HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 31 (IPS) — The city squares where protesters battled riot police for four consecutive days were unexpectedly quiet late Sunday night, as Egyptians fighting to topple the Mubarak regime returned home to defend their neighborhoods from looters and thugs.
Central security forces fled the Egyptian capital earlier in the day after fierce clashes with anti-government protesters left their vehicles in flames and their personnel weary and injured. Police abandoned their posts after being attacked by angry mobs. Others just disappeared.
“There is not a single uniformed police officer in the entire city,” says George Iskander, an art dealer. “Nobody knows where they went.”
The security vacuum created a new sense of urgency for the popular movement to topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country since 1981. Amid reports of looting, arson and prison breaks, Egyptians put their families’ security ahead of democracy and prayed for a speedy resolution to the crisis.
“We just want this to end quickly,” says Iskander.
Army units loyal to Mubarak have taken up positions on bridges, in major squares, and in front of strategic buildings. But the thinly distributed troops, which have not engaged protesters, appeared reluctant to step into the role of policing the streets.
During previous nights, looters and arsonists targeted malls, supermarkets, banks and jeweler shops throughout the capital. Arkadia Mall, a six-storey complex, burnt to the ground. Hypermarket Carrefour and department store Omar Effendi had their shelves stripped bare of goods. Even a children’s cancer hospital was ransacked.
“It makes me furious,” says one activist. “While we are fighting police to topple Mubarak, they are out robbing the stores.”
Looters also broke into the Egyptian antiquities museum in downtown Cairo, smashing glass cases and making off with priceless cultural treasures. Army commanders sent to secure the building found the floor littered with glass shards and broken artifacts.
Many Egyptians suspect police and central security forces are behind the looting, or at least have a part to play in it. Identifying the culprits became increasingly difficult after some looters reportedly hijacked police vehicles and cruised around neighborhoods with shotguns.
An army spokesman announced on state television that his soldiers would apprehend any suspected looters, but the army only had enough manpower to protect high-profile commercial targets. He appealed to all able-bodied men to arm themselves and organize groups to guard their neighborhoods.
In Zemalek, an upscale Cairo residential and embassy district, soldiers in camouflage fatigues rallied the local merchants and residents ahead of the 4pm curfew.
“The police have fled, so we need to mobilize all the men and gather any sticks and weapons you can find to protect the streets,” said one officer, a reservist who runs the Armed Forces Club.
Vigilantes armed with iron rods, machetes and pistols erected makeshift roadblocks at intersections and stood guard throughout the night. Watchmen challenged any approaching silhouette. Gunshots rang out through the cold night air.
State television continuously broadcast images of gangs of suspected looters that the army said they had apprehended. Handcuffed youth cried as the camera panned past them, then zoomed in on the knives, guns and home- made weapons on them.
“How do we know these weren’t the boys protecting the neighborhood?” one caller asked on the air.
The imagery aimed at ensuring the public that the army was restoring order.
But it was little comfort for an elderly woman in working class Abdassiyk district, who phoned a live news talk show to report an armed gang of thugs at her door.
“They already robbed the banks below my building, and now they are coming towards the door,” she said before the line went dead.
The deteriorating security situation in Cairo and throughout the country has shown Mubarak’s weakening grip on the country. But it may also be his boldest gambit.
Some analysts believe the 83-year-old dictator, with his back against the wall, ordered all police forces out of the main cities to undermine the momentum of anti-regime demonstrations. With no police opposition, the euphoric protesters soon dispersed as a shocking rise in crime made security their foremost concern.
“The security vacuum serves Mubarak’s interest as people want to see a quick end to the situation and want law and order restored,” explains Moustafa Kamel El-Sayed, professor of political science at Cairo University.
The crisis could buy time for Mubarak to consolidate political power, but El-Sayed says the regime’s end – now or in the September elections – appears inevitable.
“Even if the demonstrators leave, the uprising will continue,” he says.