TIME Egypt

Christians Mourn Their Relatives Beheaded by ISIS

Men mourn over Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with ISIS, inside the Virgin Mary Church in the village of Al-Aour, Egypt, Feb. 16, 2015.
Hassan Ammar—AP Village residents inside the Virgin Mary Church in al-Our, Egypt, on Feb. 16, 2015, mourn Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by ISIS militants

The 21 men have been declared martyrs by the Coptic Church

In the yard of the Coptic church in the village of al-Our, dozens listen to the words of a preacher speaking into a microphone. His words rise and fall as he says: “The life we live is but numbered days that will quickly pass, the Bible says.”

His words were intended to comfort a congregation mourning 13 of its members who were among the 21 men slaughtered on a Mediterranean beach in a video released last week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Al-Our is in Egypt’s Minya province, 150 miles south of Cairo, a farm community of some 6,000 Muslims and Christians living in brick, mud and stone houses. Following the spectacular murders of its residents, the town was thrust to the center of the crisis emanating from Libya, where ISIS has established a foothold in the chaos of a civil war.

“I felt peace knowing that they died as martyrs in the name of Christ,” says Bashir Estefanous Kamel, 32, whose two younger brothers and one cousin were among the victims. Kamel says he watched the video depicting the men’s execution as soon as it was available. “Of course, the first reaction was sadness at being separated from family.”

In Christianity, a person is considered a martyr if they are killed because of their faith. Christian martyrs include many early Christians such as St. Peter and St. Paul and more recent examples are priests and nuns killed in German concentration camps or during the Spanish Civil War. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up between 10% and 20% of Egypt’s population of 80 million, are among many of the recent Christian martyrs. In two recent attacks by Muslim gunmen and mobs, eight Copts were shot in Nag Hammadi in 2010 and 21 killed in rioting in Kosheh in 2000. The ISIS victims are depicted next to the throne of Jesus on banners, which are suspended inside and outside the church in al-Our.

Like tens of thousands of other Egyptians, Kamel’s brothers, Bishoi Estefanous Kamel, 25, and Samuel Estefanous Kamel, 22, had gone to Libya in search of work they could not find at home. Even in recent years of turmoil, Libya’s oil-based economy continued to draw workers, especially from Egypt’s poorer regions. In al-Our, average residents earn between $3 and $4 a day. “It’s a hard life,” says Bashir Kamel. “If you don’t work all day, you don’t eat at night.”

Both brothers had completed two years of university, earning diplomas in industry and agriculture respectively, but could not find gainful employment in Minya. A few months after completing his mandatory military service, Samuel followed his older brother to Libya, where they worked as laborers in the city of Sirt, living among other Egyptian workers.

In December, the murder of an Egyptian Coptic doctor and his wife in Sirt punctured the workers’ sense of security. According to their older brother, Bishoi and Samuel Kamel had planned to return home to Egypt as soon as possible. Then, on Dec. 29, seven Copts were kidnapped from a minibus taking them back to Egypt. A second group was seized from their lodgings in Sirt days later. Bashir Kamel speculates that members of the first group of hostages disclosed the location of the workers’ housing under torture.

The night of the release of the execution video, the village priest, Father Makar Issa went from house to house in an attempt to comfort the families. “There was wailing in every street, every alleyway,” he says. “People were shocked.”

According to Issa, his congregants’ sorrow gave way, within days, to a kind of joy expressed at the men’s martyrdom. On the third day after the video, people gathered in the church. “The women were congratulating each other,” he says. As they left the church, women ululated.

“I am certain it had a positive effect, not a negative effect,” says Issa. “In the month and a half when the people were kidnapped, the whole congregation was coming to the church to pray for their return, but in their prayers later on, they asked that if they died, they die for their faith, and that’s what happened. The congregation is actually growing, psychologically and spiritually.”

Several relatives of the victims applaud Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to bomb ISIS targets in eastern Libya within hours of the release of the execution video. “It’s an honor to us that our government did not let their blood be spilled cheaply,” says Bashir Kamel. “We feel proud.”

Egypt remains polarized in the wake of the military takeover, led by al-Sisi, in which elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013. But a powerful coalition stands behind al-Sisi, who has vowed to combat militancy.

Bebawi Yousef, 35, a teacher at a local private school whose two brothers were also killed, echoes Kamel’s sentiment. “We feel proud of our President Sisi. We feel he is keeping us safe.”

Sobhi Ghattas Hanna, whose cousin was killed, says he wants the world to stand with Egypt. “We feel comforted by Sisi’s stance. He ordered the military to strike Libya directly after the video was published,” he says. “We want the whole world to stand beside Sisi in his fight against terrorism.”

TIME Libya

ISIS Sets Sights on Europe in Latest Beheading Video

Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly killed by ISIS militants in Libya react after hearing the news on Feb. 16, 2015 in the village of Al-Awar in Egypt's southern province of Minya.
Mohamed El-Shahed—AFP/Getty Images Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly killed by ISIS militants in Libya react after hearing the news on Feb. 16, 2015, in the village of Al-Awar in Egypt's southern province of Minya

Brutal killing of 21 seems an attempt to provoke retaliation

The executioner speaks in English and points his knife toward the Mediterranean. “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission,” he says.

