CAIRO (AP) — Villagers in Egypt's Nile Delta killed a man suspected of trying to steal a car Thursday in the country's latest incident of vigilante violence, dragging him half-naked and bloody as they kicked and hit him with sticks and fists before tying him to a tree to bleed to death, witnesses and officials said.
A string of vigilante attacks has hiked worries in Egypt over the crumbling of law and order and weakening institutions, with the justice minister recently warning that the attacks threaten the "death of the state." Egypt has seen at least a dozen such attacks the past two years as people take the law into their own hands amid an enduring breakdown in security since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Police have done little to stop such attacks, and the ferocity of some killings has stunned many Egyptians.
At one point in the attack, the bleeding man trembled on the ground, pleading, "Take me to a hospital," according to video of the attack obtained by The Associated Press from a person at the scene in the village of Ezbat el-Gindy, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of Cairo.
A security official said villagers caught the unidentified man trying to steal a car at gunpoint. But one villager who participated in the attack said the man was roaming at street where cars were parked at dawn when residents descended on him and started beating him up, believing he intended to steal a car.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The villager also spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing prosecution.
"We tied his hands and feet and started beating him with sticks to confess and tell us who else is trying to steal and who sent him," the villager said. He said the crowd stopped to go hold dawn prayers, then returned "and continued to beat him up."
The villagers dragged him by his feet, but he escaped and jumped into a nearby pond, the villager said. The mob caught him again and tied him to a tree, beat him further and he bled to death, he said.
Police arrived after the man died, he said. "The police officer asked us who killed him? We said: All of us. He said: 'Ok' and left," the villager recounted.
The video footage shows the man, half-naked and bloody, being dragged by the foot while villagers beat him with sticks. With blood covering his eyes and mouth, he appears to be trying to answer the villagers who shout, "Speak up," while they beat him. One middle-aged woman shouts at him, "Son of a whore" and "you dog, we don't find bread to eat."
"He's not dead yet," says one man in the crowd, bringing a new round of beating and kicking, while others can be seen filming the scene with mobile phones. The video footage appears authentic and was consistent with other AP reporting of the events.
This is the second vigilante killing in the same village, located in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya. Two months ago, two suspected thieves were also beaten to death. In the earlier attack, police showed little interest in intervening, the villager said. "We called the police and the officer told us, After they die, call us back," he recalled.
In the absence of police, residents have suffered from armed robberies and gangsters, the villager said. "There is no state. Whoever can protect himself just goes ahead," he said.
Egypt's police withdrew from the streets during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak after clashes with protesters. They still have not returned in full capacity to many duties, fueling a hike in crime around the country.
On Sunday, vigilantes beat two men to death after accusing them of stealing a motorized rickshaw then hung them by their feet, in the town of Samanod, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Cairo in the province of Gharbiya.
Egyptian media have depicted the attacks as residents unilaterally carrying out a tenet of Islamic law, or Shariah, for the punishment of the crime known as "haraba," roughly meaning to wage war on society. Shariah allows the killing — including by crucifixion — of armed robbers who terrorize communities and cut roads to steal at gunpoint. According to Shariah, the ruling authority should carry out the execution, not individuals.
Some ultraconservative clerics and Islamist lawmakers advocated the punishment of "haraba" as a way to stop crime surge as others promoted formation of "popular committees" to guard neighborhoods in absence of police, raising fears of more empowerment of Islamists in Egypt.
Still, it is not clear if the attackers in specific cases have justified the killings by citing Islamic law or were simply acting out of anger over crime.
Egypt is currently mired in unrest that plagued the country since the ouster Mubarak in the pro-democracy uprising two years ago.
This wave of unrest has also engulfed the nation's police force. 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 President Mohammed Morsi, who came from the Muslim Brotherhood, and his interior minister.