Shokry Abdel Kader and Yasser Ashour are thugs. Of course, when conversing with them, the term itself is carefully avoided, and the two remain reluctant when it comes to confessing to the grislier side of thuggery in the name of toppled President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies.
However, both Abdel Kader and Ashour are eager to discuss their role in the recent revolution, not out of pride, but a yearning for “redemption.”
Abdel Kader and Ashour, neighbors in the Ezbet Abou Qarn district of Old Cairo, were separately involved in the 25 January revolution–mainly, in silencing protesters by “whatever means necessary,” as they were repeatedly instructed to do by the National Democratic Party members whom they claimed hired them.
For Ashour, the involvement was “minimal, but misguided.”
Ironically, for a man who openly admits to being previously employed as a government henchman on numerous occasions, Ashour joined the ranks of pro-Mubarak supporters of his own accord.
“I was moved by the speech the president gave on 1 February,” he says. Ashour missed the live broadcast, but watched a rerun on the following morning’s newscast. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he says. “The man is a criminal, there’s no denying that. But what I saw on television that morning was a weak, old man, who had been broken.
“What I saw during that first speech was a mourning grandfather, a fallen leader, and a truly tragic figure,” he recalls.
Deciding that the president had the right to a dignified exit, and that the country would benefit from a more measured period of transition, Ashour immediately made his way downtown to the State Television building, where the mob of pro-Mubarak supporters had been rallying.
Although he intended to join their cause, Ashour began to hesitate shortly after arriving at the demonstration. “There was a weird vibe among them [the pro-Mubarak demonstrators],” he explains. “They were very aggressive, even amongst each other. The first person I tried to talk to almost attacked me, even though I was only trying to offer words of encouragement.”
Chalking up their belligerence to fatigue and exhaustion, Ashour decided to lift the protesters’ spirits–or at least numb their senses–by handing out medicine. “I passed around a few strips of Tramadol; a lot of them already had their own, but it seemed to break the ice, if only a little.” Ashour spent the next few hours with the pro-Mubarak crowd, before leaving with a bitter taste in his mouth, and a head full of questions.
“When I realized the amount of people who had been paid by their parliamentary representatives to be there, I felt…strange,” he says, after a pause. Ashour was mulling this over on his way to Tahrir Square, to supposedly “talk to the youth,” when he got a call from Magdy Allam, the parliamentary representative of the Old Cairo district where Ashour lives.
“He asked me where I was, and told me to come meet him at the Faten Hamama cinema in Manial,” Ashour recalls. “He told me that there was a group of pro-Mubarak supporters meeting there, and that they had signs, and banners, and weapons.” It was the last word that stopped Ashour in his tracks.
“I paused for a second,” he says, “and then hung up on him.”
Ashour then turned his phone off, and promptly returned home. “And that,” he claims, “is how I know God loves me. I made the right choice.” Not only did Ashour avoid implicating himself in what turned out to be one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the nation, he also averted a potentially devastating family tragedy. “I found out the next day that my two younger brothers were in Tahrir Square that night, fighting for their lives, and our freedom.”
Although less complicated, Abdel Kader’s role in violently suppressing anti-regime protesters was far more direct. During the earliest stages of the uprising, Abdel Kader (his name has been changed), was employed in what he vaguely refers to as “intimidation tactics,” although he admits to resorting to brute force on a few occasions.
“We would be told to go to certain areas, and attack anyone with a beard, or any person or group of people’s chanting either for or against the government,” he says. “Our orders were to break apart any type of protest or demonstration, regardless of its cause.”
The intention, Abdel Kader explains, was to spread fear and internal strife, particularly among the city’s poorer communities and shantytowns. “Their [NDP members’] aim was to have people tear each other apart. They wanted to prove that in their absence, we were all a bunch of uncontrollable animals, desperate to kill each other.”
On the morning of 2 February, as Ashour was watching the president’s speech with tearful eyes, Abdel Kader was already on his way to Manial. As a resident of Ashour’s neighborhood, Abdel Kader had also received a call from Allam, who informed him of the Faten Hamama meeting point, as well as the fact that the gathering men would be given banners and weapons–a statement that didn’t surprise Abdel Kader.
“I expected it,” he states. “I even had my own pocketknife with me.”
Upon arrival, Abdel Kader recalls, “We were all given black baseball caps or ski-hats to wear, so we could recognize each other throughout the day. Some people were given rifles and shotguns. Others, like me, were given clubs, and sharpened sticks.”
These items, he says, were handed out by Allam and a few of his assistants.
After a brief congregation, the group set out, moving through the streets chanting, intimidating others, and flexing their muscles for an imminent and–they believed–final confrontation at Tahrir Square.
