FEKOUS, Egypt — Here reside three young men, the oldest of them just 20, each boasting that they are proud fighters on the nation’s newest battlefield. One said he set a police officer’s home ablaze. Another pointed a gun at nearby residents as his friends set a store on fire. The third said that if a police officer ever killed a member of his family, he would respond by assassinating a police officer.
“Our message is that we can reach your house the way you reach ours,” said the 20-year-old, who wanted to be identified only as Maher.
These young men are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi rose to power. On Christmas Day, the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Since then, Fekous and surrounding Sharqia province have been engulfed in a growing tit-for-tat battle between Islamists and police.
In Sharqia province, which sits just between Cairo and the restive Sinai, eight police officers have been killed in just three weeks, each by a motorcyclist who pulled up to them in traffic and shot them, usually in the head, according to Mohammed el Khatib, the general coordinator of the police union.
A ninth was attacked on Sunday and reportedly fatally shot his attackers.
The Egyptian government’s crackdown on Islamists, which began after Morsi’s July 3 ouster, was supposed to bring order. Instead, it is creating a new kind of chaos – crackdowns met with increased violence and assassinations by young fighters.
Police officials believe the violence spiked here after fighters in neighboring Sinai fled last fall’s intensified government crackdown there and moved into Sharqia, which like Sinai has vast desert space perfect for hiding. Those fighting here blame the uptick in violence on a stepped-up police campaign that started on Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the uprising that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from power. And they believe citizens who lost family members to police are now killing officers in response.
Either way, the rise in violence is turning this province, home to both Morsi and his rival in the 2012 presidential election, Ahmed Shafik, into an epicenter of the crackdown, eerily similar to what is happening in Giza, outside Cairo, and Sinai, where hundreds of police officers have been attacked.
Here in Fekous, rather than fighting for Morsi’s return to office or under the direction of the Brotherhood, the youths said they are fighting for their friends who’ve been arrested or killed by government forces. Rather than join established jihadist groups, they’re creating their own movements, often through Facebook.
They’ve redefined what constitutes “peaceful.”
In justifying setting the police officer’s home on fire _ they chose his house because a detained friend had told them his name _ Maher said it was better than the alternative. “We tried not to kill,” he said. “It’s a punch to scare them. It’s peaceful because we don’t kill.”
In response, the police in Fekous have executed an unprecedented number of arrests. Because of the number of detentions, police forces have leaned increasingly on lower-ranking officers to carry out tasks that once were above their rank. That’s made low-ranking officers subject to retaliatory attacks. Most of the eight police officers killed in the last three weeks were low ranking.
Two came from the same impoverished nearby village of Kafr Abu Hadab, a settlement of spare homes set down in the middle of wheat fields. The only sign of color among the concrete-slab houses are pictures of the fallen officers.
The three young men said they first organized during Morsi’s presidency when he called for projects to renew Egypt. They hoped to create an Islamic caliphate, they said. They felt that if Egypt could be ruled by Islamists, then other countries would follow and soon the region would become one big caliphate. But they never got a chance to start their movement.
Instead, they became part of the push last summer to reinstate Morsi after he was ousted a year into his term. The three found themselves in Cairo’s Rabaa district, the site of a sit-in that lasted weeks until security forces broke it up Aug. 14, killing perhaps as many as 1,100 people. The three say they had friends among the dead.
It was a kind of violence that they had never seen _ and hadn’t expected.
“Before 2011 when they attacked the (Brotherhood), they took the leaders, not the youth, and they released them,” Maher said. “Now they are killing our friends. . . . We are being chased.”
The created a Facebook page in response. By fall, 90 people had joined their movement. At first, they held protests. Quickly, however, the movement grew violent.
“We had to find the person who was telling the police about our protests,” said an 18-year-old fighter who wanted to be identified only as Saleh. “He supports the thugs who attacks us.”
In December, they tried to set a police officer’s car on fire but were so inexperienced they failed. Then last month, they decided to launch three attacks on the same day, to distract the police from their protests. In addition to setting the police officer’s home ablaze, they planned to bomb a train. But they couldn’t trigger the explosion, so they settled for setting it on fire.
The third attack came when Saleh pointed a gun at nearby residents while his friends set a stationary shop belonging to Mohsen Said Mtwaly, 65, a retired general who’s a supporter of Field Marshall Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, the minister of defense who engineered Morsi’s ouster and now is the presumed front-runner for still-to-be-set presidential elections. A photo of Sissi sits in the store’s display window.
As he cleaned up the debris three weeks after the attack, Mtwaly was unapologetic about urging residents to reject Morsi’s administration.
“I know the Muslim Brotherhood very well and they have no national agenda,” Mtwaly said. “I used to tell people they are not good for you. They want to steal the country.”
Mtwaly said he backs the police and is confident they will find the men who set fire to his shop, unaware that McClatchy already had tracked them down.
“We are working with the police,” he said. “We are all with the police.”
Among both sides there is a lot of bravado. The youths take glee in Mtwaly’s confusion and the struggles of the police, who they believe are being assassinated by family members of those killed by police officers. El Khatib, of the police union, said that the attacks have failed to “break our spirits.”
But sadness also hangs over the province. At the home of Shaban Hussein Saleem, one of the eight police officers killed, the officer’s mother, his widow and their three children are still confused about why he was killed. Saleem’s job was to secure confiscated motorcycles, not arrest citizens, they point out. It appeared he was attacked for wearing a uniform.
Saleem, 43, had gone to prayers, wearing his uniform for his night shift, when two men on a motorcycle pulled up next to him and shot him.
With that the family lost not only their leader but also their breadwinner. The government has yet to give them compensation.
His mother, Shoqia Adel, is illiterate but knows what injustice means: “What are we to do? We have nothing in our hands.”
For all the havoc they have caused, the three young men, at times, seem like reluctant fighters, their youthful faces telling as much about them as their violent words. They said they want to go back to university and are quick to say they are not among those who kill police officers. In between explaining why they attacked the police officer’s home, the train and the stationary shop, there is a pause.
“We cannot believe what is happening in our country, the injustice,” said the third, a 19-year-old who asked to be called Ramses. “We feel it is not our country. Just because I called for my rights, I am now a terrorist. Why is all this happening? What is the justification? . . . We have no choice but to defend ourselves and our country.”
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.