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Meet the hatchet men of Cairo

CAIRO — One of the prime dangers and obstacles to journalists and human rights observers trying to monitor and report on the violence in Egypt is the resurgence of vigilante groups threatening and harassing anyone they think is anti-Egypt. These days that means anyone who speaks critically about the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood or is somehow viewed as a supporter of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, who ruled for a year.

Hardly a day passes without reports of a journalist being beaten or detained, or a rights activist being marched off to a police station by “honest citizens,” as the state media calls them. While carrying out their “civic duties,” these vigilantes somehow find time to steal mobile phones, cameras and money from their victims.

So who is doing this informal work of protecting Egypt from its supposed enemies? In some cases, it appears that the chore is carried out by “popular committees,” especially aggressive neighborhood watch-type groups formed ostensibly to protect homes and buildings from what they claim are marauding Morsi supporters. Yet, from appearances and descriptions of the vigilante beatings and detentions, actions of some supposed popular committees resemble activities of what Egyptians call baltageya (often translated as “thugs”) – people who for decades have served as a kind of auxiliary goon squad for Egyptian authorities.

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