Political divisions spur street clashes; absence of police breeds crime
CAIRO – A plume of smoke billows upwards in front of the Egyptian Defense Ministry building. As a street battle rages, a man clasping his head is carried away by two fellow protesters. Behind the massive iron gate that fronts the ministry building, rows of military soldiers stand by, watching impassively.
The activists had been marching toward the headquarters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), demanding that the generals in charge of Egypt since Husni Mubarak was ousted in February speed up reforms. But their march was cut short by residents from the nearby Abbassiya neighborhood of Cairo, who pounced on the demonstrators.
The soldiers eventually intervened with teargas to disperse the crowd, but not before knives were drawn, guns fired and Molotov cocktails thrown, leaving some 300 Egyptians injured.
The clashes on July 23 typify the angry, anarchic Cairo that has replaced a once placid city. The violence is sometimes political – like the clashes in front of the Defense Ministry – and sometimes its criminal, but they have in common the breakdown of law and order and growing divisions between Egyptians over the revolution’s goals and the means to attain them.
Opposition leaders charge that the July 23 march, like others before and since, was attacked by supporters of the regime or Mubarak loyalists. But many ordinary Cairenes, struggling to make a living as the economy implodes, feel a real anger at opposition demonstrators for paralyzing the country with strikes and sit-ins. In many cases, they have taken the law into their own hands.
“I believe in the revolution and our future, but right now, these protesters in Tahrir don’t understand that we Egyptians want a better life and we need patience,” Yussif Badrawy, a waiter who works near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution, told The Media Line.
He is referring to the ongoing sit-in in the central Cairo square, where demonstrators have erected tents and say they won’t move until SCAF ends military trials for civilians and surrenders power to a democratically elected government.
Before January 25, violence in the city was rare, but walking through the streets today it isn’t hard to find discord. Whether it is between political groups or average citizens, there is growing anger that leads to violence. It not only deters tourists and investors who Egypt desperately needs to boost its economy, but will almost certainly complicate its transition to democracy.
“What will happen in this country if we always turn to violence when we don’t agree with something? It isn’t the residents or the protesters who do this, but all of Egypt,” says a woman, standing on the sidelines of the Abbassiya clashes as dozens of young people sprint past and rocks bombard the area. “I fear for our future.”
The breakdown of law and order and the growing cleavage between middle- and lower-class Egyptians began to emerge during the 18-days of protests that brought down Mubarak on February 11. Since then, it has grown wider.
On June 28, protesters in Tahrir Square forcibly removed street vendors who returned to the square with stones, clubs and gas canisters, lighting parts of the street on fire. Protesters responded violently in what they termed was self-defense. Some 1,000 people were injured that day.
The violence, however, reverberates throughout the country, even in remote towns and neighborhoods.
Over the weekend in the northern Sinai town of El-Arish, six people were shot dead in fighting when some100 armed men rode through town, waving flags with Islamic slogans and firing in the air. They attacked a police station, engaging in a shootout with the police and army.
Marwa Mohamed is a 31-year-old mother of two. She lives in the Cairo neighborhood of Agouza with her family. Earlier this month, a police officer was gunned down by an alleged thief in the nearby Imbaba neighborhood. She said that now, her children don’t go out and play and she has even hired a bodyguard to keep them safe.
“Before the revolution, this was a very safe neighborhood, but now this is changing as people are buying guns and there are fights and gun shots heard too often for our safety,” she told The Media Line. “So we stay home at night, watching the news and worrying about just going out on the streets.”
She is one of possibly thousands of Egyptians who have hired personal security as the country becomes ever more charged politically. Mohamed’s children have a sense of reality. Her 8-year-old daughter Mona said she asks her mother if it is safe to go to school.
“My friends at school tell me that they have seen fights and people stealing more now than ever, so we are scared to go out because mom tells us it isn’t safe,” the young girl says.
There are no statistics available, but people sense that crime and violence have increased dramatically since the January revolution. Many locals in the Agouza area point to a lack of work and rising food costs as the main culprit.
But the absence of a police presence on the streets is a factor, too. Police suddenly disappeared when mass protests against the government broke out; police stations were torched and prisoner freed. Many of the convicts are still at large while law enforcement officers fear returning to the streets where they are widely resented for abuse of power during the Mubarak era.
Add this to the ongoing political tension created by the sit-in in Tahrir Square, and Egyptians are feeling their safety dwindling dramatically.
“We come to the café almost daily to have our tea and shisha,” says Omar Abdel-Salam, “and each day one of us almost always has a story of a fight or stealing or something in our areas.”
Abdel-Salam, a 43-year-old carpenter who has struggled to find steady work in recent months, blames both the protest movement and SCAF for doing little to address the needs and desires of the people.
“They don’t understand that marching through an area will create anger. We are all close to our homes and our areas so we don’t like to see outsiders come in and tell us what to do for our country. Are we not all Egyptian?” he continues. “They are stirring hatred and this creates violence among everyday Egyptians, who are not happy about the current situation.
Mohamed says that for her, as well as her family and friends, the violence portends a difficult future for Egypt less than six months after people celebrated the toppling of Mubarak as a harbinger of a new era.
“Egyptians as a whole need to look closely at what we are doing,” she says. “The revolution was important, but if we start attacking and hurting each other, what will this do for our future and our children?”