“We made a few minor strikes around the outskirts of the square,” says Abdel Kader, before being rounded up again for further instructions. “We were told to strike hard and fast, that the protesters were a bunch of American University pansies who’d run away at the first gunshot.”
These instructions, Abdel Kader claims, came directly from Allam, who had been accompanying his gang of thugs for most of the day.
The brutal attack came during the early hours of 3 February, and with it, what Abdel Kader describes as “a wake-up call. I realized these weren’t a bunch of sissy kids, and that they weren’t just having fun. They were fighting for something, and they were putting up a brave fight.”
Abdel Kader pauses before continuing. “They were willing to die for what they believed in, and I was fighting them because I had been paid LE200. The thought of it broke my heart.”
Sick with guilt, Abdel Kader claims to have run away, able to escape in the surrounding chaos. “Everyone was running all over the place,” he says, describing the scene on the 6 October Bridge, where he and his group of thugs were situated. “Even Magdy Allam, who was with us then, was running around screaming like a little girl, but he’s always been a coward.”
Along with a few other thugs, allegedly alarmed by the same realization, Abdel Kader fled the scene and made his way home. “There were others who stayed, of course,” he says of the thugs who refused to back down during those violent early morning hours. “Some of them took it as a personal offense that the people in Tahrir were fighting back. And others really believed that they were doing the right thing. We were all told a lot of lies.”
Which is partially why Abdel Kader believes he and the others who “had their eyes opened by what happened that night,” are not entirely to blame for the civil war that briefly raged in Tahrir Square.
“There were three people who orchestrated this, and three people to be held responsible for all our sins,” Abdel Kader claims. “Zakariya Azmy, Safwat al-Sherif, and Hussein Megawer were the ones who came up with the plan, and they’re the ones who told the likes of Magdy Allam to contact ‘his people’ with specific instructions.”
These are the main perpetrators who, Abdel Kader believes, should “suffer the wrath of a thousand Habib al-Adly’s,” a reference to the notoriously vindictive former minister of interior, who is being tried for his involvement in violence against the revolution, among other charges.
Apparently, not everyone involved shares Abdel Kader’s feelings. Many thugs have since refused to return to their neighborhoods, and several have gone into hiding, according to Abdel Kader. “There are a few people who left from here that day, and still haven’t returned. In some cases, their family members left shortly afterward, so we know they must be hiding somewhere.”
On noting the irony of having both police forces and thugs retreating, Abdel Kader remarks, “it’s not like there was ever much of a difference between them.”
Yasser Ashour would undoubtedly agree. “I am a drug dealer,” he admits. “I am not going to deny it. But I am only a drug dealer because the police bullied me into becoming one.”
According to Ashour, local officers, wanting to profit from the confiscated drugs stored in a police warehouse on the outskirts of Ezbet Abou Qarn, forced neighborhood residents into trafficking. “They would give us entire batches of marijuana, and replace the stores with molokheya,” Ashour recalls with a bitter smile. “I even remember all the jokes they would crack about it.”
“This was all happening according to Police Chief Sherif al-Awadi’s orders,” says Ashour. “He was responsible for this district, and that man was a criminal mastermind.”
At first, Ashour tried to resist the officers’ subversive commands, and as a result, was briefly sent to prison on false allegations of, ironically, drug-trafficking. “They threw me in jail to show me what it would be like, and then took me back out so I could sell their drugs for them.”
“They don’t give you a choice, and I learned that the hard way,” he says.
Police forces routinely relied on similarly twisted tactics, as they were also strategic in keeping people like Ashour and Abdel Kader in their place. “They made it so that if I did or said or was even suspected of doing or saying anything that they didn’t like, they’d arrest me for being a drug dealer–again.”
“The idea that there are people out there who want to be thugs and hired killers is ignorant, and wrong. We are put in these positions and given no way out of them,” Ashour says. “Of course there are always going to be sociopaths and people who have crime running through their veins, but I’m talking about normal people who are trying to lead normal lives. Family men–men with values and reasonable demands.”
Shortly after the Day of Anger on 28 January, the Ezbet Abou Qarn warehouse was raided, and Ashour watched as his neighbors made off with 7.5 tons of marijuana, before setting fire to the building. Needless to say, this came as a relief to him, but Ashour is still far from content. Besides the fear and uncertainty shared by the rest of the population, Ashour is worried about his cousin, who was recently arrested on what he insists are phony arms possession charges.
“There’s always something. It never ends.” Ashour says.
“The former regime put a curse on all of us,” he sighs, “and we’re still not rid of it.”
The names of thugs have been altered to protect their identity