Inside the sleepy Egyptian district where 682 residents were sentenced to death


Um Mohammed with her children, from left, Doha, Rudayna and Mohammed, in al-Atf Haydar, near Minya, Egypt. Um Mohammed's husband was sentenced, in absentia, to death with more than 600 others in a mass trial over the killing of a police officer. He immediately went into hiding. (Holly Pickett for The Washington Post)

AL-EDWA — Far from Egypt’s centers of power, al-Edwa district is a remote cluster of rural hamlets in the southern province of Minya — an otherwise sleepy agricultural patch accessed only by winding, gravel roads through a maze of villages and a vast expanse of desert.

But on Monday, a criminal court in the city of Minya, about 50 miles from al-Edwa, sentenced 682 of the district’s residents to death for a burst of violence in August — leaving one police officer dead — after the state’s harsh crackdown on pro-Islamist demonstrations in the capital. The verdict marked the largest mass death sentence in Egypt’s history.

Al-Edwa’s geographic isolation shows the extent to which the bloody crackdown last summer reverberated across the country — spurring riots in distant villages — and how the ongoing imprisonment and prosecution of alleged supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi has reached into and upended the lives of so many Egyptians.

(Laris Karklis / The Washington Post) (Laris Karklis / The Washington Post)

In al-Atf Haydar, one of the small communities that make up al-Edwa district, the fallout has devastated the Saber family. Hassan Saber, a local lawyer, signed on to defend his younger brother against accusations that he participated in the violence that day.

Haggag Saber, 35, says he was in Cairo on Aug. 14 when rioters stormed al-Edwa’s police station in retaliation for the killing of hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. He had gone there to buy supplies for the stationery shop he runs in the village — and he brought dated receipts and a witness to the court to prove it.

But even if Haggag was involved in the attack, the presiding judge heard only the prosecution before issuing his verdict, barring the defense from making its case. In anticipation of the harsh ruling, and because of continued police raids on his home, Haggag fled al-Atf Haydar for Cairo over the weekend.

“These are all politically motivated accusations. There is no rule of law anymore,” Haggag said in a telephone interview. “There is no judiciary; they just follow the policies of the military regime,” he added. In July, the military deposed Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Wedged between the village clover fields and piles of rotting garbage — a testament to the lack of government services in places such as al-Edwa — is Haggag’s unfinished concrete home, where his wife and three children still live, uncertain about their future.

“We are doing the best we can,” Haggag’s wife, 25-year-old Um Mohammed, said. Wearing a full-face veil, she sat plaintively in front of a lilac-colored wall, cradling her 18-month-old daughter. Above the dining table was the only decoration: a photograph of the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site in Jerusalem.

“The children know what is happening, and they pray for him,” she said. “But this regime is unjust, and no one will keep silent. People are dying — and this doesn’t please God; it pleases no one.”

Hassan’s young wife, Abeer, served chilled banana milk as the sun set on the village.

“Sissi only wants to rule Egypt through his tanks,” Hassan shouted, referring to Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the powerful presidential hopeful and former defense minister. Sissi oversaw the dismantling of the Islamist protest camps in August, in which about 1,000 people were killed.

“I pray that this judge gets what is coming to him,” Abeer said as she passed out the cold drinks. “We are living in a state of injustice.”

Erin Cunningham is an Egypt-based correspondent for The Post. She previously covered conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor, GlobalPost and The National.

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