Gamaa Islamiya’s local leader, Tarek Bedeir, says that the group has no weapons and that its move merely “embarrassed” the police force. But the talk of vigilantism among Islamists has made Assiut an early test of whether the embattled government of President Mohamed Morsi can resurrect the authority of a police force widely associated with old regime abuses.
Under fire from protesters and other angry citizens, the national Egyptian police force is steadily losing ground in many places around the country. Police strikes added to the troubles this month as thousands of officers and low-ranking riot cops walked off the job in protest of a government that they, too, said had failed them. Egypt’s attorney general has even invited citizens to start doing some of the policing themselves.
Over the weekend, residents of Mahallit Zayad, a village in the Nile Delta, beat and dragged two suspected thieves through the streets before stringing them up by their feet at a bus stop. Both men died.
Other tales of vigilante justice from urban centers to rural villages have crept, with increasing frequency, into the nation’s newspapers and conversations in recent months. Egypt’s justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, warned Monday that public lynchings could mark “the death of the state.”
For some in Assiut, it hasn’t been such a bad thing that Gamaa Islamiya has offered to get things under control.
“They are very good at delivering gas and bread,” said Mohamed Ali, the owner of a gold shop in the city center.
Others said desperate times mean that Assiut’s residents can’t afford to be picky. “I just want anyone to give me security. Who, it doesn’t matter,” said Ibrahim, the car-parts shop manager.
Outside the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Mosque, where Gamaa Islamiya keeps its local headquarters, a pair of bearded men directed traffic in the blinding sunshine of a recent afternoon. The police strike had ended, but Gamaa Islamiya was still “helping.”
Nearby, Bedeir, the group’s leader, fielded a phone call from a distraught woman who said her brother had overdosed on drugs. He promised to send some popular committee members to haul the man away.
“Even if the police were present, people prefer resolving conflicts peacefully with us than going to the cops,” said Shaaban Ali, another group leader. “The cops will make them go round in circles.”
Over at one of Assiut’s police stations along the Nile, the tension ignited by such criticism was palpable. “For Gamaa Islamiya to replace the police, the sun would have to rise in place of the moon,” scoffed Mohamed al-Amir, a deputy head of investigations.
But Ali insists that they’ve got it all wrong. The old regime made a scapegoat of Gamaa Islamiya, he said, and now the group is finally getting some redemption. “People listen to us because they love us,” he said.
“No matter how able we become, we are only assisting,” Ali said. “We cannot replace the government.”
Sharaf al-Hourani in Assiut contributed to this report.