In the Face of Uncertainty and Political Turmoil, Vigilante Groups Form in Egypt
Photo Credit: Andre Fecteau/IRIN
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It took Ahmed Fawzi, a College of Islamic Studies graduate, only a few hours after seeing a man robbed and killed by a group of criminals to buy a gun.
"I just did not want to be killed like this innocent man," Fawzi, 26, told IRIN. "My father died years ago and I am responsible for defending my family in the absence of all types of security."
Egyptians are discovering the need to defend themselves, in the wake of the uncertainty and insecurity following the overthrow in February of the 31-year regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Police stations have been attacked, vandalized and torched, while thousands of inmates managed to escape prisons across the country.
"Tens of millions of innocent citizens do not feel safe because there is a marked rise in crime and also a noticeable absence of policemen," said Maher Zakhari, an independent security analyst. "These people have the right to feel secure and because the state does not offer them this security, they have to take matters into their own hands."
More than 5,000 inmates are still at large, according to Major General Muktar Al Mullah, a member of Egypt's ruling military council. Other experts say that more than 80,000 guns, pistols, rifles, and machine guns were stolen from police stations in January and are still in criminals' hands.
People started forming vigilante groups during and immediately after the revolution to protect their property. Now, however, personal security has become an issue, and it is not uncommon to find long queues outside arms shops in Cairo.
After the man was robbed and killed, Fawzi and other people in the poor Cairo neighbourhood of Al Sahel called the military to report the incident, but they were not interested. "They told us that they were coming, but they did not do that," Fawzi said. "This taught me that if I do not defend myself, nobody else will."
Reports of rising crime keep the vast majority of Egyptians in a state of fear, underlined by a recent poll by international research organization Gallup, which says that 40 percent of Egyptians are afraid to walk alone at night, describing this trend as a "popular hysteria".
Gallup researchers, who enlisted the views of 1,000 Egyptians in April, advise Egyptian policymakers to work on tackling "perceived fear" rather than just security problems, understanding that perceptions can affect the Egyptian economy and political sphere as much as actual crime rates.
But to people like Yasser Mohamed, a taxi driver in his mid-30s, fear of crime is more than just a perception. He has seen thugs who try to stop motorists on the road to steal their cars, using all types of arms.
"The other day, a group of criminals stopped a friend of mine, took his car, but they were kind enough not to kill him," Mohamed said. "This is why I always keep a knife with me. True, it can do nothing to scare a thug with a gun, but this is what I can get now.
"Everybody is afraid," he said. "People cannot just stand idly by and watch thieves threatening their lives and taking money from their pockets. They must do something to defend themselves."
Rising insecurity is one of the complaints of thousands of protesters who have filled the streets in recent days, clashing with policemen in demonstrations across Egypt. The protesters, some of whom have occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square again in recent days, say the Interior Ministry and the ruling military council intentionally neglect the criminals who fill the streets, and put political activists in jail instead. They accuse the council of fomenting insecurity so that people long for the "old days".
Egyptians' desire to create their own security systems in the total absence of government has pushed the price of arms to unprecedented heights, according to arms dealers (Arabic).
One told the private CBC TV station that prices had tripled in the months after the 25 January revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptians have to obtain a special licence from the Interior Ministry to own weapons, but because this is such an arduous process, most people resort to unlicensed arms sellers. This has created a special market for weapons coming from countries such as Libya.
Demonstrators in the Nile Delta city of Mansura have used firearms against policemen in recent clashes, and in Cairo, a major-general with the Interior Ministry was shot during the protests.
Fawzi paid 2,000 Egyptian pounds (US$335) for a gun. He says he had to borrow the cash from friends. "But a pistol like this one equals the lives of many people because it can save the lives of these people," he said.