One year after a bloody crackdown against protesters opposed to the ousting of Egypt's first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi killed hundreds, a group called the Hilwan Brigades uploaded a YouTube video announcing their resort to arms in response to the violence.
In the video, approximately 12 ski-masked men wielding machine guns renounced what they called the “pacifism of the [Muslim] Brotherhood.” Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood member, was kicked out of power on July 3, 2013 by a military coup led by the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who later became president.
His ouster was met by protests from members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. The current system has labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has accused it of carrying out attacks against police and civilians. The organization as well as the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy — the political movement that has called for Morsi's return — have denied the accusations and say they only advocate peaceful methods of protests.
On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security forces opened fire at a sit-in protest in Rabaa Al Adawiya Square in Cairo against the coup, killing more than 800 people. Other protests were met with deadly force in Nahda Square, Ramsis Square, outside the Republican Guard Club and various other locations in the country.
The city of Hilwan south of Cairo witnessed clashes between Morsi supporters and security forces outside a police station in the area immediately after the Rabaa massacre. The area also witnessed clashes during the first anniversary of the massacre. At least 10 protesters were killed in clashes that broke out throughout the country during the anniversaries of the Rabaa and Ramsis Square massacres.
One of the masked men in the video refers to the killings:
“There were massacres at Rabaa and Nahda, the Republican Guard [club], and the Memorial [of Former President Anwar Sadat], and we were peaceful with the Interior [Ministry] and the army, and we said it would be peaceful. And we paid from our blood what we paid [. . .] until we became fed up with the pacifism of the Brotherhood. We are not the Brotherhood and we became fed up with their pacifism in the protests and such [. . .] So this is a warning to the Interior [Ministry] in the Southern Cairo area. This is the area we control, Southern Cairo. All of its districts and police stations: You are targeted for what you have done to us.”
The first official response to the video came from the Interior Ministry, according to state-run newspaper Al-Ahram. The ministry formed a committee to determine the location of the group.
The video and its timing, coinciding with the anniversary of the crackdowns, raised skepticism among Egyptian activists and social media users. Many have speculated that the group does not exist and the the Interior Ministry recorded the video to use as an excuse for more violent crackdowns on the opposition and anti-government activists.
In a Facebook post, Mostafa Alnagar, a political activist and former member of parliament, called the video “laughable” and described the wording in the video as “neither belonging to extremists, nor terrorists, nor even pacifists who have turned to arms.” He goes on to say:
عموما الفترة المقبلة ستكشف لنا حقائق الأمور إذا فكرنا بالمنطق والموضوعية والبحث عن المستفيد !
The coming days will reveal the truth of these matters if we think logically and objectively and search for the beneficiary!
Blogger and activist Ibrahim Elgarhi, who has over 290,000 followers on Twitter, used sarcasm to describe his skepticism of the video in a post on his blog. He wrote:
متفائل بالتجربة الجديدة بتاعة كتائب حلوان المسلحة اللي اعلنت بيانها الأول على يوتيوب امبارح .. واذا كان ليا تعليق عليها فهو بس يعني لو يسمحولي ان الاسم مش حلو اوي.. يعني انا حسيت انه اسم جزئي كدة ومش شامل لعموم مصر ولا لعموم الأمة الإسلامية.. بس انا متفهم انها مجرد بداية وان شاء الله هتوسع وتكبر بس كنت افضل ان البداية تبقى تحت اسم “داحب” اللي هي الدولة الإسلامية بحلوان وبس
I am optimistic about the new experience of the Armed Hilwan Brigades that it announced in its first statement on YouTube yesterday. But I only have one comment on it if they permit. The name is not very nice. I mean, I felt that the name is segmental and not inclusive of all of Egypt or the Muslim world. But I understand that it is merely a beginning and that, God willing, it will expand and grow, but I wished that in the beginning it would go by the name of ISHO, which is the Islamic State of Hilwan Only.
Others suggested that it was merely a tool of the Interior Ministry to use as a scapegoat. Writer and thinker Wael Kandil, who has over 400,000 followers on Twitter, wrote:
من يصنع”البلاك بلوك”يصنع “كتائب حلوان”.. السيناريست المفلس.
— wael kandil (@waiel65) agosto 15, 2014
He who made the Black Bloc makes the Hilwan Brigades; the broke scriptwriter.
The Black Bloc was a group that was active during Morsi’s presidency. It would halt traffic and public transportation and attack Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and government buildings. It has remained quiet since the ouster of Morsi last year. Some have speculated that it was a tool of the Interior Ministry to cause disturbances during Morsi’s term.
The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy and Reject the Coup issued a statement on its Facebook page renewing “its strong refusal of any calls for or displays of arming the revolution, as well as any justifications for such calls or displays.” It held the current leaders “whose treacherous indiscriminate bullets have reached some of the people in their homes and stores, sparking anger among a free people” responsible for “any derailments from the principles of the movement.”
Over a year after the Rabaa massacre and protests have continued, despite forceful dispersion and mass arrests of activists. Some believe that violent retaliation against the system is inevitable. As the Guardian's Egypt correspondent Patrick Kingsley tweeted recently, “Violence begets violence.”