Supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a prominent Salafi cleric and disqualified presidential candidate, have re-emerged in the past weeks and are popping up everywhere, making a ruckus with increasingly confrontational and unpredictable street actions.
In the midst of a flurry of accusations and denials from all parties involved, the lack of action from the Interior Ministry is most obvious, alongside President Mohamed Morsy’s silence about the intensifying muscle-flexing of Hazemoun — the term by which Abu Ismail’s supporters are known.
Until, that is, said action was about to target the Dokki Police Station. On Sunday, in the most recent development in this dynamic saga, the streets surrounding the police station were on total lockdown as hundreds of Central Security Forces formed a massive phalanx in anticipation of a Hazemoun march.
The Interior Ministry had said earlier on Sunday that it was pursuing those behind the attack on Wafd Party headquarters, which took place Saturday in Dokki. In a statement, the ministry said it tracked down the attackers and found them near Abu Ismail’s office, also in Dokki, but denied suggestions it was targeting him personally.
Abu Ismail, however, saw this as a possible ambush. In a Facebook post, he wrote: “Today [Sunday] at 7 pm, we’ll head to the Dokki police station to find out what happened,” referring to his belief that the Interior Ministry had identified him and his supporters as the perpetrators behind the attacks.
The march never happened, however. By evening, Abu Ismail had told supporters to call it off, in an apparent attempt to defuse a confrontation between his supporters and police, who were left standing on guard for hours.
Some say the group is on a mission to create well-timed chaos in the streets that would eventually benefit the Muslim Brotherhood and the president’s political maneuvers. Hazemoun, however, deny involvement in any attacks, and distance themselves from the Brotherhood. Some experts see the nascent group’s unstructured operations as dangerous, and difficult to control, predict or confront. Mostly, observers are left bemused.
After suspending a two-week sit-in around Media Production City on 14 December, Hazemoun made their way back from the outskirts of the capital. The next night, amid the first round of referendum voting, they allegedly headed to Dokki and attacked the headquarters of the liberal Wafd Party and its newspaper, which has been running fiery, anti-Islamist headlines.
It was more than an hour before security forces arrived on the scene, after fireworks were thrown at the premises, cars smashed and the area’s residents left terrified as tear gas and birdshots flew. That same night, several independent newspapers reported receiving threats from Hazemoun that their offices would be attacked and ramped up security, bracing for what seemed like the inevitable. The rest of the night passed smoothly, however.
Threats to the media have been ongoing since the start of the Media Production City sit-in on 7 December, which the group staged in protest of what it describes as the privately-owned media’s flagrantly biased coverage of the Islamist current. Prominent television personalities faced trouble entering their studios and were forced by sit-in participants to show their IDs and operate under a palpable sense of intimidation.
On the flipside, Hazemoun members say their sit-in was peaceful and have denied any involvement in the ensuing attacks or threats. They also believe police forces are complicit in the recent attacks against the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, for failing to protect them.
Since Morsy issued a constitutional declaration giving himself sweeping powers, and then called for a snap referendum on a rushed constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly, protests by civil groups and political forces have taken place nationwide. In some cities, angry protesters attacked FJP offices.
As for the attack on Wafd, the party’s chief Al-Sayed al-Badawy blames Hazemoun. But the group categorically denies any involvement in the attack on the historical building. Abu Ismail even accused the party’s members of attacking their own headquarters.
“We never attacked any headquarters, and the Wafd political leaders are exaggerating,” says Tamer al-Masry, a member of Hazemoun who marched in Mohandiseen’s Lebanon Square on Saturday.
Hussein Mansour, a member of Wafd’s general committee, tells Egypt Independent they have filed a complaint to the prosecutor general, documenting the damage caused to the building with videos showing the perpetrators. “It is clear from the way they look that they are Abu Ismail supporters,” he says.
“We are very worried about the rule of law in Egypt and we hope that justice will be served because we were warned by security forces in Giza that Hazemoun may be heading to our headquarters, and their warnings were right,” he adds. There was no protection on hand when the attack came, however.
Media reports claim that Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal Eddin held closed meetings with high-ranking ministry officials to investigate the rising power of Abu Ismail and his supporters. There were reports that the minister is “fed up” with the group’s actions. The paper claims that Morsy has ordered the minister not to arrest Abu Ismail nor confront any of the Islamist leaders.
But, as suspicion mounts over tension between the presidency and the Interior Ministry regarding Hazemoun, ministry sources who spoke to Egypt Independent also denied any troubled relationship with the presidency on this front. Former State Security General Fouad Allam said the security forces’ reluctance to face the rising powers of Hazemoun stems from their fear of being held accountable for more violence.
“There is the media city sit-in, the Supreme Constitutional Court protest, as well as the protest in Tahrir Square and the ongoing political conflict. It is very difficult for the Interior Ministry to confront all of this,” he argues, adding that the ministry “suffers from severe impotence.”
Islam Nour, a Salafi activist in Alexandria, accuses the apparatus of anti-Islamist bias reminiscent of the old regime and describes the ministry as “traitorous and complicit.” On 14 December, clashes broke out after Friday prayers in Alexandria’s Al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque when Sheikh Ahmed al-Mahalawy called on attendees to vote “yes” in the constitutional referendum. The sheikh was trapped there for 15 hours before security forces managed to release him, along with some 100 others, through a back gate.
Nour says the ministry “remained irrelevant” as events unfolded. “Thugs were besieging the mosque. When Salafi youth mobilized to save the sheikh, they were attacked by protesters and then arrested,” he says. He says police targeted bearded young men, and 25 Salafis were unlawfully detained under fabricated charges of weapons possession. Some were released while others are still under investigation. But protesters allege that Salafis had escaped into the mosque after firing at protesters during earlier clashes.
Hazemoun’s Masry agrees with Nour. “Security was fortified in front of Dokki police station just because they expected us to protest there. What about the headquarters of the FJP? What about the Ettehadiya [presidential palace] clashes? What about the besieging of Sheikh Mahalawy? Why are they silent on these violations?”
Meanwhile, opposition figures have repeatedly expressed concern over the rise of Hazemoun, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of using the group to take their revenge on the opposition and independent media. Some have gone as far as describing Hazemoun as the militant arm of the Brotherhood.
“We haven’t determined if Hazemoun is directly related to the Brotherhood on an organizational level, but it is very clear the Brotherhood is at least benefiting from their militant nature,” Professor of Islamist movements at the American University in Cairo, Ashraf al-Sherif tells Egypt Independent. He describes Hazemoun as an “undisciplined political group” that should be dealt with separately from the tightly structured Muslim Brotherhood. Still, the Brotherhood stands to benefit on two levels.
“I think Hazemoun actions create a level of calculated chaos that will be in favor of the Brotherhood’s ‘stability’ propaganda machine, to encourage people to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum,” says Sherif. Juxtaposing Hazemoun’s behavior with the Brotherhood also means the Brotherhood comes off in a good light.
Masry refutes any ties between his group and Morsy, adding that Hazemoun have their own reservations regarding the president. “Personally, I will vote ‘no’ in the referendum because I believe it is not Sharia-compliant. We also disagree with the Brotherhood because we believe their utmost loyalty is to the Supreme Guide, not to the Prophet [Mohamed],” Masry says. “I regretted voting for Morsy, but I had no other choice back then.”
Sherif believes the price the Brotherhood will have to pay in the future for its silence over Hazemoun is this kind of political bidding over the Brotherhood’s commitment to Sharia. “Hazemoun will remain a major source of instability for a long time in the political scene,” he argues.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.