When Egypt’s police melted from the streets of Cairo this weekend, the people stepped in.
Civilians armed with knives, axes, golf clubs, firebombs, metal bars and makeshift spears watched over many neighborhoods in the sprawling capital of 18 million this weekend, defending their families and homes against widespread looting and lawlessness.
The thugs had exploited the chaos created by the largest anti-government protests in decades and the military failed to fill the vacuum left by police. On Saturday, the army sent out an appeal for citizens to help.
“The military encourages neighborhood youth to defend their property and their honor,” it said in a statement.
On Sunday, joint teams of civilians and military were patrolling, some with guard dogs.
Mohammed Gafaar, a 34-year old salesman in the Nasr City area, said his neighborhood watch organized soon after the night curfew went into force at 4pm. They did it at the behest of residents, who appealed for protection of their property, sending out the call from the local mosque.
“I feel betrayed by the police,” said Gaafar, who had carried rocks, a stick and a firebomb in a soda bottle. “They have to be tried for the protesters they killed and for their treason. They left the country to be looted. I am angry at the regime.”
Akram al-Sharif, a 33-year-old Cairo resident who lives in one of the affluent compounds in the city’s west at the edge of the desert, said locals hired 20 Bedouins with guns, and organized into groups to protect the five gates of the compound.
“I am happy this is happening. There was solidarity,” he said.
However, he criticized the military for failing to protect private property.
The troubles began on Friday, when protests quickly spiraled into clashes with riot police, who fired countless canisters of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons and beat the demonstrators with sticks. On Saturday, the tens of thousands of police who normally patrol the streets vanished. Security officials, asked why they disappeared, said that remained unclear. However, the police, who are hated by many, may have been seen as just fanning the flames.
Throughout the day, shops and malls were ransacked and burned, and residents of affluent neighborhoods began reporting burglaries by gangs of thugs roaming the streets with knives and guns. By mid-afternoon, shopowners and residents were boarding up their stores and houses.
Gangs of armed men attacked jails, sending thousands of inmates into the unpoliced streets. As night fell, the neighborhood watches took up where the police left off.
In the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, where many foreigners live and embassies are located, groups of young men, some as large as 40 people, set up barricades on every street entrance to the island in the middle of the Nile.
In other neighborhoods, residents wore armbands to identify each other and prevent infiltrators from coming into their midst. In Zamalek, a handwritten announcement hanging on a street window asked people to register their names for neighborhood defense committees.
Watch groups armed themselves with a makeshift arsenal of shovels, baseball bats, whips, and the occasional shotgun. Young men organized themselves into shifts, and locals brought tea and snacks.
Neighborhood guardians set up metal barricades and stopped cars, questioning them about their destinations and street addresses and sometimes searching them.