Crime wave grips Egypt, absence of police blamed

AP News
Posted: Apr 04, 2011 3:46 PM
Crime wave grips Egypt, absence of police blamed

Gunmen kidnapped a grandniece of Anwar Sadat and demanded a ransom. In one southern city, robbers didn't bother to wait until dark to target pedestrians. In another, a brawl between two school children led to a gunbattle that killed five.

A police state barely three months ago, Egypt has seen crime soar 200 percent since Hosni Mubarak's ouster from the presidency. Murder, violent theft and kidnapping are leading the surge, security officials said.

In many ways, this country of more than 80 million has become a free-for-all for criminals taking advantage of a weakened police force and political uncertainty. The spike in crime has made some nostalgic for Mubarak days, when the mostly corrupt and now discredited police force used torture, intimidation and blackmail to keep crime in check.

The uptick in crime is part of a broader climate of anxiety and uncertainty gripping Egypt in the post-Mubarak era.

The youth groups behind the uprising fear that the generals who took charge from Mubarak are reluctant to dismantle the former president's legacy. They are frustrated over their lack of action five months ahead of a parliamentary election.

The economy has been hard hit by the uprising. Strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins for better pay and work conditions are hurting productivity and, together with the precarious security, are scaring foreign tourists away. The removal of Mubarak has also allowed militant Islamist groups to operate openly, feeding tensions with the country's Christian minority and moderate Muslims.

The persistent security vacuum in Egypt is the product of a chain of events associated with the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak's regime on Feb. 11. Three days into the revolt, the police withdrew from the streets in still-unexplained circumstances following deadly clashes with protesters in Cairo and across much of the nation.

On the same day, Jan. 28, the gates of several prisons were mysteriously flung open and thousands of criminals made a dash for freedom. Simultaneously, dozens of police stations around the country were stormed and set ablaze, with hundreds of detained suspects freed and firearms looted.

Last month, the new Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy dissolved the country's hated State Security agency, a key demand of the youth groups behind the uprising. It was blamed for the worst human rights abuses during Mubarak's 29-year rule. But the time it will take to replace the agency gives criminals a window of opportunity.

Egyptian police were hated by the public for their use of excessive force and they were driven from the streets during the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolt. Now they are back, but in lesser numbers. And they are much more timid in enforcing the law, especially traffic offenses, and shy away from confrontations.

With the police laxity, double and triple parking has become common on Cairo's already congested streets. Motorists recklessly drive the wrong way on one-way streets. Traffic police vanish after nightfall in most parts of the city, a sprawling metropolis of some 18 million, leaving inexperienced volunteers to direct cars.

"The police's morale is very low," Maj. Gen. Mohsen Murad, director of public security at the Interior Ministry, acknowledged at a news conference on Monday. "The psychological state of many officers is bad, their firearms have been looted and their stations have been torched."

The police and state security are under the authority of the Interior Ministry.

The ineffectiveness of the police force was on display Saturday when thousands of football fans invaded the pitch before the end of an African Champions' game between local club Zamalek and Tunisia's Club Africain. The hundreds of policemen on duty at Cairo International Stadium could not stop the violent invasion.

With police hardly visible in Cairo, masked gunmen in two cars kidnapped a grandniece of Sadat _ Egypt's president until he was assassinated in 1981 _ while she was driven to school on Sunday morning at the upscale suburb of Heliopolis. Zeina Effat Sadat's family car was intercepted by one of the gunmen who forced his way into the girl's vehicle. The kidnappers later beat the driver and forced the girl into one of their cars.

The 12-year-old was released Monday after her father paid ransom. Police later arrested six men for their alleged role in the kidnapping and found a briefcase in their possession with 2 million pounds (about $340,000), according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

They said the kidnappers, who included university graduates, had demanded 5 million pounds (about $840,000) in ransom.

Many Cairo parents periodically keep their sons and daughters away from school because of a rise in the kidnappings of children. Armed robberies in the capital have also been increasing in Cairo's poor neighborhoods, outlaying areas and on highways.

Some of the malls that have been looted and torched have reopened but attract only a fraction of the shoppers that thronged them before the uprising. Some have taken off their shelves luxury items, fearing a repeat of the looting during the uprising.

Murad, the director of public security, called on Egyptians Monday to regain their trust in the police and send their children to school. He acknowledged, however, that crime has increased several fold in February and March over the same period last year. He did not have precise figures.

In the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, children are escorted to school by armed neighborhood watch volunteers to fend off kidnappers.

In Sohag, an impoverished Nile-side city south of Cairo, gunmen have recently taken to robbing pedestrians at the downtown area in broad daylight, according to residents and security officials.

Officials said a total of 2,000 cases of illegal construction were recorded in the past two months in Sohag province, with farmland owners taking advantage of the security vacuum to hurriedly build apartment blocs they sell at significantly more profit than growing crops.

On Monday, several thousand protesters angered by the police's perceived indifference to a gunbattle between two feuding Sohag families blocked the main railway track to Cairo for nearly two hours, causing delays to trains linking the capital to southern Egypt.

Further north in Assiut, a brawl between two schoolboys last week has turned into a deadly feud when gunmen from al-Quseir, the village of one of the boys, randomly opened fire on residents of Fazarah, the village of the other boy.

Fazarah gunmen later laid siege to the school, trapping 25 al-Quseir boys inside. Armored army vehicles went into the school to escort the boys out past the armed men and back to their home villages.

Al-Quseir villagers frustrated with the police's inability to maintain order have laid siege to their local police station since Wednesday to force all security personnel to leave the village.