Violence in Nile port city sparks worry about Egypt military's tactics

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 16, 2011 

DAMIETTA, Egypt — A deadly clash between soldiers and protesters in this Nile Delta city is sharpening concerns that the Egyptian military has decided to confront peaceful protesters with harsh tactics, including live ammunition, in the volatile weeks before parliamentary elections begin Nov. 28.

One person was killed and a dozen injured on Sunday when Egyptian troops armed with assault rifles opened fire on about 50 demonstrators who'd camped overnight to demand that a fertilizer factory stop dumping chemical waste into the waters of this port town.

In the days since, protesters have paralyzed this city's busy port, turning away hundreds of cargo trucks and vowing not to lift the blockade, even though the Egyptian government has said it has suspended the factory's operations while its toxic effects are studied. The protesters also have blocked access to the security forces' barracks nearby.

"We don't trust the government," said Mohamed Eissa, 37, a furniture factory worker who has been protesting for the past week. "It's a temporary shutdown. They never reacted to our demands or cared about our environment and health. They attacked us with live ammunition instead of listening to our complaints."

The protests here are the latest in a string of incidents across Egypt in which security forces appear to have adopted the same harsh tactics that were prevalent during the era of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. That in turn has Egyptian analysts worrying that as voting unfolds, violence will intensify.

"I am very concerned about the state of security during the coming elections," said Ziad Akl, a political researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "There will be regrettable consequences if the security gap is not contained before elections."

In the past few days alone, clashes between protesters and security forces have erupted in widely disparate parts of Egypt.

In the northern Sinai Peninsula, thousands of residents marched to protest sweeping raids that security forces conducted after the bombing of a natural gas pipeline.

In the southern city of Aswan, protesters outraged by an officer's alleged killing of a sailor torched the local police club and a police station. Several protesters were injured when the security forces used batons and tear gas to disperse the crowd, according to Egyptian news reports.

In Damietta, an industrial city on the Mediterranean coast about 250 miles from Cairo, the protests erupted Nov. 8 after the government licensed the expansion of the MOPCO chemical fertilizer factory.

Protesters complained that the factory's chemical waste had poisoned the waters of the Mediterranean and the Nile River branch that cuts through the city. Farmers said their crops had died, and fishermen lamented that the water had become too contaminated to fish.

The protesters had spent the night outside the factory when troops arrived about 6 a.m. Sunday, witnesses recounted.

When the army opened fire, said Ikarmi Abdel Azim, 33, he and another protester, Islam Amin, ran.

"As soon as we ran into that fruit orchard he screamed and held his abdomen, five steps later he fell there," Azim said, speaking of Amin. "I had to run away. They continued to shoot."

Amin's body was found later in the orchard by his brother, Abdelsalam, who had raced to the scene on his motorbike when he heard that gunfire had broken out. When he and another protester attempted to carry away the body, Egyptian soldiers launched a fresh attack.

"One of them hit me with his rifle butt, and the other kicked me in the face when I fell down," Abdelsalam Amin said, tugging down his shirt to reveal bruises across his chest.

The death of Islam Amin spurred further protests, with demonstrators carrying photocopies of his autopsy report, which said Amin had been "shot by a 7.62 x 39mm live bullet tearing through the abdomen and chest, causing hemorrhage and immediate death."

Damietta's prosecutor general, governor and security officials declined to comment.

Only hours after the bloodshed, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, announced the shutdown of the factory and an investigation into its hazardous effects on the environment. Two days later, interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's office announced "a full suspension to all operations of the fertilizer factory MOPCO until the authorities are through with investigations into the environmental effects of the operation."

None of that was enough for protesters, who vowed to continue demonstrating until the factory was closed. They've already made a dent in the local economy. Port authorities said Tuesday that 22 cargo ships had been stuck at the port for a week, with 30 others arriving and also waiting for an end to the unrest before trade resumes.

Ahmed al Zeini, head of the Damietta Cargo Transport Association, an umbrella group for local transport companies, said losses so far had "reached $3 million due to suspended work in the port."

Dozens of workers also said they'd boycott the elections because none of the candidates has addressed their issues; a few went so far as to threaten attacks on polling stations.

"We haven't seen a single candidate campaigning or talking to us. They only serve the businessmen — no one cares about poor workers like us," said Mohamed Salem, 20.

"No elections will happen here until we see a government that cares about us and candidates that will truly work for our benefit and future," he added. "We won't allow either the opening of the fertilizer factory or elections."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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