CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's justice minister warned Monday that the lynching of criminals in the streets by angry citizens is a sign of the "death of the state."
On Sunday, vigilantes hung two suspected thieves in a rural Nile Delta village as a crowd of thousands watched, and some of them egged on the killers.
Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki indicated that the killers may have seen themselves as implementing a strict form of Islamic law that calls for punishment of thieves and other outlaws whose crimes are so extreme, they disrupt society.
"The application of Islamic justice on outlaws by citizens and the cutting off of roads is one of the signs of the death of the state," Mekki was quoted as telling the Turkish Anadolu news agency.
He said only the state is authorized to use force and if this right is transferred to citizens, there is no state.
"A state that allows this is an unjust state because it does not afford its people protection," he said.
Since Islamists took power in Egypt following the 2011 uprising, there have been a number of cases where civilians tried to enforce more conservative, Islamic mores on the public.
In one such case, three men were convicted of killing a student in the city of Suez as he sat in a park with his fiancée. The assailants had argued with the victim for loitering in public with a woman who was not his wife.
In another example, a teacher in the southern city of Luxor allegedly punished two 12-year-old schoolgirls by cutting their hair for not wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf.
Witnesses to the lynchings depicted it purely as a revenge killing without pointing to any connection to enforcing Islamic law, or Shariah.
The killings came a week after the attorney general called for citizen arrests amid a police strike and sharp deterioration in security.
The men were hanged in the village of Mahallit Zayad, part of Samanod district in Gharbiya province, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Cairo.
Security officials, a witness and a local rights activist, Diaa Mahalawi, said residents suspected the two men who were lynched were part of a gang of kidnappers who abduct girls and boys for ransom. At least one girl told a rights activist that she had been raped during her abduction by one such gang in the village.
The lynching of the two, who were also accused of stealing a motorized rickshaw, was one of the most extreme cases of vigilantism in two years of sharp deterioration in security following Egypt's 2011 uprising.
Because of conservative cultural norms in rural areas like Mahallit Zayad, girls have not reported a single rape allegation to police, according to security officials and residents, including Mahalawi. The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Residents in Gharbiya province, among them a spokesman for Egypt's dominant political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, say people do not trust the police there to act on reports of rape.
Rights activist Mahalawi said people in Gharbiya are feeling hopeless.
"There is no security in the country," he said. "Meanwhile, the regime is trying to secure the presidential palace and the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters," he said, referring to the heavy security presence outside the offices of President Mohammed Morsi's Islamist group following violent protests there.
Mahalawi, who heads the human rights committee of the liberal opposition Wafd Party in the village where the lynchings took place, told the AP that he saw for the first time in Mahallit Zayad trucks packed with riot police outside the local police station on Monday.
A day earlier, a witness said those behind the lynching had taken the bodies to that police station and dumped them at the front door.
Mahalawi said that with no government or security taking action, people took matters into their own hands. He said that a girl had been raped and held a few days before the lynching and that her parents, with donations from residents, were able to pay a ransom and free her.
"The people are asking themselves why they should abide by the law," he said, blaming the president and his Brotherhood party for the chaos.
Brotherhood spokesman in the nearby city of Mahalla, Atef Bayouni, told the AP that police are to blame. He said they are not carrying out their duties in full in the area and that the lack of security has given free rein to criminals to do what they want.
"Had the police dealt with thugs directly, the situation would not have deteriorated like this," Bayouni said.
He said there are people who want the return of the old authoritarian regime and are being paid to create chaos and bring down Morsi, who took office last summer.
Another Brotherhood spokesman in the province repeated the same allegation about police.
In the most recent abduction case in Mahallit Zayad, security officials said that on Monday, a mother and daughter were released after relatives paid 60,000 Egyptian pounds (almost $9,000) in ransom.
The police were not involved in their release.
It was the latest example of how citizens have taken matters into their own hands following the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. The country's once powerful and feared police force was left weakened after the revolt.
The city of Mahalla was at a standstill for the second straight day on Monday due to a shortage in diesel, another one of Egypt's many crises. Microbus drivers had cut off the main roads there to protest the shortages, which barred policemen from reaching the scene of the lynchings, according to security officials.
Egyptians angry with police for decades of abuse under Mubarak and the use of lethal force against protesters have clashed with security forces during rallies against his democratically elected successor, Morsi.
For four months, protesters have held a sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square against Morsi. Protesters burnt a police vehicle there on Monday during another attempt by police to clear the sit-in.
Also on Monday, the country's top prosecutor ordered the arrest of 15 protesters and three Brotherhood guards for alleged involvement in an assault on journalists outside the group's headquarters over the weekend after activists spray painted anti-Brotherhood graffiti on the street outside the office.
The opposition accuses Morsi of trying to monopolize power, reneging on promises of reform and of failing to improve the country's poor economy. Nearly half of Egypt's around 85 million people live at or below the poverty line of $2 or less a day.
Also frustrated, thousands of officers and low-ranking policemen have broken ranks, staging protests and waging strikes against what they say is the politicization of the force by Morsi. Some of the striking police officers allege that the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to control them. The Brotherhood denies that.