The video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Sunday showing the killings of 21 Egyptian Christian workers, appeared to be directed at the Christian world, the continent of Europe and gloried in its brutality.

It was filmed in Libya on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The video made no reference to the other powers in Libya’s civil war, in which both of the country’s rival governments claim to be combating ISIS.

Unlike the statements of other Islamist groups in the region, the video also made no mention of the Egyptian state, which has cracked down on political Islam since the removal of elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Egypt’s government is also participating in the fight against Islamists in Libya.

Instead, the five-minute film is concerned with more international themes. The targets are not modern states, but rather “Rome” and Christians, who are labeled “the people of the cross, the followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.” The message was phrased in religious terms intended to transcend national boundaries. The video ends with the Mediterranean waves dyed red from the blood of the murdered men.

The spectacular appearance of ISIS on the Mediterranean’s southern shores alarmed European governments. Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano called for NATO to intervene in Libya. “ISIS is at the door,” he was quoted as saying. “There is no time to waste.” If the country’s conflict is not resolved soon, U.K. special envoy Jonathan Powell declared, Libya risks becoming “Somalia on the Mediterranean.”

In response to the murders, Egypt launched air strikes against what it said were ISIS positions in eastern Libya on Monday. It was the first time Egypt acknowledged military operations in Libya, although the government has secretly backed the internationally recognized government in Libya’s civil conflict since last year.

But in spite of ISIS’ self-aggrandizing rhetoric, experts say the best solution is the formation of a unified Libyan government rather than international intervention. “You will not be able to effectively solve the counterterrorism problem, which may involve some external support, without addressing the political conflict,” says Issandr El Amrani, director of International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project.

“Both sides in the political conflict are against ISIS,” he says. “It’s a common problem. The thing is, they’re not going to focus on doing that, all these various militias in both camps, if they’re too busy fighting each other.”

El Amrani says calls for NATO, European, or U.S. intervention were unlikely to result in a large-scale intervention. “There’s not a lot of countries that are very excited about spending more resources on a new military adventure in Libya. Its footprint is likely to be very modest,” he says.

Bill Quandt, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council and professor emeritus in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, argues that Western options in Libya are limited. “After all we’ve been carrying out air strikes every day in Syria and Iraq and it’s hard to say how much difference it’s making.”

“Iraq and Syria are different in that there are geostrategic stakes involved, particularly with Iraq,” he says. “We’ve invested so heavily there that there’s a sense of sunk costs that we can’t let it totally go down the drain. I don’t think there is that feeling about Libya.”

Read next: Pope Francis Condemns ISIS Killing of Coptic Christians

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Libya

Beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya Shows ISIS Branching Out

Egyptians demonstrate demanding the Government do more to rescue Copts kidnapped by IS in LIbya
Ahmed Masri—Almasry Alyoum/EPA Egyptians protest in Cairo what they characterise as government inaction in reaction to the kidnapping of Coptic Christians in Libya, Feb. 13, 2015.

Militants in Libya represent a "second front" in ISIS's war against the West

The Egyptian government said Sunday that a video apparently showing the execution of Coptic Egyptian hostages in Libya by militants allied to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was genuine, underscoring the group’s global reach and the unity of message among its adherents.

The five-minute clip, published online on Sunday, depicts the hostages — believed to be 21 Christian Coptic laborers from Egypt, kidnapped from the city of Sirt — being marched onto a beach where they are forced onto the sand and then killed by knife-wielding executioners.

One of the killers, dressed in camouflage, speaks in English. “We will conquer Rome,” he declares, pointing his knife toward the sea.

The video has similar qualities to the filmed executions of ISIS hostages in Iraq and Syria. The hostages wear the same orange jumpsuits as the Western hostages, intended as a reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners in the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In a televised address, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said his country reserved the right to retaliate for the killings. He also reiterated an offer to facilitate Egyptians’ evacuation from Libya and imposed a ban on citizens traveling to Libya. The President also convened a meeting of senior security officials to discuss a response to the crisis.

The mass killings by a group that identified itself in the video as the “Tripoli Province” of ISIS gives a stark illustration of the group’s influence in Libya, a country consumed by upheaval since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in an uprising backed by NATO in 2011. Two rival governments and a variety of militia groups are currently locked in a multipolar fight for control of the country.

“I think it’s possible that there are currently more Daesh adherents in Libya than in any other country in the world except for Iraq and Syria,” says Christopher Chivvis, a senior analyst at the Santa Monica–based Rand Corp.

“It’s possible that Libya is now emerging as a sort of second front in [ISIS’s] effort to expand from a regional into a global organization,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a direct command-and-control kind of relationship where core ISIS is able to, with any degree of confidence, order specific operations in Libya. I think there’s moral and probably also financial and potentially other forms of support.”

A militia group in eastern Libya declared its affiliation with ISIS last year. Since then, fighters allied to the group have claimed responsibility for attacks across the country, including an assault on a luxury hotel in Tripoli in January.

“The problem is that overlaid on this ISIS threat is a deeply divided country, a civil war. And ISIS is exploiting the fissures of that civil war,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Analysts say ISIS is seeking to attract the support of existing militia groups in Libya in hopes of gaining an upper hand over rival organizations like al-Qaeda or local insurgent groups like Salafist militia group Ansar al-Sharia. The Institutions of the Libyan state have eroded, leaving control of specific cities in the hands of a range of separate armed groups.

