sherbini's murder, with memorials in the country's various governorates attracting thousands of people.

Immediately after the arrival of El-Sherbini's body in her home country from Germany, protesters gathered outside the German consulate in Alexandria. In Cairo, protesters also gathered outside the German embassy last week to register their outrage at the brutal murder of this 32-year-old Egyptian mother, who was also pregnant. The protesters called upon President Hosni Mubarak to become more directly involved in the case.

On Monday, more than 1,000 demonstrators in the Al-Daqahliya governorate protested against what they described as the little attention the murder had received in the international media, as well as against the responses of the German and Egyptian governments. The Egyptian Pharmacists' Syndicate, to which El-Sherbini belonged, has also threatened to boycott German pharmaceutical companies.

Elsewhere in the world, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed Germany for the killing, saying that "the judge, jury and German government are responsible" in a comment quoted on a state media website. The Iranian president also criticised US President Barack Obama, European leaders and the UN secretary-general for not responding to the murder.

"When there is an incident in a country that opposes them, they adopt resolutions against that country. However, they don't respect the minimal rights of people in their own countries," Ahmadinejad said, summoning the German ambassador in Tehran to the Iranian Foreign Ministry to express his government's outrage at the murder.

Ahmadinejad called on Germany to do more to protect the rights of Muslims and other minorities living in the country. The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that the Italian ambassador to Iran had also been summoned to the Foreign Ministry, in order to condemn the "silence of those who claim to support democracy and human rights".

On 12 July, Shia Muslim activists from the Imamia Student Organisation (ISO) marched in a protest rally in Karachi in Pakistan and burned the German, Israeli and US flags to express their anger at the murder.

Assurances from German officials that this was an individual incident and that justice would be done have done little to ease the anger of protesters worldwide. Questions are being asked about why El-Sherbini's attacker was allowed to take a knife into the courtroom, and why there was such a serious failure of security.

Behind such questions lies the suspicion of anti- Muslim prejudice, with many angered that the murder has not elicited an adequate response from the German or other European capitals.

Commenting on European reactions to the murder, Samir Naim, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University in Cairo, warned against making judgements about all Germans or all Europeans.

However, Naim went on to accuse the German media of double standards. "I could not prevent myself from comparing how the German media has ignored the Dresden incident, as if it had happened on another planet, with the excesses of the same media when a Muslim commits such a crime, or even a lesser crime," Naim said.

Yet, some Egyptians' rage has been directed at their own government rather than at the German one, accusing it of failing to respond forcefully enough to the killing of an Egyptian citizen abroad in what was allegedly a racially motivated attack.

According to Tarek El-Sherbini, brother of Marwa El-Sherbini, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, the case showed that the lives of Egyptians were treated as worthless by the government.

There is no death penalty in Germany, though El-Sherbini's attacker could receive as many as 25 years in prison or as few as 15.

"The assailant should be sent to Egypt and stand trial in an Egyptian court; otherwise my sister's blood will have been shed in vain," El-Sherbini said.

El-Sherbini said he was grateful for the massive support the family had received from the Egyptian public and media. "The Egyptian people have given us the greatest possible support," he said, adding that this could not be said of the Egyptian government's response to the case.

"The government is not doing anything more than it has to," he said. "Their reaction is merely proportionate to the size of the incident."

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has been the subject of particularly sharp criticism, with El-Sherbini's family, along with protesters, claiming he has done too little to represent the interests of El-Sherbini or of Egypt.

"Diplomatic relations with Germany should be broken off, and the trial should be held in an international court at the very least," El-Sherbini said.

In response to such demands, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has said that the country's prosecutor-general has requested German officials to send him a report on the investigations currently taking place in Germany. A delegation has also been sent to Germany to follow the investigations and lawyers commissioned to represent El-Sherbini's family in the German courts.

The reaction of the court security guard to the attack on El-Sherbini has been taken as especially revealing. Not only did it come too late to save El-Sherbini's life, but it also involved shooting El-Sherbini's husband, who had attempted to get between his wife and her murderer.

"Apparently the Western media's depiction of Muslims as aggressors and terrorists has so blinded German people that they could not see that this Muslim woman was being attacked," commented Khaled Abu Bakr, the lawyer appointed by the Egyptian Bar Association to represent the family.

Abu Bakr is reportedly receiving assistance from Egyptian officials, with Fathi Sorour, speaker of the People's Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, sending the lawyer material on German law.

The German police have been cooperative, Abu Bakr said, "except when it comes to investigating the actions of the guard who shot El-Sherbini's husband." The lawyer has demanded that the guard be held responsible for his actions, and the German authorities admit that these were due to racism.

"The guard came into the courtroom, saw an altercation between a white man and a dark-skinned man, and, faced with the decision of whom to shoot, chose the darker one," Abu Bakr said.

German Ambassador to Egypt Bernd Erbel has paid his respects to Marwa El-Sherbini's family in Alexandria.

"I went to Alexandria and conveyed the German government's condolences, as well as my own personal condolences, to the family of the deceased," Erbel said. "I sincerely hope they can continue their lives despite this horrible event."

German officials said that the German foreign minister had written to his Egyptian counterpart expressing his shock at the murder and saying that Germany would do everything it could to prevent any further incidents of this sort.

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