Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rule of the street

The attack on the Israeli embassy is the latest episode of people taking matters in their own hands. Dena Rashed looks into a growing phenomenon

Click to view caption
Nowadays Egyptians barely feel the justice they revolt for, the question is for how long will they wait, and how far are they willing to take matters in their own hands in the meantime?

IF you can't feel the justice, would you force it? Would you take matters into your own hands? After the death of six Egyptian soldiers last month at Egypt's eastern borders with the Israelis, many felt angry and waited for a strong reaction from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After a young man climbed the residential building where the Israeli Embassy is housed and brought down the Israeli flag, it was viewed by many as a symbolic gesture of street anger. Later the SCAF built a wall in front of the building. That was torn down by demonstrators last Friday. The raid then followed.

The attack on the embassy is only the latest of incidents where people have decided to act as the executive power.

If asked again: how would you feel if your vehicle was stolen? Mad, depressed, upset or vengeful? Earlier this month, a group of tok tok owners in the shantytown of Saft Al-Laban in Giza, traced a group of thugs that stole 15 tok toks in one week, their main source of income. The result was bloody. One of the criminals caught by the people was killed, another had his hand severed and others were severely beaten, saved by the police in the end. The people had given a shocking message to anyone deciding to steal their properties or belongings.

The two cases may seem different but between them come dozens of stories that are broadcast and published, which show how in search of security and pride, rules are erased and others are written. Among the most common form of street anger is road blocking, where people block train tracks and main highways as a response to low pay, a hit-and-run car accident, or even the disappearance of school girls presumed kidnapped yet found taking a tour of the city.

The latest act of attacking the embassy has spurred arguments among the public, in their conversations and on the social circles Twitter and Facebook. While human rights activist Mona Seif, a member of "No to Military Trials of Civilians" says that while she gets shocked upon hearing such news, she understands where people are coming from. This week, a police officer was attacked by 25 thugs in a police station in Boulaq Al-Dakrour, a low-income neighbourhood. Yet Seif argues that searching the police record of the police officers attacked right now in police stations could prove they have a brutal record towards people.

As for last Friday, Seif states that people's sense of insecurity was increased when they knew that the police and the army would not be guarding the protest, and eventually people over-reacted as well.

Despite all, Seif puts it clearly: "I personally salute what has happened. We are in a state of revolution, where there is still a struggle between the people and the power. If after five months, the people strongly protested in front of the Israeli Embassy, then that should have been a clear enough message to the SCAF. People will act instead."

Yet people's action is not necessarily hailed by all. Professor of psychology at Cairo University, Ali Suleiman, sees the phenomenon as alarming, whether attacking the embassy or imposing street justice on criminals. "Although we have been ahead of all civilisations, we have sunk low now, and we seem helpless about it," Suleiman argues.

With the fleeing of the police force after the revolution erupted on 25 January, many stood guard to their own houses and streets and thus the concept has developed. As Suleiman, argues, "With the burning of police stations and the loss of the sanctity of the state, it has become the rule of the jungle, whenever you don't have a ruler. The Ministry of Interior isn't functioning properly and people have lost faith that they will attain their rights."

As Suleiman puts it, people weren't supposed to assume that role of guarding themselves and their lives, as if they are supposed to do it all. What we should do is find jobs for the unemployed, because we can't blame the people; we have to blame the powers in charge, who collect taxes and are supposed to provide security for the people."

In shanty areas like Kafr Tohormos, adjacent to Saft Al-Laban, Umm Abdallah, a widow and a mother of six, explains that she prefers not to leave her house after sunset. "I don't feel safe and I even urge my older sons not to go out unless it's necessary." She has been hearing how the residents have captured and tortured the thieves of the tok tok, yet she feels no safer. "It is barbaric," she says. "While I used to hate the police, I think that now some people deserve the old brutal treatment. Many thugs are now on the loose in our area and it has become disturbing."

Umm Abdallah has personally suffered from police injustice when one of her kids was mistakenly arrested and she was verbally abused by the police personnel, yet she believes that after the revolution, people got even with the police. "So I personally forgive them and I just wish I would live safely with my family, with no fear of thugs or people assuming the role of the police."

Despite the sense of insecurity that many people feel, life still goes on as usual, where people go to work, hang out and maintain some form of a normal life. Yet many can't shake off the feeling that it is best to be on the cautious side and avoid deserted areas and arguments, because then you might have to stand up for yourself.

For Mohamed Abdel-Latif, who polishes shoes downtown, thuggery is normal at this stage. "The police have not restored their status in society, so it's normal that many feel entitled to behave that way," he says. Abdel-Latif lives in the shantytown of Dweiqa, one of the most dangerous areas to live in, ever since a huge slab from Muqattam mountain fell on the wooden and metal houses of the people in 2007. In his area, Abdel-Latif argues that people aren't violent towards each other since there is nothing to steal. "We are all equal there. Fights only erupt at the bakeries where they sell subsidised bread, when people can't get enough for their families."

