Abu Qir clashes reveal tension between large projects and locals

ABU QIR — Raghab Masoud, a 27-year-old employee at Abu Qir power station, was on his way to work when he was killed in clashes Saturday in Abu Qir city, east of Alexandria, after a trigger-happy security officer fired live bullets at hundreds of protesters seeking jobs at the plant.

The officer, Hisham al-Masry, who worked as a white-uniformed security guard at the state-owned plant, was imprisoned and awaits sentencing by the public prosecutor, according to Alexandria’s deputy interior minister. Masoud was due to be married a week later.

Protests at the power plant stretch back over the last year and a half, as the people of Tarh, the village where the plant is located, began asking for their rights to jobs. They feel they earned this right after protecting the plant from theft during the revolution, a common arrangement between big projects and their hosting neighborhoods at the height of the security retreat in January 2011. 

A sit-in turns violent

Tarh villagers protested Saturday after attempts to meet with company officials two days earlier failed.

“We’ve been promised jobs for the last year and a half, but nothing has come of it. On Thursday, we went to the plant to try and meet with someone who could tell us what is happening, but were told to get out because the company is not hiring. So our response was to begin a peaceful sit-in outside the plant so that someone responsible could come out and reach an agreement with us,” says Mohamed Ramadan, a 30-year-old participant. 

But no company officials came to the scene. 

Ali Taha, 19, who runs a cafe opposite the plant with his mother and father and who bore witness to how events unfolded, says it was a peaceful protest.

“There are weapons in the village, but no one brought these to the protest because they know there is an Army presence at the plant,” he says.

Ramadan Masoud, Raghab’s older brother and an employee of the West Delta Electricity Company, also says the protest was peaceful.

“They were peaceful and just waiting for someone from the company to give them their rights after being promised employment,” he says.

The tide turned when the plant’s workers said they would not leave, according to those standing outside its gates, who included the cafe owner and protesters.

They say it turned violent when glass was thrown from behind the black steel gates where workers were standing. Some glass hit lawyer Mohamed Hamed, who was standing with the protesters, causing his head to bleed.

The power plant’s workers, however, say protesters were the antagonists.

“They are thugs who came to destroy the power station in their protest,” engineer Samia Anwar, 51, says. “They were outside and didn’t want to let anyone through. Then they stormed the gates of the plant and started attacking us inside the plant. The first shot was from the protesters, because they wanted to attack the power plant.”

Inside the power plant, behind the gates, there was little evidence of major damage except for broken glass at a security hut.

Outside the gates, an ATM had fallen to the ground and motorbikes were set on fire by plant workers and the security officer, Taha says, to falsely suggest protesters had attempted to set the plant on fire. The ATM’s security camera has been confiscated.

“We used to mock when we saw Jews killing Palestinians, because [the Palestinians] would hit them with stones. Now it’s happening to us, and they call us the thugs,” says protester Khattal Ali, 43.

Masry, the imprisoned officer, is said to have forcibly taken the gun from an Army officer standing next to him. He reportedly got angry at other officers at the plant for not firing at protesters and only into the air as a dispersal mechanism.

Plant workers say they are happy the officer took an active stance in “defending” them. Both sides, however, complain about the lack of measures taken by the Army to control the situation.

Attiya Shaaban, a protester injured by a Molotov cocktail, says the Army did not take responsibility.

“Army officers, including the deputy head of security, were standing by and not doing anything to stop the police officer shooting,” Shaaban says. “The Army said, ‘Nothing is in our hands.’”