The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

April 1 at the Wafd Headquarters

The bullet entered Mamdouh Badawi’s abdomen on the left side just above his hip and exited above the right hip. Badawi, who married two months ago, served Al-Wafd journalists tea and coffee for a living. He was one of almost two dozen people (Reuters is saying 23, I have only been able to confirm 21 names) injured in clashes between members of rival factions of the Wafd Party April 1.

Around 8:00 a.m., deposed Wafd Party chairman Noman Gomaa arrived at the party’s headquarters in Doqqi. Between 30 and 40 men, armed with guns, clubs, and metal bars, followed in microbuses, overpowered volunteer night guards, and occupied the building. A confrontation ensued when journalists, Wafd Party activists, and support staff showed up for work and the armed men prevented them from entering the building.

“I was sitting in the building, not doing anything, when Gomaa and his thugs arrived,� Ahmed Mohammed Hossam, a 28-year-old night guard, said. “Gangs armed with clubs and metal bars started beating everyone in the building. Everyone was terrified. There were women there. The gangs took my identification card, all my money, and all my clothes. I was left naked. They said nobody could leave.�

Hossam said he was treated at a nearby hospital and returned to the building.

Eyewitnesses said one of Gomaa’s men shouted insults from a window by the front door. The journalists responded by throwing rocks and bottles. According to one witness, who has an office on the block, police, who reportedly arrived at the party headquarters at the same time Gomaa did, tried to disperse the crowd with teargas, but this made matters worse. More bottles and rocks flew in both directions. Eyewitnesses said that the men holed up inside the building then shot five men around 11 a.m.. Word spread, and a crowd formed around the building, chanting slogans against Gomaa and periodically trying to force their way into the building.

Gomaa and his supporters ransacked the headquarters’ archives and burned documents.

At midday, journalists, Wafd Party activists, and young men affiliated with (or rented by) the faction loyal to Mahmoud Abaza and Mustafa al-Tawil, elected as Wafd Party president when Gomaa was deposed in January, broke into the compound through the back window of an adjoining building. As they emerged from a basement corridor into the backyard, they clashed with Gomaa’s men. Men from each side threw Molotov cocktails, bottles, and rocks at the other. The building caught fire. The fire was quickly extinguished, but not before several rooms were destroyed.

Men from Abaza’s faction forced their way into the back entrance and occupied the top floors of the building. Gomaa and his supporters were ensconced on the ground floor. As Abaza supporters chanted outside the building, their representatives argued with security forces at the front entrance—10 generals were on hand, one high-ranking Wafd Party member said—about whether the police should be allowed to storm the compound. At one point, one of Gomaa’s men left the building and Meanwhile, men loyal to each faction faced off at the staircase leading from the main lobby. At times men from both sides would shout at each other, sometimes calling each other by name, sometimes throwing fire extinguishers at each other.

A wire journalist I met on the staircase said that he had seen one of Gomaa’s men leave the building.

“They kicked the shit out of him,� he said.

“What do you mean? Really? Was he alright?�

“I mean he was in a pretty bad way. They beat him up with stakes and metal bars, you know, pieces of the fence.�

At around 5:00 p.m., Wafd Party activists loyal to Abaza cleared the building of all youths who were not party members. Around 5:15 p.m., soldiers massed outside the building. At around 5:45 p.m., soldiers pulled up to the building and, after a brief melee, arrested Gomaa and six supporters.

I arrived in the afternoon, interviewed Wafd Party members protesting outside the building, and after about an hour managed to get into the building through the back entrance.

I spent about 90 minutes on the staircase that formed the border between Al-Tawil’s supporters and Gomaa’s supporters and was there when police entered the building. When police did enter, they behaved professionally and had Gomaa out of the building in a few minutes. There were violent clashes when the doors first opened. I got as close as I felt I safely could in order to take pictures. Most turned out blurry or too dark.

As Gomaa left in an armored truck, the crowd swarmed the vehicle, shouting insults and slogans.

