Locals Staff Security Checkpoints in Cairo Neighborhoods
CAIRO — In front of the South Korean Embassy, Ahmed fiddles with a large metal pipe and sits in a plush, overstuffed living room chair recently requisitioned to the street. He says he is 15 — though he looks much younger — as he guards his own small barricade at dusk on Tuesday.
Like many young Egyptian males these days, Ahmed has tried to take neighborhood security into his own hands.
After violent clashes with protesters last week, the Egyptian police have largely vanished from Cairo’s streets. While the Egyptian Army maintains a presence on main arteries and other strategic locations, their reach is limited. Fears of looters, vengeful elements of the state security forces and criminals said to be sprung from the city’s prisons pushed citizens across Cairo to arm themselves and turn to vigilantism for the safety of their communities.
For some, protecting neighborhoods is seen as an integral contribution to what many Egyptians are calling a revolution against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. “Half of us or a quarter of us should be in front of our homes, and the others should be protesting,” said a 30-year-old who gave his family name as Maher and asked that his first name not be used for fear of reprisal.
Across Cairo, barricades have appeared with the departure of the police. They are made from a variety of materials: metal cordons abandoned by the police, cinder blocks placed in the road, palm tree trunks, and abandoned wooden police huts are a few examples seen in Dokki, Mr. Maher’s middle class neighborhood.
The vigilantes use the barricades as checkpoints, examining the identification cards of those wishing to pass and searching for weapons. If somebody from another area shows up at Mr. Maher’s checkpoint, “we just don’t let him in,” he said.
He is joined by Ahmed Sobhy, 19, and Khaled el-Agaty, 20, two students who do not see their schedules too disrupted by their all-night security shifts now that classes are canceled.
Vigilantes across the city carry a motley variety of weapons, from hunting rifles to nunchucks, machetes, pistols and even samurai-style swords. By far though, the most common weapons are less extravagant: kitchen knives, metal pipes and large sticks.
On Tuesday night, Mr. Agaty held a long bamboo stick, with two medium-size kitchen knives attached to one end. Mr. Sobhy chose to wield a miniature baseball bat.
“I had it since I was a kid,” Mr. Sobhy said. “My dad bought it from Lebanon; it was a birthday gift” about 10 years ago.
While the mass protests against the Mubarak regime are only kilometers away in Tahrir Square, few guarding Dokki have been able to join. “I’m dying to go down to Tahrir Square, but my mom wouldn’t let me go,” Mr. Sobhy said.
His mother also had objections to his heading to the street in front of his home with his baseball bat. “My mom was really shouting,” he said. “I just had my own revolution to go down here.”
Though the men at this checkpoint have not seen violence themselves, they said they were ready to confront trouble and were quick to signal other checkpoints by whistles and radio calls when gunshots rang out in the night from nearby areas.
The checkpoints and the vigilante patrols in the evenings safeguard many neighborhoods, but also present problems. With roadblocks every several hundred feet on many secondary roads, few cars venture out after dark. Egyptians who
have legitimate reasons to be in a certain neighborhood but have a different district listed on their identity card encounter inconvenience or even be turned back at checkpoints.
At entry points where neighborhoods edge main roads, the checkpoint crews are tenser. Once inside neighborhoods though, the feeling is more relaxed. On Tuesday night in Dokki, men lit fires to keep warm. At Mr. Maher’s checkpoint there was no fire, but the men drank tea, chatted and snacked on peanut butter cookies, a gift, they said, from an American family in the neighborhood that had decided to stay despite U.S. State Department advisories to leave.