Rising crime has some Egyptians yearning for the old police state

March 13, 2012

Suad Mohammed, 49, now double-bolts her door in the sleepy Cairo suburb of Mokkatam. She always takes public transportation and never goes out at night. Last month she hailed a cab with her 12-year-old son just after evening prayers. She’d done it thousands of times, but this time her life changed.

The cabdriver, who had a scar on his face, told her he needed to take a different route because of traffic. He drove her and her son, who sat in the front seat, on roads she didn’t know for more than two hours. Quietly, she panicked in the back seat until he stopped.

“Did the car break down?” she recalls asking. The cabdriver pulled out a large knife from the side of his seat and put it to her son’s neck. He barked at her for her money and her gold. She slipped off her wedding ring, another gold ring and her five gold bracelets and took out the 1,200 Egyptian pounds, or about $200, she carried in her pocket. He ordered her to get out of the car.

“If you scream, I will push this knife through your stomach and out of your back,” she remembers him saying, then he pushed her son out of the car on the deserted road near Tora prison and drove off.

The terror stays with her and her child now. There are no public data on crime, and requests for interviews with security officials were not granted, but in Cairo the stories are enough to strike fear.

Hugh Nicol, a journalist at the Egyptian Gazette, has written about crime in his column, “Red-handed,” since 2005.

Since the revolt against Mubarak’s rule last winter, he’s seen a significant increase in kidnappings and armed carjackings.

“The carjackings seem to focus on rich people and the nice new white cabs,” he said. “Criminals also seem more willing to kill now.”

Authorities publicly blame the rise in crime on the increase of weapons flowing into the county through the porous border with Libya, prisoners released during the uprising and a police force still well shy of full strength since its officers disappeared from the streets three days into the revolt last year. But critics of the government question why the police, widely reviled under Mubarak as a tool of oppression, have not returned to protect the country.

Are the authorities unable or unwilling to secure the capital? some analysts ask.

“It’s not just lawlessness. It’s a complete lack of security,” said Fadia Abu Shahba, a criminal researcher at the National Center for Social and Criminological Research. “There was such anger towards the police from the people because the people were attacked. People would curse them and hit them. But they are our children and we need security. Security is one of our most precious rights.”

In her research on carjackings, Abu Shahba found that criminals who once used more benign weapons such as small knives and sticks had graduated to machine guns and rifles. She said that in 2011 there were more than 40,000 carjackings in Egypt, compared with about 4,000 in 2010. She blames part of this shift on the “counterrevolution,” the attempt to sully the name of revolutionaries and force people to wish for the oppressive but safe police state of the past.

“People take the law lightly now,” she said.

In the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, where tree-lined streets house embassies and diplomats’ homes, Hanaa Ahmed Hashem, 28, sleeps with a gun at her bedside.

Two weeks ago, she learned how to use the pistol, alongside others who’d recently been victims of crime. She signed up for the class, she says, after a man scammed his way into her apartment and tied her up, along with her child and niece, her husband and her paralyzed mother-in-law. The man and two other assailants stole gold and other valuables and locked the family in a back bedroom as they made their escape.

Now, she never opens the doors to strangers; she locks the front door with three deadbolts and two key-turned locks. She doesn’t leave the house after 5 p.m. and never feels safe outside or when she is home alone.

“Theft has become normal, rape has become normal. There is no safety at all, and the police, with all due respect, are afraid,” Hashem said. “I want the police to take control of the country again.’’

“Honestly, Mubarak robbed us and plundered our country and our people,” she added, “but we never saw crime like this.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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