Egyptians Improvise Security as Lawlessness Grows

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Ben Curtis / AP

A suspected thief with his shirt ripped off, center, is held by antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Jan. 30, 2011

With the much reviled police virtually withdrawn by the government since Friday night, neighborhood vigilantes have taken up some of the slack, apprehending suspected thieves and criminals and handing them over to the military. But where do the prisoners go when the police aren't there to throw the suspects in jail? A soldier stationed with his tank unit on the downtown Corniche, the broad avenue by the Nile, says that many of those apprehended in his unit's vicinity are being held at the Egyptian Museum a block away. "There are a lot of people there," he tells TIME. "I don't know how many." The Museum remains off-limits after a break-in on Friday night, so the allegation cannot be confirmed.

Some suspected violators are being held in state institutions not otherwise known to house prisoners. At the government-run Kasr El Aini hospital not far from Tahrir Square, guards said that the seventh floor was being used as a detention ward for wounded criminals. At one point, TIME witnessed a man in surgical dressings burst through the hospital gate and run down a major thoroughfare through traffic, chased by hospital guards. A woman in a full black veil ran out after him. Both were apprehended and dragged back inside, the woman screaming. The guards said that the man was a detainee and that his wife had tried to break him out.

Meanwhile, in Egypt's real prisons, the breakouts have been more successful. Many of Egypt's jails have come under attack and some have been emptied in the turmoil that has engulfed Egypt's suburbs and smaller towns with the disappearance of state security. Gun battles ensued outside at least two prisons in greater Cairo on Sunday. One in the south Cairo neighborhood of Maadi was still in the middle of a gun battle as night fell, with reports that many prisoners had already escaped and groups of armed men were prowling the surrounding neighborhoods.

Despite the security vacuum, many demonstrators said they still opposed the police force. "The army is all good men but the police, every policeman is a bad man," said demonstrator Mustafa Abdel Wahab. But by late in the evening, a new rumor was circulating on the tense streets of Cairo that the police were on their way back in to take control. Al-Jazeera reported that government officials had met with the Interior Ministry about deploying police again on the streets — with one important instruction that the cops were to avoid Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the opposition to President Hosni Mubarak.

In the meantime, the improvisation goes on. In the rough and bustling slum of Imbaba, vigilante justice reigns. And in the wake of the massive vacuum that opened up on Friday night, justice is often meted out by teenagers carrying clubs and butcher knives. "The youth have been protecting this area," says Mustafa al-Shuhayra, an accountant. "A lot of people have tried to loot and we beat them up." A few blocks away, a handful of armed adolescents have turned a pair of burnt cars into a roadblock.

While the vigilantism has been praised by some as evidence of neighborhood unity, others see it as an illustration of a nation that continues to spiral out of control. In the northeastern district of Heliopolis, near the presidential palace, members of a youth security gang claimed to have shot three people dead in a car who they said had arrived armed with guns. In Imbaba, residents say they remain insecure in spite of having one of the rare police stations with intact staff remaining (several stations have been burned) as well as access to an army hotline. No government force, residents say, was providing assistance.

"There is no police; we are protecting ourselves," one woman shouted from the sidewalk. "I tried to call the military twice last night and they didn't come. People tried to break into my house. We live in turmoil." The woman was quickly mobbed by a group of men who told her not to talk to foreign journalists. One lifted his jacket to reveal a handgun and claimed to be a police officer.

Indeed, there is much evidence that the police have not really been withdrawn and have merely stopped working as they lurk and await the regime's instructions. At the Imbaba police station, plainclothes men with assault rifles said they were secret police and that they were still carrying out arrests. "When people steal or kill or hit someone or violate the law or traffic rule, who holds them accountable?" the police chief said. The difference, he said, is that they now turn prisoners over to the army.

"I don't even know where they are being taken. The army announced yesterday that they'd be put before a military court. But there hasn't been any further information about it," says Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based human-rights organization. "We heard numbers that between three and four hundred were detained yesterday but we haven't been able to confirm."

Vigilante work is unrewarding. Al-Shuhayra, the accountant, says he and his compatriots have been sleeping on the streets of Imbaba in order to watch over their district's property. "A microbus of youths came and we beat them up because we weren't sure who they were," he says of the night before. "They came with weapons." And injustice can be meted out as easily as justice. "Some youth are just going to see their friends," says al-Shuhayra. "One kid was walking down a street and they searched him and found a knife and they beat him. but he wasn't a criminal. It was a mistake." "We're killing each other," complains Mohammed Mahmoud, a resident of Imbaba, remarking on the violence that has gripped his neighborhood over the past few nights.

State TV has encouraged Egyptians to obey a 4 p.m. curfew but protesters and looters have continued to take to the street in defiance long after dark. "What we have begun cannot be reversed," popular reformist Mohamed ElBaradei told a crowd in Tahrir Square through a bullhorn on Sunday night. "As we mentioned before, we have a key demand for the regime to step down and to start a new era." The atmosphere in Tahrir Square on Sunday night remained mostly friendly as protesters marched, prayed and shared food among the throng of army tanks.

The army, meanwhile, increased its presence across the country on Sunday, including a reported move into the South Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, in violation of a treaty with Israel that bans any deployment of Egyptian troops in the Sinai peninsula beyond border security. F-16s and military helicopters flew circles over Tahrir Square on Sunday afternoon in what was believed to be a show of military strength meant to calm the masses. At one point, the crowd of demonstrators erupted in cheers and applause as a helicopter swept low overhead, misinterpreting the maneuver as evidence of Mubarak's departure. "He left, he left," protesters cried before realizing their mistake.