Criminal gangs fill void left by Egypt's broken security apparatus
CAIRO // It took just two minutes for Yasser Mohammed, a cardiac surgeon in Cairo, to realise he had been living for years in a protective bubble.
Standing at 1am on the Cairo ring road with an AK-47 automatic rifle pressed to his neck, he did not deliberate long before giving in to the three men who, with a spray of gunfire, had forced his Skoda Octavia to the side of the road.
"I saw in their eyes that they would kill me in an instant if I tried to fight them," said Mr Mohammed, 37. "It was the first time in my life that I knew there are some people in this world who see someone's life as worth nothing."
With the stakes suddenly much higher than the value of any car, he practically pleaded with them to steal his vehicle.
"Take it," he implored, and they sped away in it.
Such stories are becoming more common in post-Mubarak Egypt, where the shattered reputation of police forces, combined with rising unemployment, have created a fertile ground for the emergence of well-armed criminal gangs.
Security on the streets of Cairo, and other Egyptian cities and towns, has declined since the 2011 uprising that toppled the government of the former president, Hosni Mubarak.
To the protesters and many other Egyptians, the police were the symbol of a despised regime, and as Mubarak's political fortunes tumbled, so did those of the police.
As the tide turned against the president, and after scores of pitched battles with demonstrators, police gave up midway through the revolt their attempts to assert their will and control the streets. They no longer inspired fear, let alone respect.
Since Mubarak's fall, the reputation of the police has not improved. There have been three shake-ups of the ministry of interior, which oversees the country's forces.
But after the deaths of dozens of demonstrators during clashes with police in the past several months, there have been calls for yet another housecleaning.
In particular, critics have urged the replacement of the minister of interior, Mohamed Ibraham, who was appointed to his post last year. They say his ministry has done little to reform the country's police forces.
In their defence, the police say that they are underpaid and ill-equipped to deal with well-armed protesters. They also insist they are pawns caught up in the political battles between the president, Mohammed Morsi, and his opponents.
"We are the silent victims of these political battles," said Maj Tarek Serry, a police officer in Cairo. "We are not equipped to fight thugs with automatic weapons and grenades.
"Our power has been completely consumed by politics. The job of a policeman is to protect the security of the country and its citizens, not to help one group fight another."
With the police neither feared nor respected, there have been signs that Egyptians in increasing numbers are taking the law into their own hands - with the blessing of at least some government officials.
The Cairo attorney general's office this month called on people to conduct citizens' arrests to restore security.
A week later, a group of men hung two suspected thieves from a tree at a bus station in the town of Samanod, 88kms north of the capital.
The men had been beaten to death, cheered on by many in the crowd of 3,000 who looked on. The men's alleged crime: trying to steal a rickshaw.
With the police paralysed and armed robberies and sexual assaults said to be increasing, many Egyptians are taking aggressive measures to defend themselves.
Sara Mohammed, 23, a journalist, started carrying a Taser in her purse after a man tore off his clothes and chased her in a dark tunnel. She escaped but vowed never to walk the streets without protection.
"All of my friends carry them," she said, taking the Taser out and letting loose a powerful arc of electricity. "The police are gone, so we must protect ourselves."
For Mr Mohammed, the roadside robbery was only the first chapter of a harrowing week of dealings with his assailants. A witness to the attack accompanied him to a police station, but the officer in charge told him with a sigh that he should first "pray to Allah that you are still alive", Mr Mohammed said.
No investigation was carried out. It was the first and last time a police officer was involved in his case.
Mr Mohammed called his mobile phone which, along with a computer, new clothes for his toddler sons and his passport, had been stolen by the men.
The person who answered gave him another number and told him call again at 8pm the next day.
Mr Mohammed's uncle, Mamdouh Abdallah, took over the negotiations for the return of the stolen items.
The carjackers started with a demand for 185,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh99,956) and eventually settled for 50,000 pounds (Dh27,015).
On the night of the hand-off, the thieves told Mr Mohammed and his uncle to drive on the ring road to a site near the location of the robbery.
When they arrived, the thieves told them to put their vehicle in reverse and drive it against oncoming traffic to a motorway exit. From there, they were ordered to move to an isolated spot beneath a flyover.
There, wearing scarves to cover their faces, were three men, each carrying an AK-47.
"All my experiences with them were in the dark but I could say that they were young men," said Mr Mohammed. "They looked like normal people behind the masks, like students at Cairo University."
The men counted the money and gestured to Mr Mohammed's car, which was sitting next to a fence, covered with a tarp.
It was only when they uncovered the car, got into it and prepared to leave that they realised that none of the other stolen items were inside.
The car also had new shades over the window and a police sticker on the rear window - signs that it had been used in other robberies.
Lurking in the shadows, the armed men shouted at them to leave immediately or lose the money and the car.
One of the thieves said, almost in passing: "Now take your car. No more questions. We also sweat a lot. This is not an easy business."