“[ISIS] is benefiting from the decline of jihadist groups in the east, like Ansar al-Sharia,” said Wehrey. “It’s co-opting or luring many members of the jihadist movement in the east into its ranks. It’s trying to carve out new turf.”

TIME Egypt

Egyptian Fans Blame Police for the Death of 22 in Stampede

Policemen and soccer fans are seen through barbed wire as fans attempt to enter a stadium to watch a match, on the outskirts of Cairo, Feb. 8, 2015.
Al Youm Al Saabi—Reuters Policemen and soccer fans are seen through barbed wire as fans attempt to enter a stadium to watch a match, on the outskirts of Cairo, Feb. 8, 2015.

Some claim the attack was revenge for fans' political activism

Egyptian soccer fans have accused the police of a premeditated attack on them after a confrontation outside a Cairo stadium left at least 22 people dead on Sunday.

In post on their Facebook page Members of the “White Knights”, a group of supporters of the Zamalek team, said that the police were responsible for “a deliberate massacre, premeditated murder.”

The families and friends of the dead huddled in an alley outside the morgue in Cairo’s Zeinhom neighborhood on Monday morning. Some sat on the sidewalk, their faces contorted, waiting for hours for bodies to emerge.

Among them was a young a 21-year-old man who gave only his nickname, “Suissy,” who says he was present when police fired on crowds outside the gates of Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium. The young man wore a white scarf printed in red with the words “White Knights.” He rolled up the sleeve of his sweater and pointed to a bright red welt on his elbow. “I was hit with birdshot,” he said.

He described the scene that unfolded the previous night. Before Zamalek’s match with ENPPI, another Cairo club, masses of fans pressed toward the gate. The police opened fire with tear gas and birdshot, causing people to run. Most of those who died, he said, were crushed to death.

“In my view, 50% of the blame is on the fans for the overcrowding, but 200% of the blame is on the Interior Ministry for opening fire,” he says. “They also shot at the people who tried to help the injured. And the ambulances didn’t come in time. People died in the road.”

The young man’s testimony was consistent with video footage posted online that shows a throng of fans surging past ranks of black-clad riot police toward the stadium gates. A large metal fence collapses on top of the crowd. Police, some wearing masks, then open fire in in the direction of the fans.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry said Zamalek fans “tried to storm the stadium gates by force, which prompted the police to prevent them from continuing the assault.”

Soccer fans have played a central role in Egypt’s political unrest over the last four years. The fans participated in large numbers in the 2011 pro-democracy revolt and remain politicized.

For fans, the deaths in Cairo were also a reminder of the violence three years ago at a stadium in Port Said following a game between the city’s Al Masry club and the rival Cairo team Al Ahly. Following the disaster in Port Said, which left more than 70 dead, Egypt’s government banned large crowds from attending Egypt’s premier league matches, a ban that had only been lifted last week.

Analysts said the stadium deaths also underscored the challenge of reforming Egypt’s security forces after a series of deadly incidents involving police. Last month at least 20 people were killed when police confronted protesters on the fourth anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak. In a separate incident, an activist was shot dead in downtown Cairo when activists went to lay wreaths in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“There’s never a commitment to doing wide-ranging structural reform among the security forces,” said Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “When it comes to accountability it’s a very deep issue. When something like this happens, without accountability then brought to bear, it means that it can happen again and again.”

TIME Jordan

Jordan Vows Revenge for ISIS Burning of Pilot

Muath al-Kaseasbeh
Raad Adayleh—AP Supporters and family members of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh at the tribal gathering chamber in Amman, Jordan, express their anger at his reported killing on Feb. 3, 2015

The country is expected to execute several jihadist prisoners in the coming days

Jordan said Tuesday that it would hang several jihadist prisoners in reaction to a video showing Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters burning alive captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh.

The video shows a man in an orange jumpsuit who is doused in gasoline in a cage. An ISIS fighter lights a torch and sets fire to the man, who collapses. All previous hostages executed by the group have been beheaded.

Jordan’s government has reportedly scheduled the executions of several jihadist prisoners in response to the killing. One of those reportedly slated for execution is Sajida al-Rishawi, the prisoner ISIS had demanded to be released in exchange for al-Kasasbeh’s release. Al-Rishawi was convicted of attempting to suicide-bomb an Amman hotel in 2005.

“I believe this barbaric act will unite Jordanians against ISIS regardless of their political position in the same way it united them 10 years ago when ISIS bombed three Jordanian hotels and killed more than 60 people,” said Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s former Foreign Minister, in an email.

Regarding the reported plan to execute jihadist prisoners, Muasher said, “I think there will be public pressure to implement the death sentence against them and rather soon.”

The captured pilot’s ordeal has dominated news and public debate in Jordan since he was captured on Dec. 24 after his F-16 fighter jet was shot down during an operation over Syria. Jordan is one of several of Arab nations in the U.S.-led coalition waging a military campaign against ISIS.

In the streets and online, Jordanians expressed both sorrow and anger in reaction to Lieutenant al-Kasasbeh’s death. “I’m really sick to my stomach. This time it hits home,” tweeted Jordanian-American journalist Natasha Tynes. “We lost a brave man today,” said Twitter user @RayaMaraqa, of Amman.

