CAIRO - Parts of the ring road encircling the capital are dangerous no-man’s lands, unsafe to drive on, by day or night. Kidnappings and bank robberies are common around the city. And women report sexual assaults by taxi drivers, even in broad daylight.
Across the country, carjackers have grown so bold, they steal their victim’s cellphones and tell them to call back to negotiate for the return of their cars. And in Sharqiya, a rural province in the Nile Delta, villagers have taken the law into their own hands - mutilating and burning the bodies of accused thugs and hanging their corpses from lampposts.
On the eve of the vote to choose Egypt’s first president since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, this pervasive lawlessness is the biggest change in daily life since the revolution and the most salient issue in the presidential race. Random, violent crime was almost unheard-of when the police state was strong.
Now all the presidential candidates vow to make the restoration of security their top priority - pledging to get the police back to work, restore their morale, and teach them about human rights. But the tone of their approach to the problem could not be more different.
While the two Islamist contenders talk about reforming the police force, Mubarak-era officials in the running emphasize cracking down with a strong hand. Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak, accused an Islamist opponent of fomenting anarchy by attending a protest, while Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force general, has bragged that he could clear the streets of downtown Cairo in a matter of hours by turning off the power.
In Sharqiya, an Islamist stronghold, some blame the crime wave on “a lack of religious awareness,’’ said Mahmoud al-Herawy, 51, a member of the ultraconservative Al Nour Party who supports the liberal Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. But crime victims, like Mohamed Ibrahim Youssef, 63, often pine for the perceived security of the Mubarak era.
Three months ago, Youssef saw his son, Mahmoud, 29, killed, and another son, Abdullah, 24, crippled when carjackers opened fire with shotguns. A mob of villagers avenged the death by killing and incinerating one of the suspected attackers.
Youssef said he will vote for Shafik, who also served as Mubarak’s last prime minister. “He is a military man who has been raised on discipline,’’ Yousef said, explaining his support for Shafik.
“It is becoming the culture of the Egyptian countryside to confront thuggery with thuggery, to take matters into our own hands,’’ he lamented.
Some say Egyptian police officers know only two extremes: the excessive brutality they used to employ, or the timid approach they have taken since the revolution.
Others contend that the lack of effective law enforcement is a grand conspiracy to spread nostalgia for the ousted authoritarian government. Said Sadek, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, argued that the internal security forces had, in effect, gone on an undeclared strike in protest against their public indictment for the repression of the past.