“The situation is becoming so dangerous these days… Thieves are everywhere and if we don’t stay up all night, we could wake up in the morning to find our properties looted,” Farouk, a civil engineer in his late thirties and one of the watchmen manning a checkpoint in the well-heeled residential area of Nasr City in northern Cairo, told IRIN.
Around a bonfire, Farouk shared tea, bread and cheese with five other vigilantes from his neighbourhood.
“The other day, we found a machine gun in one of the cars that arrived here,” he said, adding that they had already handed over two gun-carrying suspects to the army.
Anti-regime demonstrations across Egypt since 25 January have meant normal police patrols are no longer taking place and some jails have been left unguarded, creating an unprecedented security vacuum.
Many citizens have responded by setting up their own informal security groups aimed at protecting streets, cars, shops, homes and property.
State-controlled TV has been highlighting the security risks. It showed thousands of men and women breaking into, and looting, department stores and shops. The Carrefour megastore was just one place to be totally emptied of its contents.
In Nasr City, thieves from nearby slums, are profiting from the police absence, to break into homes. Many carry automatic weapons, and Farouk and his friends have had to arm themselves as best they can - with a sword, knives, sticks and a gun.
“We’re ready to deter any of those thieves who come here,” said 28-year-old schoolteacher Mohsen Khalil, a friend of Farouk and one of the vigilantes. “We don’t deserve to live if we can’t protect our families… One of my neighbours was shot dead by thieves a few days ago. That is why everybody is on alert.”
Prisoners on the loose
Media reports of thousands of escaped prisoners are aggravating the security situation.
Nobody knows exactly how and why they managed to escaped, but there are rumours of masked and armed men breaking into prisons, killing the guards, and freeing the prisoners before torching the jails. Some prison guards say large numbers of weapons were stolen by the inmates before they fled.
Farouk and Khalil hear gunshots every now and then. They say they see convicts driving cars and shooting in the air to scare residents before breaking into their homes. Others say the convicts use loudspeakers to ask residents of some areas to bring their valuables down onto the street or risk being killed.
“The convicts are everywhere here,” Farouk said. “They’re real killers who are ready to shoot at anybody.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions