Rise in violent crime leaves some Egyptians wistful for life under Mubarak
A wave of violent crime has some Egyptians wishing for the corrupt-but-stable police state ruled by Hosni Mubarak..
The Washington Post
CAIRO — This is a city that bursts to life at night. Doctors schedule appointments for 10 p.m. Dinners with friends often begin near midnight. Traffic snarls the roads even in the darkest hours.
But in a country deep into an unsettling transition, the dark streets now feel as menacing as those in the most dangerous American cities. Taxi drivers worry about carjackings; wealthy families fear kidnappings for ransom. There have been bank heists, shootouts in bread lines and a presidential candidate attacked and robbed on a desert road.
More Egyptians now opt to stay in at night, and some in this city of 11 million now yearn for days in which street crime was almost unheard of, in the corrupt-but-stable police state ruled by President Hosni Mubarak.
Suad Mohammed, 49, now double bolts her door in the sleepy Cairo suburb of Mokkatam. She always takes public transportation and never goes out at night. Last month she hailed a cab with her 12-year-old son just after evening prayers. She'd done it thousands of times but this time her life changed.
The cabdriver, who had a scar on his face, told her he needed to take a different route because of traffic. He drove her and her son, who sat in the front seat, through roads she didn't know for more than two hours. Quietly, she panicked in the back seat until he stopped.
"Did the car break down?" she recalls asking. The cab driver pulled out a large knife from the side of his seat and put it to her son's neck. He barked at her for her money and her gold. She slipped off her wedding ring and another gold ring, her five gold bracelets and the 1,200 Egyptian pounds, or about $200, she had in her pocket. He ordered her to get out of the car.
"If you scream I will push this knife through your stomach and out of your back," she remembers him saying, then he pushed her son out of the car on the deserted road near Tora Prison and drove off.
The terror stays with her and her child now.
There is no public data on crimes, and requests for interviews with security officials were not granted, but in Cairo the stories are enough to strike fear.
Hugh Nicol, a journalist at the Egyptian Gazette, has written about crime in his column, "Red-Handed," since 2005. Since the revolt last winter he's seen a significant increase in kidnappings and armed carjackings.
"The carjackings seem to focus on rich people and the nice, new white cabs," he said. "Criminals also seem more willing to kill now."
Authorities publicly blame the uptick in crime on the increase of weapons flowing into the county from the porous border with Libya, prisoners released during the uprising and a police force still well shy of full capacity since its officers disappeared from the streets three days into the revolt last year. But critics of the government question why the police, widely reviled under Mubarak as a tool of oppression, have not returned to protect the country.
"It's not just lawlessness. It's a complete lack of security," said Fadia Abu Shahba, a criminal researcher at the National Center for Social and Criminal Studies. "There was such anger towards the police from the people because the people were attacked. People would curse them and hit them. But they are our children and we need security. Security is one of our most precious rights."
In her research on carjackings, Abu Shahba found that criminals who once used more benign weapons such as small knives and sticks had graduated to machine guns and rifles. She said in 2011 there were more than 40,000 carjackings in Egypt compared with about 4,000 in 2010.
"People take the law lightly now," she said.
In the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, Hanaa Ahmed Hashem, 28, sleeps with a gun at her bedside.
Two weeks ago, she learned how to use the pistol, alongside others who'd recently been victims of crime. She signed up for the class, she says, after a man scammed his way into her apartment, tied her up, along with her child and niece, her husband and her paralyzed mother-in-law. The man and two other assailants stole the gold from her body, the safe and other valuables in the apartment and locked the family all in a back bedroom as they made their escape.
"Honestly, Mubarak robbed us and plundered our country and our people," Hashem said, "but we never saw crime like this."