x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Egyptian riders 'coerced' to attack Cairo crowds

The men and boys who charged Tahrir Square on horses and camels say they wanted to tell the protesters to stop the riots that have destroyed tourism in Cairo. But they also said a pro-Mubarak MP coerced the group to go to the square.

A supporter of Hosni Mubarak rides a camel through the melee during a clash in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
A supporter of Hosni Mubarak rides a camel through the melee during a clash in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

CAIRO // It was one of the enduring images of Egypt's uprising - men on galloping horses and camels careering past tanks and into the crowded Tahrir Square, wielding canes and sticks.

The scattered crowds quickly regrouped, tearing the riders from their mounts and beating them.

The cavalry that charged anti-government protesters last week were widely believed to be pro-Mubarak thugs - or "baltagi" - employed by the government and the security forces.

The men came from a rundown village on the outskirts of Cairo, in the shadow of the Pyramids at Giza. The people of the village, Naslet el Semen, survive by providing camel and horse rides to tourists who come to visit the ancient monuments.

They went, they say, to safeguard their livelihood: to tell the protesters to stop the riots that have destroyed tourism in Cairo. But they also said a pro-Mubarak MP coerced the group to go to the square.

"I never went to fight," said Hassan Daboulle, 35. "I was in a carriage, just holding a sign saying 'We need Mubarak'."

Near the dilapidated shacks where they await tourists, lines of emaciated horses and camels stand at empty feeding troughs. There is not a single tourist in sight.

"We have children, and our animals to feed," said Mr Daboulle. "I haven't earned a single pound in 13 days."

Speaking from his bed in a mud shack hidden behind a pile of garbage, Waly Hosni, 14, is one of the riders that entered Tahrir and was dragged from his horse. He lies weak, battered and bloodied, with a bandage on the swollen half of his face that needed 25 stitches. A bulbous bruise protrudes from the back of his head.

Waly set out with a crowd of about 60 horses, camels and carriages in the morning. As they reached the industrial area of Mohandissin, the group became split in the chaos of a fight between pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters.

"It was my first time in that area, I had never been to Tahrir; I didn't mean to go in," said Waly. He said they were being attacked by stone throwers outside the square. "My horse was excited and galloped through with the others before the army blocked the entrance. I wanted to leave, but I didn't know how."

Many of the villagers say they have never been to Cairo city centre. They say they are too poor to afford it.

When pressed on why they took such risks, Waly, and the other riders that sit around his bed, look at each other questioningly.

Eventually one volunteers the information. They were coerced they say, by the MP of the area. "He told us that if we went to the square to protest for Mubarak, he would open the pyramids again," translates Ali, a tour guide who did not want to give his last name. "The government now blames all the problems on us; we don't know what they will do to us. But it was them that told us to go."

"He is a Mubarak man," says one rider of the MP.

The riders deny that they were paid to attack the crowds. "I went to him to ask him to pay for Waly's medicines," says Waly's mother Nazeema, 34. "He just waved me away." The family lost their horse in the attack, and had to sell their only sheep to pay for Waly's medication.

In the square, protesters say that one man confessed to having been paid 50 Egyptian pounds (Dh30) to attack them. Naslet el Semen - being so close to the pyramids - has a wealth of ancient artefacts just below the surface. Trading them is illegal, but some sources say the government promised to turn a blind eye to some of this activity if the men went to Tahrir.

Nabeel Abdel, the director of Al Ahram Centre for Sociological and Historical Studies, is certain of government involvement. "Some of the country's biggest businessmen and the general secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party were behind it," he says. "The el Gabris - the family of the MP - most probably provided the camels, but the order came from much higher."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae