x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egyptians urged to make citizen's arrests, stoking vigilante group fears

Egypt's top prosecutor has encouraged citizens to arrest anyone they see breaking the law following unprecedented police strike.

An Egyptian protester throws back tear gas canisters during clashes with riot police near Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
An Egyptian protester throws back tear gas canisters during clashes with riot police near Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

CAIRO // Egypt's top prosecutor has encouraged citizens to arrest anyone they see breaking the law, stoking fears of vigilante groups taking over police duties.

The statement from the prosecutor general's office comes as a large segment of the country's police force is on an unprecedented strike and lawlessness and political turmoil appear to be deepening.

On Saturday, protesters rampaged through Cairo, furious over the acquittal of seven of nine police officers in a trial over football violence that left 79 people dead last year. Some 21 civilians received death sentences in the highly charged trial.

Protesters torched a police club and the football federation headquarters on Saturday. Hundreds of rioters battled police along the Nile river boulevard in an area packed with hotels and diplomatic missions. Two people were killed. The clashes along the river continued on Sunday.

There were also limited protests in Port Said, the Suez Canal city where the football stadium riot erupted in February 2012. The city was the scene of bloody clashes with police in the past week. They stopped this weekend after police evacuated their headquarters and the military took over.

The statement late on Sunday from the prosecutor general's office was attributed to a top aide, Hassan Yassin. He said certain offences that require citizen arrests, and have been commonplace in Egypt in the two years since Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime was toppled, have been on the rise in recent weeks. Among the offences are sabotaging state facilities, blocking roads, disrupting public transport, preventing state employees from reaching their workplace and terrorising citizens.

While provided for in the country's penal code, encouraging citizen arrests at this time was likely to fuel tensions and could also require a need for police or army intervention.

Already, the former jihadist group Gamaa Islamiya has begun enrolling followers in the southern province of Assiut, one of its main strongholds. Lists of volunteers, complete with their address and mobile phone numbers, are being compiled. When activated, they will protect state installations, direct traffic and investigate complaints by residents.

Before it renounced violence, Gamaa Islamiya played a key part in an anti-government insurgency in the 1990s. Now, it says the police strike and civil disobedience - like that seen in Port Said - are part of a conspiracy to topple Mr Morsi's administration.

The group has said it would send members of its "popular committees" to the streets if police abandon their duties, something that hardline Islamists have already branded as haram, or religiously prohibited, amid calls for legislation outlawing strikes by the police.

Major Tarek Serry, a police activist in Cairo, told The National on Saturday that police were being used as political pawns as well as under-equipped to handle large-scale protests.

"We are the silent victims of these political battles," he said. "We are not equipped to fight thugs with automatic weapons and grenades.

The interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, said he was in talks with the striking policemen.

"I understand them. They are protesting the pressure they are under, the attacks from the media," Mr Ibrahim said on Sunday. "They work in hard conditions and exert everything they can and are not met with appreciation or thanks."

Mr Ibrahim acknowledged that his force is under strain, but he insisted he will not allow vigilante groups to take over the duties of the force.

"From the minister to the youngest recruit in the force, we will not accept to have militias in Egypt," Ibrahim said. "That will be only when we are totally dead, finished."