CAIRO - On December 5, violent clashes raged for hours between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi, after the latter attacked a sit-in outside the presidential palace by protesters rejecting the constitutional declaration and a snap referendum.
A total of 49 people were captured, beaten and kept overnight in makeshift holding cells as their captors interrogated them about their affiliations and the reason for their presence in the vicinity of the fighting.
But they were not arrested by police or military forces — according to numerous eyewitnesses and personal accounts, supported by video evidence, civilians affiliated with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood were the ones who kept them captive for hours under the eye of security forces.
Their protracted ordeal ended after members of the prosecution arrested the group, then ordered their release the next day in the absence of evidence of any wrongdoing on their part.
Some of those captured say they felt like prisoners of war. Others assumed they’d fallen into the hands of a private security apparatus.
Their testimonials leave one thing certain: That night, Islamist groups ran sovereign detention centers they’d created in the area around the presidential palace, imposing their authority on captured protesters as well as the security forces on hand.
Former diplomat Yehia Negm, computer engineer Mohamed Omar and Popular Socialist Alliance Party member Ramy Sabry were among the unfortunate group of 49 detained.
Images of bloodied faces, bruised eyes and hastily bandaged wounds quickly emerged, as did videos of the brutal interrogation process of which minors were not spared.
Their injuries still fresh, the three separately recounted their ordeal, and their tales support the same narrative, even crisscrossing at times in the stronghold fortified by the Islamist group that night.
Omar was caught while delivering medical supplies to the field hospital set up at a gas station on the opposition side.
“They captured me, trashed the supplies and accused me of bringing medicine to the non-believers. They abducted me, I fell and they dragged me on the ground,” he recalls.
Omar says the mob beat him with anything their hands could reach, including a large billboard that landed on his head and cut him deeply.
When he tried to convince them to ease up, their response shocked him into silence. “I told them when the Prophet took over Mecca, he let non-believers go in peace. They told me ‘you are worse than the Prophet’s enemies in Mecca.’ I didn’t know what more to say.”
Drenched in blood, their hands and feet were tied up with a rough material that left visible marks, receiving minimal medical attention from Brotherhood-affiliated doctors, who were the only ones allowed in the area.
Even though ambulances were on the scene, the Brotherhood crowd often refused to let the injured go, and overwhelmed by the angry mob, ambulance workers had to comply, the three said.
All three witnessed one doctor objecting when two severely injured captives with stab wounds were not allowed into the ambulance.
“He lost his temper and shouted at them saying that neither religion nor ethics allows this, and that he can’t break his Hippocratic oath and leave these people to die,” according to Omar.
According to the three witnesses, police forces were not only unable to intervene and stop the attacks against protesters, but also took orders from the Brotherhood leaders on the scene.
A weak cordon of Central Security Forces was the only thing separating detainees from a larger, angrier pro-Morsi mob.
“I asked the police officer, ‘How can you let them beat us up while you’re standing there?’ He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m following orders,” says Omar.
The three say the leader of the group was referred to as Dr. Alaa, and he frequently went inside the presidential palace and came back to continue assaulting them, a clear indication of coordination with the state.
After emerging from the palace, Omar says Alaa made sure to let everyone know he was in control.
“He said, ‘I know who you are and they told me to let you go, but I won’t, because you’re educated and you should know better and be on our side,’” Omar says.
The three men say their captors openly attempted to pin charges on them.
They all heard a man introduce himself as lawyer Hany al-Dardiry, who urged the rest of the group to prepare a box of weapons as fake evidence to send off with the detainees to the prosecution office.
Sabry was snatched in the middle of the standoff between the two groups. He was dragged and beaten more intensely when his ID was checked and the group realized that he is Christian.
The small number of unarmed CSF had no chance in standing up to the mob. “They couldn’t have intervened — if they had tried, they would have been tied up and beaten with us,” he says.
During his interrogation, Sabry says, the group kept trying to force him to confess that he was a paid by a member of the former regime, threatening him with violence.
Former ambassador Yehia Negm was alarmed by the authority of the organized group: “I’ve never seen an Egyptian civilian capture another, tie him up, torture him, interrogate him and deprive him of his rights. It’s like a private intelligence or state security body that belongs to this group,” he says.
With a bloody eye and badly bruised face days after the attack, Negm recalls thinking that he was going to die when the mob first began beating him. He was captured in the middle of the clashes.
Negm says he was beaten with batons, punched and kicked from all directions, then the group put his head on the floor and jumped on it, then started jumping on his chest.
When he told the group they had no right to ask for his ID, they replied: “We can do whatever we want.”
The three men also recall the inhumane treatment they received from a female doctor who arrived Thursday morning to tend to their injuries.
The doctor kicked the injured captives as they sat on the floor, called them pigs and undeserving of life. Eventually, an officer intervened and told her to leave if she can’t do her job.
That was the only time the police were able to stop an assault on those captured, they said.
The complete submission of the group’s members to their leaders was worrying, Negm says. “They haven’t just wiped out their minds — what’s worse is that we witnessed them ignoring their hearts and humanity,” Negm said.
“I saw weakness and I saw collusion. How can an officer take orders from a civilian and witness our beating? They were weak to the point of being crushed,” he says.
When the prosecution took the group to the police station the next day as suspects of assault and murder — among other accusations pinned on them — they were relieved, Negm says.
“It was the first time that we were actually happy to get arrested because it would get us away from the Nazi torture chambers,” he said.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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