Elation tempered by fear as looters threaten Egypt's middle class

Egyptian state television shows troops rounding up people on the streets during curfew hours. (Jan. 30)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 5:03 PM

CAIRO - Armed with a stick, Mohammed Saher manned a makeshift checkpoint erected in fear against the escapees and hooligans who have ransacked shops and homes across the capital after Egyptian police disappeared from the streets.

"This is what I have to do to protect my family," said the 25-year-old neurologist, who had been at his post since early Sunday after a call rang out from the mosque of their suburban middle-class gated community, known as Beverly Hills.

"If you're still awake, come to the streets," the voice had boomed.

Saher ran outside. Thousands of men had escaped from Wadi el Natroum prison, west of their suburb, and some had gotten inside the gated community. With makeshift weapons fashioned from sticks, nails and knives, Saher and his neighbors apprehended the convicts, then set up a checkpoint outside the gates, on the desert road between Alexandria and Cairo.

In the backs of pickup trucks, they found men hiding under piled fruit; other vehicles had been hijacked. In all, with help from soldiers enlisted from a nearby military post, the members of Saher's middle-class militia apprehended more than 100 escaped convicts, as the army and citizens fought to fill a security void.

By Sunday evening, Egyptian state television reported, more than 3,000 escaped convicts and vandals had been arrested across the country, and police were again being deployed during the perilous security breach. Although police are generally disliked in Egypt because of their brutal dealings with demonstrators, it was unclear whether their deployment would cause more violence.

Many middle-class Egyptians have greeted with elation the demonstrations that have leveled an unprecedented challenge to the ruling regime in the Arab world's most populous country. But what happened overnight Friday and Saturday also raised widespread alarm across the capital at what disorder might bring.

At the checkpoint, some escaped prisoners told Saher they'd been left alone at the prison for two days with no food or water until men in traditional garments opened the doors and set them free, he said.

"How in the hell did they get released? The ex-president wants to create chaos and show Egyptians as barbaric," Saher said, referring to President Hosni Mubarak as though he were already gone. "That's the card he's playing with now. But we're too smart for this."

By 2 p.m., the situation seemed calmer. Fighter jets flew above the neighborhood, and at least 70 military tanks were parked between the capital and this sprawling residential complex in Sheikh Zayed City on Cairo's western outskirts.

The gated neighborhood's clubhouse had become an operations center where men signed up for guard shifts and met to discuss security. Young boys patrolled with sticks on manicured lawns, next to shopping centers, tennis courts and apartment buildings.

But supermarket shelves were nearly empty, and Rana Hassan, 28, another resident, said she had spent the day and night on the couch, armed with a knife. Her two children slept in a back room and her husband, Tarek el-Gereissy, an accountant, patrolled outside.

"I thought I was in the safest place possible, but now I don't know," she said, her eyes heavy with exhaustion. "Everything has changed. People are angrier and angrier at this regime. I don't know where Egypt is going."

Adding to her worries was the fact that banks were closed and most automatic teller machines had either been emptied or were not working.

"I don't know if we'll have our salaries," Hassan said, padding around her house in slippers, a sweatshirt and jeans as her husband slept, awaiting his next guard shift. "The situation is changing every minute."

But maybe these are necessary growing pains, she said.

"It will be stable. I don't know when. But we have to see a different future for Egypt.''

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