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Tasers and Taekwondo: Amid security vacuum, Egyptians look to self-defence

Given the country's deteriorating security situation, and as policemen's strike enters 2nd week, Egyptians look to novel means of protecting themselves – although not all are endorsed by experts

Sherif Tarek , Tuesday 12 Mar 2013
Tahrir Bodyguard
Egyptian woman tries a self-defence move on instructor Ramy Jerair Latchinian, left, at a workshop for women organised by Tahrir Bodyguards in response to a recent spate of sexual violence against female protesters in Cairo (Photo: AP)

The sound of tasers buzzing is unmistakable while walking at midday on the crowded pavement connecting Egypt's High Court with the journalists' syndicate on downtown Cairo's Ramses Street.

This, however, is not a sign of a hostile environment, but rather a common marketing approach by street vendors unashamedly trying to attract potential customers to their commodities: a host of non-lethal weapons, mostly smuggled from abroad.

Just as passersby are not disturbed by sellers providing all kinds of cheap everyday products in the makeshift market, they are unfazed by vendors playing with tasers – which are illegally, yet blatantly, being sold in public these days.

"I have 6000- and 20,000-volt tasers and electric shock batons," a vendor in his mid-20s told Ahram Online when asked about his goods, exhibited near the High Court. He was unwilling to talk much and maintained a poker face while avoiding eye contact.

The sale of non-lethal weapons, especially tasers, has become commonplace in downtown Cairo and rundown districts of the city since the 2011 uprising and the ensuing security vacuum. The illicit activity has apparently increased lately, with no sign that police are taking any action to deter it.

Many Egyptians from different classes in urban areas, meanwhile, are seeking effective means of protection against would-be robbers and aggressors.

Tasers, which cause strong involuntary muscle contractions, are favoured by many customers – men and women alike – given that firearms are expensive and licenses very hard to obtain.

"I got myself a taser right after the chaos began in the revolution," Ranim Ismail, a document advisor at Xerox Egypt told Ahram Online. "Some of my friends decided to buy tasers amid the lack of security, and one of them persuaded me to get one too."

"Now I carry it with me all the time; I always make sure it's charged and ready to go," the 26-year-old added. "Fortunately, I haven't used it yet. However, I won't hesitate to use it against an assailant."

"Egypt isn't as safe as before, therefore safety precautions are essential," Ismail said. "It's really important to know how to defend yourself, especially for girls, whether by carrying a weapon – pepper spray, a taser, or whatever – or by taking self-defence classes."

Self-defence classes offer solution

Self-defence courses are now springing up at a number of private sports clubs. Most of them are designated to teach female participants how to deal with muggers, who usually target weaker victims, as well as sexual harassers and rapists.

Sexual harassment has become increasingly common in Egypt in recent years, although no accurate statistics are available as the crime often goes unreported.

More violent attacks are also being increasingly reported at protests in Tahrir Square – the epicentre of the revolution that many once described as 'utopian.'

Girls and women of different ages from the upper and middle classes are, as a consequence, taking self-defence courses.

Ramy Jerair Latchinian, a decorated Taekwondo master and instructor who gives self-defence classes for females in Egypt, says his sessions have attracted many patrons in recent months as crimes against women increasingly hit the headlines.

But Egyptian girls and women, he believes, should be more proactive about learning self-defence techniques and should not wait until they go through an unpleasant experience. "This seems to be the situation in Egypt, unfortunately," Latchinian told Ahram Online.

"I used to train females in the US. The average age of most of my trainees was between 15 and 20. It is known there that self-defence is a matter of the utmost importance to women," he said.

"In Egypt, however, most participants are in their 20s and 30s, because women in their second and third decades are the most vulnerable to harassment," he added. "Others are in their 40s and even 50s. Of course, it's always better for participants to start these courses at a young age."

The Egyptian-American went on: "I can't speak for every single trainee, but from what I see, self-defence courses in Egypt are mainly a response to the status-quo."

