CAIRO – Families in quiet Cairo suburbs are investing heavily in locks and steel doors. Fake checkpoints set up by hardened criminals who escaped prisons terrorize travelers on highways. Thousands of looted firearms have flooded the black market.
Egypt's political upheaval has been followed by an unprecedented breakdown of security, with few police on the streets and the army unable to fill the vacuum. Some Egyptians who have just seen their longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak overthrown by a popular uprising are already nostalgic for his police state.
Egypt's security forces, including police, number at least 500,000, slightly more than the armed forces. Though hated by Egyptians for their heavy handedness and rampant corruption, they had kept the country relatively safe. That was the case before they mysteriously disappeared from the streets Jan. 28 following deadly clashes with protesters whose massive anti-government demonstrations forced Mubarak to step down.
The Cabinet member in charge of the police at the time, former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, was arrested Thursday pending the completion of an investigation into corruption allegations leveled against him. El-Adly, whose job gave him control over the security forces, has been widely blamed for the deadly brutality used by riot police against demonstrators.
About 50 percent of the police force nationwide is now back on the streets and security officials speak of at least another two months before the force could be back in its full strength. Another problem, they say, is that the police have been demoralized by the tidal wave of resentment they now face over their brutality in confronting the protesters.
In the early days of the uprising, neighborhood protection committees were set up across the nation in response to the lawlessness. Youths armed themselves with knifes, baseball bats, golf clubs and hunting rifles and manned checkpoints to protect property. But the committees have mostly vanished now and the police are back on the streets, though below their normal numbers.
The security situation has dramatically improved since those days in late January and early February when looting, arson and armed robberies swept the country. But conditions are far from normal. So, for now, many Egyptians find themselves in a situation where they have to fend for themselves.
Egypt has not experienced such a total collapse of law and order since 1986, when police conscripts went on a rampage for several days, looting and setting property ablaze before the army quelled their revolt.
For days after the initial outbreak of looting and arson, families in remote suburbs stayed home, stacked up furniture behind doors and hurriedly commissioned steel doors and windows. Many go to sleep with a large kitchen knife or a gun on their bedside tables. Others take turns sleeping so at least one family member is awake to sound the alarm if intruders come into the house.
Stores sold out of locks and bolts within days and the price of firearms in licensed stores skyrocketed in the face of increased demand.
In a neighborhood in Giza, a province that partially belongs to Cairo, residents worried about their property and personal safety were handed firearms by the local police station if they left their identity cards as insurance. In parts of the country, the security vacuum was taken advantage of by groups with a grudge against the police or the local officials of the hated state security agency.
The Bedouins of northern Sinai are a case in point.
The area is home to Bedouin tribes who resist government control, and officials there say tribesmen have joined forces with Islamic militants, some of whom escaped from prisons during the uprising. Armed groups have bombed the state security building in Rafah on the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, and set fire to police stations.
Security and hospital officials say about 35 people have been killed in clashes between the two sides, about two-thirds of them police, since Jan. 25 when the anti-Mubarak protests began.
Mohammed Hassan, a 23-year-old dental student, got his Beretta pistol out of his safe when he heard rumors about the looting in his upscale Cairo neighborhood. He gave it to his 25-year-old sister when he stepped out to see what was going on in his neighborhood.
"I gave it to her because there were no police around," he said. "I was just worried, and my sister lives with me, and she was alone. I told her 'Just in case anything happens,' and showed her where the safety was, and how to take it off."
Residents in a new compound east of Cairo bought firearms and guard dogs immediately after they learned that escaped inmates found refuge in some of the unfinished homes. The owners of a large and glitzy shopping mall on the western outskirts of Cairo have sealed off the entrances of the glass-and-steel facility with cement walls and hired Security guards with sniffing dogs.
On Sunday, a gang of heavily armed men stormed a prison in a suburb east of Cairo and freed nearly 600 inmates, according to the security officials, who said the attackers were hired by drug dealers who wanted to free associates serving long jail terms.
A similar attempt was made Tuesday in the province of Minyah south of Cairo but was foiled by the guards, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they not authorized to brief the media.
In Both cases, said the officials, the attacks were timed with rioting inside the prisons by inmates who set mattresses and blankets ablaze to distract the guards from the attacking gunmen.
Of the estimated 23,000 inmates who broke out of six jails so far, 10,000, mostly hardened criminals who were serving long jail terms, remain at large. Security officials say some of the escapees don police uniforms and set up fake checkpoints at isolated parts of highways and even on a main road linking the southern and eastern parts of the Egyptian capital that is known as the "autostrad."
The wave of crime has been exacerbated by the influx of thousands of firearms into the black market following the storming of the jails and looting of the rifles and guns used by the guards.
Additionally, 99 police stations across the country, 36 of them in Cairo, have been stormed and looted by criminal gangs since security collapsed Jan. 28 when police mysteriously pulled back from the streets and the army stepped in to fill the vacuum and restore law and order.
Initially, an automatic rifle that normally sells for about $4,000 was sold for $200 and a handgun fetched about $100, or less than 10 percent of its actual price. Later, when it became known that firearms were in much demand, the prices went up dramatically.
The lawlessness also has crept into real estate.
Low-income apartments built by the Housing Ministry or local governments have been seized by criminal gangs and poor families looking to move from shanty towns. Owners of farmland in rural areas hurriedly built homes on their land in violation of building restrictions.