Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egyptian security and police forces stormed the village of Dalga in Minya province earlier this week following 76 days of terror in the town, recapturing Dalga from the grip of the hardline Muslim Brotherhood supporters who had taken control following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi.
Asharq Al-Awsat visited Dalga earlier this week to speak to some of the 120,000 residents who lived through the protracted occupation, including eyewitnesses who described the military operation to retake the town and the situation during the more than two-month reign of hardline supporters of ex-president Mohamed Mursi.
While residents cheerfully welcomed the convoys of military and police vehicles into the town, investigations revealed the campaign of terror that was unleashed against Dalga’s Coptic Christian minority, who make up approximately 20 percent of the local population.
Hardline Muslim Brotherhood supporters took control of the Upper Egyptian town following popular protests against the president resulted in the Egyptian military announcing a transitional “roadmap” that involved removing Mursi from power.
Dalga resident Mohamed told Asharq Al-Awsat: “After Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sissi announced the road map, Mursi supporters attacked the churches and the police department here, and even beat Muslims who protested in support of the military.”
“We lived in terror,” he said.
Supporters of the former president gathered in front of a building that belonged to the Saint George Church, blaming Egypt’s Coptic Christians for Mursi’s ouster. Angry protesters stormed the building, looting and burning its priceless library.
Abdullah, an eyewitness to the attack on the church, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Saboteurs poured petrol on mattresses and the library’s books and set them on fire while the pastor was waving for help. He was stranded on the burning building’s second floor.”
The pastor of the Saint George Church said the attackers did not leave anything behind, even looting children’s toys and electrical wires.
Violence extended to the neighboring houses, twenty of which—belonging to Christians—were looted and burned.
When local police tried to intervene to protect the residents, the vandals attacked and burned the only police station in the town. Following this, armed attackers reportedly killed an elderly Christian man who had tried to defend his home.
The violence directed at the Coptic community flared up again on August 14, when the Egyptian military dismantled two pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Among the Brotherhood supporters in Cairo to protest what they dubbed a “military coup” were 350 Muslims from Dalga.
In retaliation, armed groups across the country attacked police stations and churches, including the 1,600-year-old Virgin Mary and St. Abraam Monastery.
Speaking to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, a well-known Christian lawyer who fled Dalga on August 14 said: “As soon as the crackdown in Cairo started, all the loudspeakers at the main mosque in Dalga issued calls for jihad.”
He related one of these calls for jihad: “Your brethren are being killed at Nahda and Rabaa [the two Cairo pro-Mursi camps]. Everyone with a weapon come out to save them from their killers—the Christian infidels, the police and the army.”
Three days following the subsequent violence, police tried to storm the village and liberate it. They were pushed back by hundreds of youth and gunmen who blocked access to the village, setting tires on fire and pushing the police back.
A security source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said: “We retreated because we did not want to cause deaths among citizens.”
Monday’s operation was the third attempt by police to retake the town. Police forces were able to arrest about a hundred village residents who already had arrest warrants pending against them.
Further assaults on 10 other towns in the region where Islamists have weakened state control following Mursi’s ouster in July are also planned, according to Minya governor Saleh Zayada.
However, the re-establishment of government control in Dalga may have come too late for many of the town’s Coptic Christians, with reports claiming that as many as 100 Christian families have fled the area since July. Property owned by the Coptic community, including three of Dalga’s five churches, were also looted and torched in the recent violence.
As for what lies in store for Dalga’s 20,000 Coptic Christians in post-Mursi Egypt, only the future will tell.