Jordanian King Abdullah II, who was in Washington on Tuesday, decided to cut short his visit and return to Amman, according to Jordan’s official media.

“While the military forces mourn the martyr, they emphasize his blood will not be shed in vain,” said Jordanian military spokesman Mamdouh al-Ameri in a statement broadcast on television. “Our punishment and revenge will be as huge as the loss of the Jordanians.”

Among the Arab states in the military coalition, Jordan finds itself on the front line in the battle against ISIS. Bordering both Iraq and Syria, Jordan is also one of few Middle Eastern countries directly involved in the air campaign against the group. Though ISIS has little support in Jordan, some Jordanians regard the U.S.-led air war as an outsider’s intervention.

“I also do not expect Jordan to pull out of the coalition,” said Muasher. “If anything, it will intensify its involvement.”

The execution video came as a surprise following negotiations between the Jordanian government and ISIS militants, reportedly mediated by intermediaries among key Iraqi tribes. Adding to the confusion regarding ISIS’s motives, indications emerged that Kasasbeh may have been killed earlier in January, long before the release of the video. An activist group called Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered, based in the ISIS-controlled Syrian city of Raqqa, claimed on Twitter on Jan. 9 that he had already been burned to death. If true, the reports would have meant that the ongoing negotiations were meaningless.

Images published online showed crowds of people spilling into the streets of Amman and other cities, rallying in memory of the slain pilot and chanting for al-Rishawi’s execution. “Long live King Abdullah II,” shouted demonstrators at one rally in Amman, according to Twitter user Mark Rafferty. In an attempt to counteract the propaganda effect of the graphic execution video, numerous Jordanians also circulated smiling portraits of al-Kasasbeh.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Frees Australian Journalist But Leaves Many More in Jail

Al Jazeera Journalists Egypt Prison
Khaled Desouki—AFP/Getty Images Al-Jazeera news channel's Australian journalist Peter Greste (L) and his colleagues, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy (C) and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, listen to the verdict inside the defendants cage during their trial at Tora prison in Cairo on June 23, 2014.

Peter Greste was deported but his two colleagues remain in jail

Egypt’s decision to release Australian journalist Peter Greste on Sunday was met with elation by his family and supporters but underscored the plight of thousands of Egyptians still jailed in an ongoing 19-month political clampdown.

Greste was one of three journalists working for Al- Jazeera English arrested 13 months ago and imprisoned on charges of “spreading false news” and collaborating with a terrorists after a lengthy trial regarded internationally as a farce.

Greste’s two colleagues, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, remain in prison. Like Greste, Fahmy is expected to be released under a decree issued in December by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi granting him power to deport foreigners held in Egyptian jails. However, Mohamed, who holds no other citizenship, is not expected to be released.

In an interview on Al-Jazeera, Greste said: “I also feel incredible angst for my colleagues, leaving them behind. Amidst all of this relief I still feel a sense of concern … if it’s right for me to be free, then it’s right for all of us to be free.”

Greste’s release comes in the context of Egypt’s efforts to stabilize relations with other states and resolve the public crisis surrounding the plight of the three journalists. But that pressure is unlikely to alter the fates of the thousands of others, almost all Egyptian citizens, who have been detained, including dissidents, students, protesters, and other journalists.

“Peter Greste’s release is fantastic news for him and his family, but it does not fundamentally change the overall situation in Egypt which is one of a quite severe crackdown in the last year and a half, a crackdown that is probably the most widespread and severe in the history of modern Egypt,” said Issandr El Amrani, North Africa Project director at International Crisis Group.

El Amrani said Greste’s release was explained in part by the international pressure resulting from the Al-Jazeera case. “Even Egypt’s most stalwart supporters like the United Arab Emirates have pushed for something to be done,” said El Amrani. “They’ve been concerned that the imprisonment of these journalists has hurt Egypt’s image and just created a stumbling block, an obstacle to the full rehabilitation of Egypt on the international scene.”

Since Egypt’s military deposed elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the country’s judiciary and security forces have detained as many as 40,000 people in a campaign against political opponents, according to a database maintained by WikiThawra, an initiative of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

The prisoners include numerous members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood which has been branded an illegal terrorist organization, as well as numerous non-Islamists dissidents, including the well-known faces of the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is also the sixth leading jailer of journalists in the world, with 12 journalists in prison at the end of 2014.

Separately on Monday, an Egyptian court sentenced 183 people to death on charges of killing 16 police officers in the town of Kerdasa, on the outskirts of Cairo, during violent unrest between supporters of deposed president Morsi and the security forces. The ruling was the latest in a series of mass death sentences issued by Egyptian courts over the last year. The mass trials of protesters and alleged insurgents have underscored the aggressive agency of Egypt’s judiciary in the political clampdown. Many Egyptian judges regard the Brotherhood with hostility, and reviled Morsi for threatening judicial independence. Others bring an ideological zeal to trials involving alleged Islamists.

Throughout the clampdown, the three Al-Jazeera journalists have been among the most visible detainees in the Egyptian prison system. Their arrest and trial garnered the attention of news organizations and foreign heads of state. But the divergent fates of the three underscored what the families of some journalists said was discrimination on the part of their government.

