While massive popular demonstrations are continuing in Egypt's major cities seeking President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, the absence of a police presence and the unstable security situation prompted citizens to form committees to protect each other and neighbourhood property.
Episodes of looting and theft became widespread in some areas as law enforcement officials retreated from the streets when the demonstrations began January 25th. In response, residents in many neighbourhoods formed committees of older and younger men who carried arms to confront outlaws and prison escapees. Inmates from some prisons escaped during the protests, which caused even greater tension in the streets.
Muslim Abdel Wahed, a police officer whose station in the Old Cairo area was torched by demonstrators, told Al-Shorfa that the fear that spread in his neighbourhood prompted him and other police personnel, who live in the same area, to enter the streets wearing civilian clothing and form neighbourhood watch and protection groups with other area citizens.
"It was very difficult to block all the roads and alleys that lead to the residential areas in the neighbourhood and maintain control," he said. "We had everyone take turns to ensure there was a 24-hour neighbourhood watch. We also used locks and iron links to secure all the entrances to buildings."
While the people's committees protected citizens in the residential neighbourhoods, the Egyptian army was focused on protecting military installations and government buildings, including the Egyptian Museum.
Abdel Wahed said once the army was deployed and a curfew was imposed, the situation became more manageable and made it easier to protect property. The criminals left once the army was deployed in most areas.
Alaa Hegazi, a college student, formed a protection committee with residents in his Alexandria neighbourhood after criminals tried to rob residents and threatened them with firearms.
"We closed the entrances to the neighbourhood with iron and asphalt barricades, and we divided ourselves into two groups," he told Al-Shorfa. "Each group takes turns serving as the neighbourhood watch. The guard duties start at nightfall and continue until the early morning hours." During the day, he said, "the situation is different because most of the residents go down to the street and provide protection."
Hegazi said they coordinated with the army leadership in the area and agreed not to display cold weapons publicly in order to avoid spreading fear in the community. He said they took special measures, such as drawing a mark on their right hands to help them identify each other quickly and prevent infiltration.
Buthaynah Kamal, a housewife in Shubra, said she and some neighbours were forced to throw some money from the balconies of their apartments when a group of "baltagiyyah" (outlaws) "surrounded the building, threatened to burn it down and kill everyone in it if the residents refused to throw everything of value down to them".
Kamal said, "The nightmare did not come to an end until the people's neighbourhood committee was formed, and young men took it upon themselves to protect the citizens."