By Marjorie Olster
CAIRO: 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 4 p.m. 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 twenty 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. But he criticized the military for failing to protect private property.
The troubles began after days of protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak reached a crescendo Friday, when tens of thousands poured into the streets after noon prayers in the city’s 3,000 mosques. The 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.
By Friday night, protesters had set fire to the ruling party headquarters along the Nile in central Cairo and the first reports of looting emerged — people making off with electric fans and televisions from the burning complex. Mubarak ordered the military into the streets for the first time to try to control the escalating turmoil.
On Saturday, the tens of thousands of police who normally patrol the streets vanished. Security officials, asked why they disappeared, said that remained unclear. But 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 arm bands 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 other snacks.
“We have these firebombs, just in case,” said Amm Saleh, the doorman of a building in Zamalek. “Some of these thugs are armed with knives and guns, so we have to be able to defend ourselves,” he added, showing off a line of kerosene-filled bottles with paper wicks ready for action.
Neighborhood guardians set up metal barricades and stopped cars, questioning them about their destinations and street addresses and sometimes searching them. With many roads blocked, drivers went the wrong way on largely empty one-way streets to get around.
Long after midnight, gunshots rang out on a scenic street along the Nile, near the Indian embassy and the Algerian ambassador’s residence. One youth said the neighborhood watch confronted the passengers of a car, one with a firearm, and persuaded them to leave.
Residents said they were filled with pride to see Egyptians looking out for each other in a society where many, if not most, struggle just to subsist.
Gaafar, the salesman, had returned from Dubai to take part in the protests. He said he feels sad at how things turned out, but believes it won’t deter people from continuing to protest.
“This has brought out the best in people,” he said. “There were people who were much younger than me who have never come across gunfire before… They looked scared. But they were still standing. Everyone was so brave.”
As the curfew began at 4 p.m. Sunday, police were seen returning to some neighborhoods and working in tandem with the army to try to restore a sense of security. –Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.