Just about everyone else in the city disagrees.
“If you call the police, the police are not going to come,” said Alam al-Din Ibrahim, the manager of a car-parts shop in Assiut, where residents say crime is on the rise. “You can call on God to help you,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that is becoming widespread in Egypt, where one violent protest after another has threatened to upend the Arab world’s largest country and send an already devalued currency and government bureaucracy into rapid free fall.
And in Assiut, the sprawling capital of Egypt’s poor and conservative south, Gamaa Islamiya — the Islamist extremist group that carried out a 1997 massacre of 62 people in the historic city of Luxor — has offered to lend a hand.
Assiut has long been a stronghold for Gamaa Islamiya, whose name means “the Islamic group.” It was here and in other cities along Egypt’s rural Nile Valley where Islamist radicals waged a violent insurgency against the governments of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in the 1980s and ’90s. Many group members and affiliates consequently spent more than a decade in jail.
Group leaders in the Nile Valley and in Cairo now say that their violent days are over but that they still want to see Islamic law implemented in Egypt. After the country’s 2011 revolution created space for Islamist radicals to flex their muscles, the group developed a political party, and local leaders have formed what they call “popular committees’’ to help fill a void two years after Mubarak’s fall.
“Things had gotten out of hand,” said Shaaban Ali, a group leader in Assiut.
Several weeks ago, Gamaa Islamiya volunteers — in neon vests with the group’s name and “order committee” printed on the back — began distributing butane gas cylinders to the poor, along with subsidized meat. When Assiut’s trash collectors went on strike, the group put up fliers to recruit workers for a new trash-collection service it would run. They seized “thugs” accused of theft and handed them over to the police. They even rescued kidnapping victims from their captors, Ali said.
And when the national police force receded amid a nationwide strike, the Islamist volunteers offered to take over its work, too.
But Gamaa Islamiya’s initiative didn’t go over as well as members of the group had planned.
Christians, who make up a sizable minority in Assiut (as in Egypt overall), and liberal political leaders reacted with alarm, fearing a more forceful push for Islamic law. “The problems are coming from them. And that’s not just me personally saying that — it’s everyone,” said Rafaat Hakim, a Christian teacher in a nearby village.