A partial list of those injured follows (Full list soon, spelling of names unconfirmed):

1. Samir Beheiry (journalist)
2. Mohammed Shahda (party activist)
3. Mohamed Ali Hanafi (journalist)
4. Mahmoud Ali (journalist)
5. Essam Shiha (lawyer)
6. Mostapha Shaaban (prepares tea and coffee for journalists)
7. Mamdouh Badawi (prepares tea and coffee for journalists)
8. Khaled Sheikh (Wafd Party advertising and public relations)
9. Khaled Idriss (journalist)
10. Mohammed Ibn Naki
11. Adil Sabri
12. Fatouah Mohammed Abd al-Mohsi
13. Mohammed Said Abd al-Aal
14. Tamir Farag
15. Mahmoud Mohammed Hassan
16. Abd al-Aziz al-Nahas
17. Amr Okesha (journalist)
18. Mohammed Abd al-Reziq
19. Said al-Qassass
20. Fatah Ahmed Abd al-Ghani
21. Mohammed al-Maliki

The injured were treated at Shabrawishi and Misr al-Dawli hospitals, not far from the Wafd Party headquarters. Mohammed al-Maliki was treated first for a bloody nose, then returned to the headquarters to be shot in the leg.

This is not the first time factions of the Wafd Party and their hired thugs have clashed since Gomaa was deposed in January. He maintains that the assembly that voted to unseat him (with 94.4 percent of the vote) was convened illegally since only he has the right to convene such an assembly. The Wafd Party dominated politics until the 1952 revolution, when political parties were banned. The party was founded again in 1983, but has had little affect on politics since. It won only six of 444 seats in the People’s Assembly in the 2005 elections, and Gomaa placed third in the presidential elections, winning only 2.9 percent of the vote.

It looks like the "new guard" Wafdists only allowed the police into the building once the warrant for Gomaa's arrest came through and that the delay in the police's action was caused in part by this. But that does not answer the question of why the police did not immediately storm the building when shots were fired, or why there were few policemen in sight when I arrived in the afternoon, and the few that were there did not seem very concerned. The brass, when it came, was concerned, but members of the crowd had to be restrained they were shouting at them so vehemently.

While waiting for Abaza to finish talking to a TV crew, I spoke with one guy who just happens to have an office on the block, who told me that the police initially used tear gas but that this made things worse. It's interesting to note that the Wafdists uniformly said the police stood by and did nothing. But it's also interesting that the Wafdist line is evolving in other ways: Last night I met the son of the former chairman (before Gomaa), who told me that Gomaa had set fire to the headquarters, to his office, and that this is what caused the fire. I told him I thought it was Abaza's youths (I didn't want to say thugs) throwing Molotov cocktails. He asked me where I had heard this and started sweating when I told him I had it from one of the youths directly. I was also interested to note that when a journalist friend met this one guy today he was wearing a sling and bandages. When I had seen him yesterday---after Gomaa had been arrested, Abaza had marched triumphantly into the building, and the crowd was dispersing---he was fine.

I was interested to note that the archives had been ransacked. Several Wafdists and one foreign journalist told me that Gomaa had spent the day burning documents. That Noman Gomaa, the former head of the Cairo University Law School, a grey-beard, if insignificant, political operator in Egypt, simply went postal one day and started firing at journalists strikes me as an entertaining but unlikely prospect. Perhaps he had just been emboldened by his meeting Thursday with Safwat al-Sherif (in his capacity as head of the Political Parties Committee), in which he again got the government's line: "We don't interfere with the internal administration of the parties." This, of course, is total bullshit: Interfering in parties' internal administration is what the PPC does. This whole problem was caused by the state/NDP's shenanigans to keep its man Gomaa in power despite the fact that the party wanted him gone.

Abaza says he thinks Gomaa really thought he was popular and that subterranean forces in the party were conspiring to get rid of him, against the wishes of the majority in the party but with American support. Certainly, his grandiose offer to Al-Wafd journalists to defect en masse to his rival version of the paper suggests he really believed they would. OK, but I think this whole stunt was about destroying those documents. I'm not sure what could be so bad in those documents that would make occupying the party headquarters and shooting at party journalists look like a misdemeanor. But I speculate that they might have contained documents outlining shady stuff that would also have implicated senior NDP guys, which would further encourage the NDP guys to make Gomaa think he could pull a stunt like this with impunity. Abaza said he knew what was in the documents, but got very vague when questioned further.

Abaza's a politically smart man. He recognizes he's building the party up from the ground (literally, now). The people in his camp, that is, 94.4% of the assembly, are energized and idealistic. Note the appearance of the pre-1952 flag as stickers in shop windows and banners on Web sites, flown in solidarity with the Judges' Club, but also as a salute to the liberal values of the post-Independence era. The movie version of The Yacoubian Building will have Adel Imam talking wistfully about that bygone time "when the shops in Cairo had the fashions before London and Paris had them." If the Wafd can reinvent itself, it could, could become a focal point...if it doesn't become a total laughing stock.

(Crossposted at The Skeptic الشكاك)