“The three of them were tried in one trial. How can two of them be released while the third is imprisoned?” said Jihan Rashed, the wife of producer Baher Mohamed. “I ask that they not discriminate between foreigner and Egyptian, from Arab, from any nationality.”

“I wish that it were a matter of being human. It’s not that I want him to be a human, but I want him to be treated with humanity,” she said.

Another jailed journalist whose plight has received little attention is freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known by his nickname “Shawkan,” who has been held without trial since August 14, 2014. A contributor to TIME, Die Zeit, and the Demotix photo agency, Abou Zeid was initially detained while documenting the government’s deadly expulsion of protesters from Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. His detention has been renewed by judicial order ever since.

“The Egyptian government ignored him, because he’s Egyptian, not Australian or any other nationality,” said Yehia El Sherbini, a close friend of Abou Zeid. “They took his camera and destroyed it. Why destroy his camera? Why kidnap him and put him in prison? Why? It’s not fair. He’s done nothing wrong. He was doing his job.”

While thousands remain in prison, it remains unclear what, if anything, foreign governments can do to change the overall behavior of Egypt’s institutions. “Clearly they don’t care as much as they used to care under Mubarak,” said El Amrani. “Mubarak was sensitive to some extent to the way Egypt’s image abroad and did make concessions, for example allowed a greater degree of media freedom than currently exists.”

Complicating matters is the ongoing interplay between the executive, the military, and the judiciary. “It’s not so much a question of this is the new normal,” said El Amrani. “We don’t know yet. The regime that followed the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi is still very much in formation.”

TIME Behind the Photos

The Story Behind the Photo of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s Dying Moments

Egyptian photographer Islam Osama captured the moment Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was killed during peaceful protests in Cairo on Jan. 24

In the week since her death, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh has become a symbol against Egypt’s military rule.

The leading member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party died on Jan. 24 after suffering shotgun pellet injuries while peacefully marching to commemorate the hundreds of demonstrators killed during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.

Egyptian photographer Islam Osama, 23, captured her dying moments. His powerful portrait of Sayyed Abu el-Ela holding the severely injured protestor has drawn international attention, taking on an iconic status similar to the footage of Neda Agha-Soltan’s dying breath during the 2009 Iranian protests.

Osama, a photojournalist with the Egyptian Youm El Sabea newspaper, was covering a press conference in Cairo when he heard about the Socialist Popular Alliance Party’s march, and headed over to cover it. “It was an ordinary day,” Osama told TIME. “We didn’t expect any clashes or violence from the police. The streets were almost empty.”

The march was on one side of a street leading to the iconic Tahrir Square, and the police stood on the other side. “[There were] only 25 people, and the demonstration only lasted two minutes,” Osama said. “Suddenly, without any warning, the dispersal began with the shooting of teargas and birdshot [pellets].”

Osama believes the police didn’t purposefully target Al-Sabbagh. “[They] fired in the general direction of the march.” The photographer, who was behind Al-Sabbagh when she was hit, saw her fall to the ground. He took six photos in a sequence.

At first, Osama didn’t realize he had captured such a powerful image. “The most important thing in that moment was Shaimaa herself,” he said. “I realized immediately that I had to leave. I had to send the photos to the newspaper, fast. If I waited a moment too long there was a chance that my camera could be taken and the memory card erased by the police.”

Using a USB data dongle and his laptop, he uploaded the photographs to his editor at Youm El Sabea. “From a human perspective, [my editor] had a strong emotional reaction to the image,” which has dominated the paper’s coverage since the incident.

Osama never expected to see his photograph make international headlines. “It was a big surprise,” he said. “I didn’t expect this kind of reaction. When I see this, of course I feel proud. But the most important thing is that I was able to bring Shaimaa’s message to the world… As a photographer, it’s my job to transmit this reality to the world.”

And, the current political situation in Egypt hasn’t made his job easy. “Photojournalists [here] are not safe. If you carry a camera in the street, you’re a target. People consider anyone with a camera [to be] with Al Jazeera, the Muslim Brotherhood, or a traitor to the nation.”

For Osama, his job is not to take sides, he said. “I’m not against the police. I’ve photographed policemen who [were] injured and killed, who [were] targeted by terrorism. My photos show reality.”

Interview by Jared Malsin in Cairo

TIME Egypt

Egyptian Families Plead for Help for the Forgotten ISIS Hostages

Coptic Christian men whose relatives were abducted in Libya hold their photos in front of the foreign ministry in Cairo, Jan. 19, 2015.
Hassan Ammar—AP Coptic Christian men whose relatives were abducted in Libya, hold their photos in front of the foreign ministry in Cairo, Jan. 19, 2015.

At least 21 Egyptian Christians are being held by ISIS in Libya

The seven Egyptian men headed east by car from the Libyan city of Sirte on Dec. 29, starting the long drive back to Egypt. On the outskirts of the city, located on the Mediterranean coast, armed men stopped the vehicle. Several of the men called their families back home. “We’re kidnapped,” one told his uncle.

“The call lasted just 10 seconds,” said Bebawi Elham Welson, whose brother Samail Elham Welson was among those abducted. Samail had spent 18 months working as a plumber in Libya. For three months he had hoped to return to Egypt, but he feared the journey. “He told us, ‘the road is dangerous. When I know the road is in good condition I’ll come back,’” his brother said in an interview in Cairo.

