Saturday, July 31, 2010

An 'ordinary' Egyptian and his automatic weapon

By Rania Al Malky - July 9, 2010

CAIRO: Egypt doesn’t immediately spring to mind when it comes to peacetime random shooting sprees by “ordinary” people.

School shootings in the US have that title. The earliest and deadliest was in 1927 with what came to be known as the Bath School Disaster where, according to wikipedia, 45 people were killed (many of them grade school children) and 58 were injured when Andrew Kehoe, provoked by a property tax that would have lost him his farm, first killed his wife, burnt his house down, then detonated hundreds of pounds of explosives and dynamite sticks at the Bath Consolidated School in Michigan.

The second deadliest, was the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which claimed the lives of 32 students when the mentally ill perpetrator Seung Hui-Cho when on two shooting rampages approximately two hours apart. The incident had especially resonated in Egypt because one of the victims was Egyptian engineering student Waleed Shaalan.

The third deadliest shooting in 1966 at the University of Austin, saw a seriously disturbed Charles Whitman, who hailed from a highly dysfunctional family, kill 14 people after murdering his wife and mother at their homes.

Perhaps the one massacre that most people know about is the fourth deadliest school shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado. The tragedy was immortalized in a documentary by Michael Moore in his shocking “Bowling for Columbine” in which he tells the story of how two high school students (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) acquired firearms online before killing 12 students and one teacher as well as causing injuries to more than 21 others.

And so it was with a combination of shock and disbelief that Egyptians woke up last Tuesday to news of a random shooting by a 53-year-old bus driver who opened fire on a group of 23 employees aboard the bus minutes before reaching their destination in Menial Shiha, 20 kilometers south of Cairo, killing eight and wounding more than six.

Ensuing questions and theories as to what led driver Mahmoud Sweilam, described by people who knew him as a man with a “good reputation”, to commit such a horrendous crime, immediately circulated.

It was first reported that he was seriously depressed following a job transfer; then the next day the media published claims of a dispute between him and two of the victims over excavating for antiquities underneath his home in 15th of May City; while a report on Sweilam’s interrogation by police published in Al-Ahram on Thursday claimed that the assailant was provoked by work colleagues who ridiculed him.

“I’m a hot-blooded Saeedi [from Upper Egypt] and no one can make fun of me,” Sweilam was quoted as saying.

The antiquities link was also established in the interrogation report, whereby Sweilam had apparently been complaining to his colleagues about neighbors who had been digging near his home seeking ancient treasures — which 15th of May residents say is not uncommon. The digging was clearly taking its toll on the safety of his own home and when his complaints to the city council fell on deaf ears and the mockery of his workmates reached its height, Sweilam simply lost it and decided to seek revenge.

The reports have naturally raised more questions than answers, first and foremost being how Sweilam acquired an automatic weapon.

Unlike the US, Egypt has one of the strictest gun control policies in the world. According to gunpolicy.org, a website dedicated to international firearm injury prevention and policy, the rate of civilian firearm possession in Egypt in 3.5 per 100 people compared to 88.8 in the US, 15 in Mexico and 7.3 in Israel.

The website categorizes firearm regulation in Egypt as “restrictive”. Controlled by the Ministry of Interior, civilians are not allowed to possess long guns. While they are permitted to own handguns, the licensing of such weapons along with the ability to own fire arms and ammunition is extremely difficult. Applicants must show genuine reasons to possess a firearm (protection, security, target shooting) and are subjected to thorough background checks such as criminal, mental and domestic violence records. The registration process is centralized and firearms are required by law to have unique, identifying marks to be easily traced.

So how on earth did our “ordinary” bus driver get his hands on this weapon? According to newspaper reports, he got help from a low-ranking policeman acquaintance if his. But then how did this “low ranking policeman” get his hands on an automatic rifle?

That same question can be asked half a dozen more times and in the end, the rifle will probably be traced back to a “high ranking” gun trafficking and smuggling cartel. Gunpolicy.org, categorizes the firearm and ammunition industry in Egypt as “moderate”, which, as we have all seen this week, means that any “ordinary” disgruntled, abused, indignant, depressed Egyptian with enough hot blood running through his veins can even find an AK-47 assault weapon for sale at an asking price of $300, according to the website.

As in most facets of life in Egypt, where chaos rules, the loopholes in gun policy enforcement seem to be dilating. But illegal gun possession isn’t like ignoring a red traffic light or public urination. Whether or not it is intentional, any laxity in the enforcement of gun control in Egypt will cost innocent lives.

Today, with too many Egyptians living on the fringes of human dignity, battling frustration and humiliation at work and on the streets, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if more desperate Sweilams suddenly began to emerge among us, a stark reminder not only of the failure of the government to protect us, but also of the limits of human tolerance to injustice and the excruciating pressures of daily life if you happen to be an “ordinary Egyptian.”

Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.