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Egypt’s transition tested by security breakdown

Egypt’s transition tested by security breakdown

As Egypt builds its democracy identity amid lack of security that may hurt the country’s fragile economy and is prompting even citizens to buy their own firearms.

May 19, 2011 1:40 by

When Peter Matta went to check crops on his land on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital in the aftermath of an uprising that threw Hosni Mubarak from power, he was met by five strangers with guns.

“What are you doing on our land?” said one of the group of trespassers who had seized his property, poking a rifle at him.

That was in March. Like many Egyptians, Matta hoped this was an ugly but temporary problem, the result of a security vacuum from the withdrawal of police from duty after they lost control of the streets in the unrest that ousted Mubarak on Feb. 11.

The police are back but Matta has yet to get control of his land. When he secured an eviction order, the group demanded 6 million Egyptian pounds ($1 million) and threatened his family. When police pushed the group off, they just moved back later.

“We are devastated by the power that these thugs have over the land as we watch helplessly, but even more alarmed at the lack of national security,” Matta told Reuters.

Matta’s may be an extreme example of the security breakdown. But it is not wholly unique. Others living on Cairo’s outskirts have reported marauding armed gangs. Prisoners have staged jail breaks and reports of armed crimes in the city are on the rise.

Some Egyptians are buying guns, legally or otherwise, for protection and some are even reminiscing fondly about Mubarak’s police state.

As Egyptians grapple with establishing a democracy after ejecting an autocratic ruler, they are struggling to restore order and confidence in an economy that was hammered after tourists packed their bags and investors fled.

“It is a key issue that we hear from almost every quarter that there has to be security and rule of the law. There is anecdotal evidence of increasing crime in Egypt where historically it has been exceptionally low and is still below global levels,” said Angus Blair of Beltone Financial.


Car theft or robberies would be normal for a big city in Europe or America, but for Egyptians used to streets where muggings or other crimes are rare, it is a culture shock.

Blair said the security problem was particularly unnerving to local investors who hear about it in daily conversations.

In one poll published by al-Ahram newspaper, restoring security was the number one priority for Egyptians surveyed.

With investors pulling out of Egypt in droves and elections around the corner, the country’s interim military rulers have proposed tough new security measures and thrown their weight behind the police force.

Police were taken off the streets a few days after the uprising against Mubarak’s rule erupted on Jan. 25. They had lost control and the army was sent in. Though police are back on patrol, their morale and grip on security has been shattered.

“The people working in the police force are demoralised and they are not yet provided with either training or more importantly the legal framework within which they should operate,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, head of Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies.

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