Welson believes Samail is among a group of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians whose abduction was claimed by the Libya branch of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which controls much of eastern Syria and overran much of northwestern Iraq last year. ISIS’ Libya branch released the hostages’ photos, along with a claim of responsibility for their abduction, earlier this month. The family, which lives 150 miles south of Cairo in Minya, says it has not been contacted by the kidnappers.

Unlike ISIS’ foreign hostages in Iraq and Syria, the captured Egyptians have not been paraded on television in orange jumpsuits. Their ordeal has received only a small fraction of the media attention given to the two Japanese captives who ISIS is currently threatening with death. Their abduction underscores Libya’s unpredictable conflict that threatens to draw in nearby states.

The kidnapping of Egyptians in two separate incidents in December and January adds to an escalating crisis in Egypt’s relationship with its fragile neighbor, which last year descended into an internal conflict between two rival governments and their allied militias. For Egypt, the abductions represent another dilemma resulting from the disintegration of the Libyan state three and a half years after an armed uprising toppled the regime of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The recent kidnappings took place in two separate incidents. After the seven men were abducted on the road on Dec. 29, another 13 Egyptians were grabbed by armed, masked men from their house in Sirte. An Egyptian man who survived the raid, Aziz Hanna, said the attackers examined the Egyptians’ identification papers, then seized the Christians, while the Muslims went free. Hanna told journalists at a news conference in Cairoon Monday that while one of his nephews was kidnapped, he avoided abduction by hiding in his room during the attack and later fleeing Libya with the help of local acquaintances.

Egyptian citizens and interests have been targeted repeatedly in the chaotic fighting between factions in Libya. In January 2014, five Egyptian embassy staffers were snatched in the capital Tripoli following Egypt’s arrest of a Libyan militia leader. They were later released, the militia leader freed. Last November, a car bomb exploded at the Egyptian embassy in the city. Egyptian Coptic Christians have especially suffered. In December, gunmen killed two Coptic doctors and their teenage daughter in Sirte. In 2012, a Coptic church in the city of Benghazi was set on fire.

Libya’s internationally-recognized government, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, is locked in conflict with a rival government in Tripoli. Militias allied to the Tripoli government accuse Egypt of supporting the Tobruk side. The Egyptian government denies military involvement, but Western officials and experts have confirmed Egypt has allowed its air bases to be used for air strikes over the border.

Amid the chaos, a militia in Libya’s eastern city of Derna proclaimed allegiance to ISIS last year. The declaration prompted international concern about the collapse of the country’s central authority, but unlike ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the group does not control significant chunks of territory.

Complicating the issue for Egyptian authorities is the number of their citizens living in Libya: as many as 1.5 million, according to recent figures reported by the International Organization for Migration. Many of those have sought to escape the violence. In one period of two weeks in March 2011, the agency reported that 135,000 Egyptians left Libya.

The families of the abducted men say they have received little information from both the kidnappers and authorities. “It came suddenly. The evidence was that the area was safe and there was no danger,” said Mina Ramsis Najib, 27, whose two nephews were among the group of seven taken from the vehicle leaving Sirte. Laga, 27, and Samir, 23, had been working as painters and planned to return to Libya after spending time in Egypt. “There have been no new developments,” he said.

Relatives of the abducted are unhappy with what they say is an inadequate response from the Egyptian government. At a news conference in Cairo, loved ones said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had confirmed that the men were alive and pledged to help the victims, but offered few specifics. One family said it had been told not to speak to the media.

“We have a lack of information from our side, from the government,” said Mina Thabet a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a local rights group, who interviewed several of the families and survivors of past kidnappings. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs just makes statements. They say ‘We’re trying to do our best. We’re communicating with the Libyan authorities.’ They never give us solutions.”

A ministry spokesman, Badr Abdelatty, did not return calls and messages seeking comment on the abductions. Abdelatty previously confirmed to journalists that 20 Egyptians had been kidnapped in Libya in two separate incidents.

Though the ordeal of the hostages’ ordeal is ongoing, and their families are to urging the authorities to pay more attention to their plight. Welson said, “I want the officials to realize they’re wrong. They’re wrong. One minute they’re with us. The next minute they turn their backs on us.”

TIME Libya

Egyptian Involvement Sparked Libya Oil Port Battle, Expert Says

General view of the industrial zone at the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11, 2014.
Esam Al-Fetori—Reuters General view of the industrial zone at the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11, 2014.

Islamists suspected Libya's government in Tobruk was receiving reinforcements from Egypt

An ongoing battle for two of Libya’s key oil ports began last weekend because Islamist-leaning militias feared Egypt planned to reinforce the Libyan elected government based in the eastern city of Tobruk, according to a Tripoli-based analyst.

The fighting that has closed the oil terminals at Ras Lanuf and Sidra underscores how fears of Egyptian meddling in Libya is leading to an escalation of the country’s armed conflict. “They had information or belief that the Tobruk side was being reinforced in its military capacities,” says Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst based in Tripoli with International Crisis Group. “The more evidence there is of Egyptian involvement, the greater the risk the opposing side might make abrupt strategy choices, like the one we saw over the weekend.”

