Civil defence groups form on Egypt's unpoliced streets

With army troops not filling the vacuum left by the disappearing police, Cairo's citizens are protecting themselves against looters and thugs.

CAIRO // Hussein Hassan Ahmed was on full alert at 2am yesterday when two drunk young men approached the corner he was guarding and asked for directions to a political protest that was still ringing out several blocks away.

One of the men turned as if to go down a side street, but instead pulled out a singha, a half-metre-long blade that resembles a machete, and swung at Mr Ahmed.

"I immediately hit him [in the head] because if I didn't, he would have hit me," Mr Ahmed said, adding that the man quickly ran away. "We are protecting our homes and our women, as well as the shops all around us."

Armed with metal bars, sticks and knives, Mr Ahmed and a dozen other men were planning yesterday to maintain another all-night vigil on their block of Sherif Street in the eastern reaches of downtown Cairo. They are among the thousands of young men who have formed civil-defence groups to protect their neighbourhoods from looters after Cairo's police melted away on Friday night.

Army troops have not filled the vacuum left by the disappearing police. At the moment, most soldiers appear reluctant to clamp down on ordinary Egyptians. Furthermore, their attention is focused on demonstrations at Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo and on guarding key government buildings and installations.

In most neighbourhoods, the army has not enforced the 4pm to 8pm curfew. The resulting void has left jails unguarded and opened the way to outbreaks of looting across the city.

Thousands of prisoners escaped yesterday from three prisons on the edges of the city, local media reported, while several hospitals and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, a crown jewel of the city's tourism industry, have been vandalised.

Rumours and news reports of jailbreaks, looting and assaults now rival, even supersede, the country's political crisis for the attention of city residents. The job of directing traffic and protecting lives and property has fallen to Cairo's young men.

Mr Ahmed, 39, who works at a brokerage, lives in a tiny apartment that was illegally built on the roof of his building. He resides next to Hisham Ahmed Assayed, 36, and Sameh Mohammed, 36, whose families, like his, came to the capital from the same village in Aswan, Upper Egypt, 40 years ago. Now they have joined together to guard their block.

Mr Ahmed and Mr Assayed said they know everyone who lives and works on the street. Throughout Saturday night, with the crack of gunfire echoing in the background, they questioned every man who approached, and turned away those who could not name anyone who lived on the block.

Through a system of whistles, they called in reinforcements from friends at the other end of the street. Nearby side streets were blocked by barricades composed of cars, metal barriers and tires thrown together by other neighbourhood groups. For the moment at least, security for their city of 7.2 million people was a block-by-block, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood affair.

"This is a village in the middle of the city," Mr Assayed said. "Egypt is in good shape because in every street there are 100 men guarding it."

Their improvised system was hardly foolproof. Three businesses, including a liquor store, were robbed and had their windows smashed. Young men drove past every few hours, shooting guns in the air to scare the neighbourhood watch, Mr Assayed said, while others drove past on motorcycles to assess the weaknesses of local watch groups.

Mr Assayed expected last night to pass more easily, as the army deployed more soldiers into the city and set up checkpoints in residential neighbourhoods. However, they were not leaving their security to chance. They said they would all be out on the street again dusk until dawn.

He and Mr Hussain had attended demonstrations at the nearby Supreme Court earlier in the week, before the looting started. Even after the tumult that has come with the weakening of the government's grip, both men said they still wanted Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, to give up power.

"Even with the crisis, he's got to go," Mr Assayed said.