At his area, Abdel-Latif remembers how the police were unjust towards the people. "We felt terrorised, but we still want to see police around, however, more just." As he shines another pair of shoes while talking Abdel-Latif says, "The policeman is a citizen just like me. The problem is they take orders from their bosses who aren't just. If these high-powered people feel our suffering, they would be fair towards us."

In Abdel-Latif's opinion, nothing will solve the state of chaos where people take matters in their own hands except to provide a solution for the shantytowns surrounding the big city. "If people have jobs and decent lives, they won't need to use extreme measures to voice their demands."

Originally a plumber, Abdel-Latif's job wasn't sustaining his life as a family provider, so he took on shoe cleaning. He is handed a LE1 coin for every pair he cleans. Living in tough conditions, he finds an excuse for the street vendors who have ferociously settled in the hotspots around the city to hawk their wares, in the process blocking many streets, a job that the police are struggling with currently, including clearing the major squares like Ramsis and Giza from their merchandise. "These people are hard working Egyptians. You can't just brush them off the streets. If you do, what would they then turn into?"

Yet, as Suleiman puts it, what is present right now is the rule of fear, not the rule of law. "It is not the nature of the Egyptians as such but rather that of all human nature, to defend oneself. Even a toddler knows how to self-defend by biting and scratching when in danger." He explains how right after the revolution, people used to arrest thugs and hand them over to the army personnel on the street, but "that it not feasible anymore with the army off the street. If there is a power to assist the people, they won't turn to such extreme measures of vengeance towards criminals."

Many other citizens believe that they cannot become part of the chaos and still believe in the rule of law. Sabri Abdel-Moneim, mechanical supervisor at a private company, cites a simple case of his that could lead to desperation. "My home phone line has been cut off for five months now and I reached all officials, even the council of ministers, but I got no sensible response. Am I supposed to barge into the officials' office in the Ministry of Information? Maybe another person would do that when faced with such an attitude from officials but I still believe that I will get my right through legal channels." For Abdel-Moneim, there are boundaries for cultured behaviour and for instance, protests and sit-ins in front of the Israeli Embassy for a good cause give a stronger message than attacking it.

While the Israeli Embassy incident is a debatable topic among Egyptians, attacking the Giza police headquarters on that same Friday night caused more confusion to the already strained relationship between the police and the people. A relationship, in the eyes of a young police officer (who preferred anonymity), which was slowly improving yet suffered a setback that night. As many blame the police force for not being fully back on the street, thus giving a chance for people to assume such a role, the officer shares his experience and feelings as his job gets harder by the day.

The officer, suffering from a serious injury in the face from stones thrown at him in the latest protests, argues that TV satellite channels have played a negative role in portraying the role of the officers in the past several months. "It is as if we are not working at all. The truth is that the police institution is not perfect, but more than any other job, any negativity is widely noticed since we are in direct contact with the people," he argues. However, the officer says that since 30 January they have been back in full force. "What I do is work mostly night raids on thugs and those in possession of illegal fire arms. It is a job done when people are sound asleep," he says.

While he admits that there were many wrongdoings on the part of the police before the revolution, he still can't accept how people treat him as a police officer. "I feel like I'm paying for the mistakes of the whole nation. When I walk in the street, I feel targeted. Some people greet me and are happy to see us. The next minute someone curses me and my parents and I don't answer back. All I feel is 'what have I done personally but wear my uniform and do my job to be subjected to such behaviour?'"

Although his morale is at its lowest, he feels compelled to keep on being a police officer. "If I don't, then who would protect my family and other families?" However, he is personally confused. "If we don't act, people say where is the police. If we engage with people, others say we are hit by the police."

It is obvious that the ongoing trials of police officers accused of shooting and killing demonstrators at the start of the revolution have introduced a sense of apprehension in the existing police force. As the officer puts it, "if I fire and shoot at someone attacking a police station, for example, I am not sure how I will be viewed by the media and public opinion. With all the negative sentiments, rather than a hero I would be a criminal."

While Minister of Interior Mansour Eissawi has ordered police forces to shoot live ammunition at any person who attacks police stations, the officer argues that it is difficult for many officers to follow such an order for fear of being put on trial. He cites the example of a police officer he knows who killed 15 people during the revolution as they attempted to break into the firearms room, which he was guarding, in a police station in Alexandria. He is now in prison. As for other officers who won't respond to people's calls, a common complaint by people, he says that as officers were being ambushed, many feared to respond outside their police stations.

The officer remains worried, like many other Egyptians, about how to deal with others in such rough and different times. "No one wants to hear the side of the police officer, although many of us were disappointed even before the revolution, believing that we wouldn't be promoted due to nepotism and working inhumane hours. We want to be heard as well. I want someone to address me and tell me how am I supposed to work. I know the difference between a protester and a thug. The former, I know how to deal with professionally. But what about the latter in the current state?"

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 1064 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Economy | Region | International | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Living | Features | Living | Entertainment | Sports | People | Cartoons | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map