x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Guns in the hands of civilians compound Egypt's crisis

The violence engulfing Egypt has brought weapons on to the capital's streets in a way that people say they have never seen before. Alice Fordham reports from Cairo

Two civilians holding guns walk on a street in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo on Friday. Manoocher Deghati / AP Photo
Two civilians holding guns walk on a street in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo on Friday. Manoocher Deghati / AP Photo
CAIRO // When the shooting started in the island of Zamalek, echoing round the intricate masonry and chichi boutiques, people were horrified that Egypt's violence had penetrated even this upscale enclave.
Medhat Farouq, a middle-aged man who was working on Friday in a money exchange shop, looked up to the October 6 overpass which sweeps over the expensive bookshops and sushi bars, and saw thousands of demonstrators pouring into the city centre.
They were cheering for deposed president Mohammed Morsi and, among the many sticks and knives they carried, Mr Farouq said he saw half a dozen firing automatic weapons. Looking further up, he saw residents leaning out of their balcony windows, firing pistols into the crowd.
The violence that has engulfed Egypt in the past week has brought weapons on to the streets of the capital - in the hands of civilians - in a way that people say they have never seen before, and that shows signs of escalating.
The fighting which raged in neighbourhoods across city on Friday was not contained by the regiments of soldiers and police on the streets. Residents took matters into their own hands, and in a development unlikely to calm the situation, several said that they now want armed civilians on the streets for protection.
In the posh Garden City area across the Nile river from Zamalek, residents said that hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators came into the neighbourhood late on Friday afternoon, pushed back by police from a nearby area where several foreign embassies are located.
"They were attacking people with automatic machine guns," said Shezli Nour, 41, a doorman for an apartment building. He estimated he saw 25 people carrying weapons. "It was like a massacre. I've been living here for 12 years and I've never seen anything like this - we didn't know who was shooting whom."
He said that he and thousands of other local residents, mustering sticks and knives, drove the throng back. But, if he had had a gun, he said he would have fired it. "If the situation continues, the people will try to protect themselves," he said. "What will a stick do in front of a machine gun?"
He added that the authorities were not currently issuing gun licences, but that he planned to buy one on the black market, estimating the cost at about 700 Egyptian pounds (Dh368).
Similar "popular committees", once seen on the streets during the upheaval in 2011 as president Hosni Mubarak fell, have reappeared in force all over Cairo. Where the committees really do consist of local people monitoring activity in the neighbourhood, on the whole people welcomed them.
Nasr Mohamed, 35, and his colleague Ramadan Farag, 21, waited in vain for customers at a small hardware store downtown. They said that in their area of Mohandisseen in the west of Cairo, there was non-stop shooting for hours on Friday.
"It's very terrible, it's very new and we never had weapons before like this," Mr Farag said. He blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the majority of the violence. But in the chaos, the two said that there were also armed groups, not from the neighbourhood, who were setting up fake checkpoints, and robbing people and threatening them.
As police were nowhere to be seen in the melee, they were grateful for friends and neighbours on the streets - a few of them armed - to keep them safe.
"They were dealing with people respectfully and cheerfully," Mr Farag said.
However, not everyone thought carrying a gun would help their situation. Mr Farouq, the exchange-shop employee in Zamalek, said that he would never contemplate buying a weapon.
"Carrying a gun is dangerous!" he said. "Maybe I would get angry with someone, and just pull out my gun and shoot them."
afordham@thenational.ae