Latchinian also highlighted the social barrier that could prevent women from attending his classes, with physical interaction between a male trainer and female trainees deemed unacceptable in Egypt's relatively conservative society.

"A woman trained by a man is an idea that is rejected by many Egyptians," he explained. "But such courses must be conducted by male trainers, because perpetrators are usually men. It's not the same if the instructor is a woman."

"I just hope people will be more open about this; being in an untoward situation where your life, body or property is threatened is no joke, and people must take it very seriously considering the current circumstances," Latchinian asserted.

When asked to what extent self-defence courses could actually pay off, Latchinian said that some of his students in the US had successfully defended themselves in real-life situations. He is yet to see one of his Egyptian trainees apply his techniques in an actual attack.

Experts urge vigilance

However, putting up a fight or using a weapon against thieves is not usually recommended, argues security expert Ihab Youssef, saying that such moves could have a boomerang effect.

"Actually, possessing a weapon could harm the victim," he told Ahram Online. "Nowadays, you might well face a gang of three, all holding firearms. Having a weapon on you might give you the urge to resist by using it – and in that case, you would be in trouble."

Youssef, secretary-general of local NGO People and Police for Egypt, elaborated: "When you're outnumbered or helpless, you have to comply and surrender your belongings to the thieves to save your life."

"If you're kidnapped for ransom, which is also a pervasive crime, keep reassuring the abductors and tell them all their demands will be met," he said.

Incidents of kidnapping have soared since the revolution to reach 258 cases in 2011 compared to 107 cases in 2010, according to figures announced last September by deputy head of the interior ministry's security department, General Abdel-Fattah Osman.

"Never look at the kidnappers' faces," Youssef advised. "They will be worried that you could recognise them later and that could jeopardise your life."

A number of different types of crime have apparently skyrocketed over the past two years.

From January to 1 September 2012, according to Osman, 1,286 murders were committed. The previous year saw 1,885 homicides, while 2010 registered only 774 murders.

Moreover, forced thefts during the same period of 2012 reached 1,645, while 2011 and 2010 saw 2,622 and 733 forced thefts respectively.

For his part, Ahmed Aboul-Enin, head of the automobiles committee at the Insurance Federation of Egypt, said that between January 2011 and July 2012 over 3000 insured vehicles had been hijacked. He also revealed that some 90 percent of cars in Egypt were not insured.

Youssef stressed that every person was subject to a myriad of risks from the minute they left home in the morning.

"People are still getting used to that reality; they lived in safety before the revolution," he said."They need to pay attention all the time. While withdrawing money from an ATM, for instance, you need to look around you, so as you won't be mugged."

He added: "Pick-pocketing, too, becomes rife at the end of each month, when people get paid. So it would be smart not to put all your money in one pocket or wallet."

In the face of chronic security worries, individuals have come up with different pre-emptive measures and precautions.

Apart from weapons and martial arts courses, purchasing dogs, for example, has become common. There are also numerous reports of homeowners buying steel doors and windows. Car owners, for their part, usually opt for steering wheel locks and alarms.

Youssef commented: "Dogs are great of course, but unless they are well trained they will be food-driven, which gives burglars the chance to ditch them. What is highly recommended is installing a security system in the house, so an alarm goes off if someone enters."

"And it would be a good idea to let the alarm go off every now and then, so potential burglars know there is a security system in the house," he added. "For vehicles, meanwhile, a very basic tip is to never leave the engine running while out of the car."

As tensions simmer over mounting political disputes and economic woes – and while the interior ministry appears unable to restore security – the crime rate is widely expected to climb further, according to Youssef.

An ongoing strike by 30 police stations nationwide, including seven in Cairo, suggests that Egyptians' security fears will only increase in the short term.

"People might have to re-establish popular committees to protect their families and homes in a revolution redux, when police completely withdraw from the streets following fierce clashes with civilian protesters," Youssef concluded. 

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