Libya’s internationally-recognized government in Tobruk is locked in armed conflict with a rival government run by the Islamist-leaning Libya Dawn movement, based in Tripoli. The Tobruk government is allied with Khalifa Heftar, a general who declared war earlier this year against Libya Dawn. Heftar’s campaign, dubbed Operation Dignity, has triggered some of the deadliest fighting since the 2011 armed uprising that overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

Egypt is concerned about instability from Libya spilling over into its territory. Egypt shares a long desert border with Libya that has been used to smuggle weapons, particularly since the 2011 uprising. More broadly, the Egyptian government led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who led the military’s 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist government, regards the Tobruk government as one ally in what they see as a regional struggle against political Islam in which policy is guided primarily by religious rather than practical considerations.

“They want to reshape Libya’s political landscape where the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islamists don’t have a powerful role,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. “The larger fear of having a country next door or where the Brotherhood is dominant is a real political concern for them.”

Though Egyptian officials deny direct military involvement, Egypt has taken a number of steps to aid the Tobruk side. In August, U.S. officials confirmed that Egypt allowed its airbases to be used in surprise airstrikes by the United Arab Emirates on targets in Libya. In November, Egypt sent special forces on two raids inside Libya, according to Western officials quoted by the New York Times.

In addition, forces allied to the Tobruk government have received weapons from Egypt. Gazzini says that in October she observed an Egyptian ship unloading in Tobruk port and that officials there confirmed that the ship delivered light arms.

In interviews in Cairo, Egyptian officials acknowledge that Egypt shares intelligence with the Tobruk authorities, but deny direct military operations. “Our position on the crisis in Libya is clear: to provide information, expertise and training,” says Hossam Khairallah, a former general in Egypt’s intelligence service. “But the conditions do not permit or favor intervention in Libya.”

Libya is just one arena where Egypt joins the wealthy Gulf monarchies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in what Egyptian officials see as a regional power struggle with the forces of political Islam. Opposing them are other states, including Qatar and Turkey who are regarded as more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. The rivals also back competing rebel groups in Syria, as well as rival factions in Lebanon and in Palestinian politics.

“It’s clear that Egypt is involved in supporting Heftar’s forces in some respects,” says Chris Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corporation. “Libya is at risk of becoming a proxy war for this conflict between authoritarian militarism and conservative Islamism, with different regional powers backing different sides.”

Inside Libya, analysts say the perception of Egyptian assistance for the Tobruk government is driving the calculations of the warring factions. “It has a very damaging effect for the country, because if it’s not true it gives the impression to the Heftar side that they have the military capacity, or will have the military capacity to carry out this military strategy for the liberation of Tripoli,” says Gazzini.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdelatty says Egypt is prepared to offer training and capacity building for the internationally-recognized government and its military forces, but denied reports of direct intervention. “We are coordinating with neighboring countries to empower the legitimate government, legitimate institutions, namely the House of Representatives and current government in Tobruk,” he says. “We are not going to intervene militarily in Libya. This is not our business.”

Alaa Youssef, the spokesman for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, also denied Egyptian intervention in Libya. “President Sisi has made it clear several times that the Egyptian army will only secure the borders. In no way could it go beyond that,” he says.

Egypt is also concerned about the emergence of a militia in the eastern Libyan city of Derna that proclaims its allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the militant group that overran large parts of Iraq and Syria this year. The group is just one of dozens of individual militias operating throughout the country since the implosion of Libyan state institutions following the 2011 civil war. Since 2011, insurgents have exploited Libya’s vast desert borders to smuggle weapons into Egypt and other neighboring countries. “It’s on the top of our priorities here in Egypt. We cannot afford having a failed state on our western border,” says Abdelatty.

In Egypt, the military and police face persistent deadly attacks carried out by insurgents based in the Sinai Peninsula who also pledged loyalty to ISIS this year. Those attacks accelerated following the military’s July 2013 overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the takeover, the authorities have jailed thousands in a vast crackdown on the Brotherhood and other political opponents.

As a result, some Egyptian officials characterize the battle in Libya as an extension of the domestic fight against political Islam. “It’s imperative to deal with all terrorist groups with the same firmness,” says Abdelatty. “There is no difference from our point of view between ISIS, Fajr Libya [Libya Dawn], the Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat An-Nusra, or Ansar Al-Sharia. They are all the same.”

Heftar, the general spearheading the current assault on the Islamists, is a former commander in Gaddafi’s army who trained under the CIA in the 1980s with the aim of toppling the Libyan dictator. In his current campaign against the Islamists, Heftar has modeled his rhetoric on that of Egypt’s President el-Sisi, a popular former military commander viewed by some Egyptians as a national savior and reviled by others as a new despot. Framing his campaign as an assault on terrorists, Heftar has said the viability of his campaign depends on the level of outside support, according to Wehry.

But after more than six months of fighting, Heftar’s forces have failed to dislodge the Islamists, and some Egyptian officials have lost their enthusiasm for the general. “I’m somehow disappointed,” says Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a retired general from Egypt’s General Intelligence service. “He should have interfered in some occasions where he did not,” he says, naming as an example the Libyan town of Derna, which was taken by extremists in late November. “We saw Derna falling to ISIS without any work from his side.”

