In Egypt, revolution and rogue police spell street violence and vigilantism

Sherif Tarek , Sunday 28 Aug 2011

Six months on from the January 25 Revolution, the security situation in Egypt remains fragile, with armed violence on the rise and no let up in sight

File photo (Photo: AP)

One of the dark aspects of Egypt's January 25 Revolution was the absence of law that swept the country and lasted for over a fortnight. By the end of 28 January, the “Friday of Rage” where hundreds of thousands — some say millions — demonstrated peacefully in Tahrir Square, the police had all but disappeared from the streets having tried and failed to forcibly disperse protesters with tear gas and live rounds. That evening, countless police stations were set ablaze and a multitude of firearms stolen. 

The security situation across the country collapsed, forcing citizens to prepare to battle thugs on the street. Neighbours stayed in the street overnight, setting up checkpoints and brandishing any weapon available to protect their homes. Some police returned to work in the latter days of the popular uprising, but they were not able to end the security vacuum. Meawnhile, the military was deployed but largely kept out of law and order issues.

To date, security remains lacking, while the streets increasingly see unlicensed guns for sale and mob behaviour materialising. With the police short-staffed, many have resorted to self-reliance for self-defence.

Firearms spreading

Burglars and muggers took advantage of the ongoing turmoil and secured an abundance of firearms that help them ply their trade. On the other hand, quite a few ordinary citizens also purchased guns to protect themselves and families when needed, amid the presence of armed thugs and a lack of trust in the police.

“The spreading of firearms is a very serious issue,” former Major General Mohamed Kadry Saied, a strategic and military analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online. “It was common in only a few places, mainly in Upper Egypt, but now it’s almost in all governorates, because everyone wants to carry a pistol for protection.

“In addition to the weapons that were stolen during the revolution, obviously there are supplies of arms that were previously stashed away and have surfaced only in these days. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior is not exerting enough efforts to confiscate them.”

This month, Egypt’s Minister of Interior, Mansour El-Eissawy, announced that anyone who hands in an ‎unlicensed or stolen police firearm to authorities will not be questioned and will ‎also get the opportunity to have issued to them a personal defence gun license via simplified procedures. ‎

When asked about the Interior Ministry’s initiative, Saied said: “They only announced it once and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces referred to it one more time and that’s it. Really, that initiative should be a month-long campaign.

“They should keep repeating the offer on TV and in press statements to encourage people to hand over their weapons. Phone numbers allocated [to the campaign] must be well known, too, so that more people respond and also report others’ unlicensed arms in an easier and more effective way.

“Moreover, the police must retake responsibility for securing the streets and highways to deter the rampant drug and arms dealing, as well as burglaries, not to mention many other crimes,” Saied concluded.

Another strategic expert, at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Mahmoud Khalaf, believes the Ministry of Interior is capable of confiscating weapons from people with criminal records. He believes only strict laws will completely clear the streets of firearms.

Khalaf told Ahram Online: “It’s easy for the police to search those people who have criminal records, but not everyone. What we really need is the introduction of new legislation that makes carrying unlicensed pistols a felony that would result in a long-term prison sentence. Therefore no one would possess weapons.”

Political figure Amr Hamzawy and his actress girlfriend, Basma, joined the long list of victims to armed robbery earlier this month when highway thugs stopped and stole their vehicle, along with their personal effects, in 6th of October City, outside Cairo.

Another public figure, Mohamed El-Beltagi, the renowned Muslim Brotherhood leader, was subject to the same assault shortly thereafter. While driving his car on the Alexandria highway, El-Beltagi was stopped by four carjackers brandishing automatic weapons who stole his car and belongings.

Mob behaviour

While many violent incidents are motivated by want for cash, others occur as a result of mob behaviour, which is arguably more dangerous.

In late February, an officer was nearly beaten to death and had his private car burned by a large crowd in the upmarket district of Maadi after being involved in an altercation with a microbus driver. The policeman shot the driver in the shoulder — accidently, he says — before being jumped by an angry mob, outnumbering him in the tens.

Just fresh out of the revolution, where citizens witnessed police deliberately killing protesters, the relationship between the police and citizens was still at its worst. Thus, the mobbing of the policeman was seen justifiable by many. But further mob behaviour was observable in following cases.

During the last sit-in in Tahrir Square, which started on 8 July, protesters got fed up with thugs who kept trying to infiltrate them. They once caught a man, whom they thought was a thug, stripped him naked and tied him to a tree after giving him a beating, to make an example out of him. This was not the worst incident.

The most appalling mob violence yet took place this month when Ahmed El-Saied, nicknamed Ahmed Berbar, was lynched in Desouk, in northern Egypt, for being a criminal nuisance. Numerous residents of El-Manshiya neighbourhood brought all kinds of weapons and surrounded his house with the intention of killing him. After resisting for a while, the thug was caught and met the worst possible fate. 

The exasperated dwellers of the rundown district stabbed Berbar repeatedly and cut off his forearms and feet, before touring the streets with what was left of his body, again: to make an example out of him. The whole city was reportedly cheerful after his lynching as it put an end to his wrongdoings. He was one of the prisoners who escaped during Egypt's uprising in January.

Hani Henry, assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Sociology at the American University in Cairo, cited groupthink, poor education and extremism as the main reasons behind such barbaric incidents.

“Groupthink makes a group think as one person, and most people are usually driven by the flow,” he explained. “After the revolt, many started to believe there are no law enforcers on the streets and acted accordingly, although the police were not entirely imposing tight security before 25 January. The difference in their performance is not that notable.”

He added: “The lynching culture could emerge as a result of extremists’ behaviour, like the Salafists for example. When some self-righteous people act as though they are the representatives of God on earth and give themselves the authority to judge and punish others, they increase violence and strife.”

Late in March, a notorious sectarian hate crime took place when a group of alleged Salafists in Qena assaulted a Christian Copt, cut off his ear and set his car alight as punishment because they believed he had rented his apartment to two Muslim females, whom they thought were prostitutes.

“Those who adopt this kind of behaviour don’t realise that they are part of the problem. They would never admit to having deep-rooted difficulties, such as education that in Egypt doesn’t develop any critical thinking,” Henry elaborated. “I really cannot say that the uprising is behind the mob mentality; some patterns of behaviour in our society are more to blame.”

Psychology professor at Ain Shams University, Mohamed Fekry, is convinced that while Egypt will not descend into a culture of widespread lynching, mob behaviour is on the rise. He told Ahram Online: “When the language of the law disappears, the language of the [raw] human takes over. Mob behaviour is growing because it’s a group act, and people who tend to be part of the group comprise the majority.

“Social disadvantages, like ignorance, unemployment and poverty, help to create the mob mentality. However, the lynching culture exists in places where there is virtually no law and people are suffering from chronic injustice, and it’s not that bad in Egypt,” he explained.

Citizens’ responsibility

Although many are blaming the police for lacklustre security and its unpleasant repercussions, General Major Khalaf thinks citizens are just as responsible for maintaining security as the authorities. He asserts: “Security is like a coin; one face represents the law and authorities, the other represents the people; they are key players in this game. People’s role is to respect the law and, unfortunately, there are some examples in Egypt that this doesn’t happen all the time.

“For instance, people usually don’t respect traffic lights unless there is a policeman present to issue tickets to violators. There are a lot of other tiny examples that indicate the same problem. Considering the current circumstances, people should abide by the law and show discipline on their own. They need to understand that this is in their best interest. The media should work on ratcheting up public awareness and stress the extreme importance of maintaining order, not just keep hailing protests and sit-ins as heroic deeds,” he added.

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