WORLD FEBRUARY 4, 2011
As I strode up the streets towards my apartment in Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood last Sunday evening, a posse of teenagers approached. One was packing a clip into his pistol. Another carried a sword over his shoulder. Two others followed clutching wooden clubs. Trailing a few feet behind, a couple of ten-year-olds carried broomsticks. It felt like something out of a William Golding novel, but they were, in fact, trying to protect me. Meet my local neighborhood watch.
The very term “neighborhood watch” conjures up images of middle-aged, suburban community members clad in yellow reflective vests, who circulate the area at night with flashlights and clipboards to report suspicious behavior. But Cairo’s newly created neighborhood watches are of an entirely different breed. Their members range considerably in age, and they carry any kind of weapon they can get their hands on—including, in at least one instance, a tennis racquet. These vigilantes emerged last Friday, after President Hosni Mubarak removed police from the streets and replaced them with looters—convicts who were reportedly released from prison and ordered to terrorize Egyptians as punishment for the protests that have shaken the regime.
The city only grew more violent, and on Monday evening I decided to evacuate from Egypt with the U.S. Embassy. But I have continued to follow the neighborhood watch phenomenon by phone, speaking with people who are still hunkered down in Cairo. “We had no idea what was going on and no idea what the security would do,” says one neighborhood watch member from the once posh, now ransacked community of Mohandessin. Looters had broken into a series of upscale stores and destroyed banks, to the extent that most ATM machines were no longer functioning. “We were hearing distresses from neighbors about people trying to loot their homes, and most [looters] were armed with swords and knives.”
In Mohandessin, the call for men to join the neighborhood watch went out as soon as the looters first struck. The local mosque asked all able-bodied men to assemble, and made special appeals to those with gun licenses and dogs. The group proceeded to set up checkpoints all along the streets using cars. But the six-hour evening shifts—which start at 5 p.m. and end at 8 a.m. the following morning—are starting to take their toll, and gunfire was reported along the neighborhood’s streets all day on Wednesday. “They’re exhausted and freaked out, so they shoot and freak us all out,” says one resident, whom I contacted by phone. “But it makes me feel safe—that there’s someone there—so I’m feeding them.”
These groups have emerged in neighborhoods throughout Egypt’s capital. In the upscale Maadi neighborhood, after a series of raids destroyed most of the nearby stores and left the shelves of the nearby Carrefour supermarket bare, a friend reported that her husband had joined their local watch team. On Saturday night, they caught about ten looters and, not quite knowing what to do with them, tied them up. “They’re going to break their hands,” she said, as if this was totally normal.
Eric Trager is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a Fulbright fellow in Cairo, Egypt from 2006-2007.