Analysts say that Egyptian policy has also been influenced by lobbying from members of the former Gaddafi regime. “We know that senior members of the old regime are very close to the Emirati royal family and also to Egyptian security officials,” says Gazzini. “They are part of this process of creating the movement for the support for the Tobruk faction.” Gaddafi’s cousin and former aide Ahmed Gaddaf Al-Dam, lives in exile in Egypt.

For the Tobruk government and its allied forces, a victory on the battlefield would only yield more problems. “These Islamist groups are not going to go quietly,” says Wehrey. “They’ll probably shift to a different set of tactics, a terrorist campaign. They’ll go underground. It’s entered a dangerous phase.” In Libya, the only certainty is continued bloodshed.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Rights Groups View Report on CIA Torture With Weary Familiarity

It's a reminder of Egypt's past as a home for "outsourced" torture — and its present regime's alleged use of the same kinds of practices

For rights advocates in Egypt, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report released Tuesday detailing years of CIA torture was a reminder not only of the country’s past role as a destination for “outsourcing” U.S. torture, but also of a present reality in which Egypt’s security forces continue to use brutal methods on detainees.

Egypt was a key destination under the CIA’s “rendition” program in which the U.S. transferred prisoners to other countries for interrogation. For years the CIA cooperated with the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, including the Egyptian security agencies whose widespread use of torture was one of the hallmarks of the authoritarian state.

In the eyes of human rights activists, the legacy of the CIA’s collaboration with the Egyptian state lives on in widespread accounts of security force abuses. “Today we see more cases of enforced disappearances involving the Military Intelligence and the National Security. These are practices that existed in Egypt before and were used in the extraordinary rendition program,” said Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “This mistake shouldn’t be repeated.”

The 500-PAGE executive summary report released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday redacts the names of the partner countries involved in rendition and torture, but those countries involved have long been publicly identified. The U.S. began rendering people suspected of involvement in terrorism to Egypt in 1995 under President Bill Clinton. According to a 2013 report by the Open Society Foundations, Egypt accepted a U.S. request to join the program in part because it wanted access to suspected members of Al Qaeda.

Rendition expanded massively following the September 11, 2001 attacks. In 2005, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif admitted that “60 to 70” people had been rendered to Egypt, out of an estimated total of 100 to 150. The CIA also sent detainees to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria, all autocratic regimes with long records of torture. All three countries would be shaken by popular uprisings in the “Arab Spring” of 2011.

Egypt was the destination for some of the most high-profile cases of extraordinary rendition, according to the Open Society Foundations report. Detainees included Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, an Egyptian who had been living in Italy. Abu Omar was picked up on a street in Milan in 2003, then flown to Ramstein airbase in Germany, then to Egypt, where he was detained secretly for 14 months and subjected to electric shocks.

In another instance detailed by the Open Society Foundations report, an Australian citizen named Mamdouh Habib was captured in Pakistan, questioned by U.S. and Australian agents, then rendered to Egypt where he was tortured. In another instance, a pair of Egyptian men seeking asylum in Sweden, Muhammed al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza, were handed to the CIA then flown back to Egypt. In Agiza’s case, CIA agents “stripped him, dressed him in overalls, and chained and shackled him,” according to the report. The Egyptian government had assured Sweden that the two would not be tortured, but both were submitted to electric shocks.

Hosni Mubarak was removed from power in the 2011 revolt that was in part fueled by public outrage at the abuses of the security forces. But the massive police apparatus he oversaw remained intact, and the regime figures and security officials responsible for the use of torture stayed in place. Torture of detainees continued after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was elected in 2012, human rights groups say, and after the military deposed Morsi in July 2013.

(Egyptian government officials dispute claims of torture. Though the Interior Ministry has in recent years admitted some violations, it asserts that it holds offending officers accountable and also said it was training police in human rights principles.)

Throughout, opponents of the Egyptian regime expressed dismay at the U.S. role in cooperating with the Egyptian security forces. “Mubarak used the security agencies to continue his rule,” said Mohsen Bahnasy, a human rights lawyer specializing in cases of torture said, “The United States unfortunately did not take a stance against the Egyptian government’s use of torture. The U.S. used Egypt as a bridge,” he said, “sending prisoners to be tortured here before moving them elsewhere.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee report argues that the CIA’s rendition program undermined efforts to compel other countries to change their treatment of detainees. It describes an incident in 2004 when the U.S. Secretary of State ordered the ambassador to an unidentified country to urge that country open its prisons to the International Committee of the Red Cross. At the time, the report states, the country whose name is redacted “was holding detainees being held in secret at the CIA’s behest.”

Since the military takeover in Egypt, an estimated 40,000 people have been detained in a clampdown on opponents of the regime, according to a database maintained by WikiThawra, an initiative of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. Former detainees describe beatings, burns, and electric shocks. Amnesty International, Egyptian human rights rights groups, and journalists have also documented the forced disappearance of dozens of civilians held at Al-Azouly detention center in the Galaa military base near the city of Ismailia. The government refuses to acknowledge the facility.

“The CIA and the Egyptian intelligence were cooperating at a time when the Mubarak government was hated and the people revolted against it,” says Lotfy. “The foreign policy of the U.S. has to keep in mind that the stability they want to reach by fighting terrorism in this way is a false stability.”

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