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2:44 pm
Mon March 25, 2013

Islamists Say They Are Filling Vacuum Left By Egyptian State

Originally published on Wed March 27, 2013 5:59 pm

In the lush Nile Valley city of Assiut, the police went on strike earlier this month, along with thousands of other cops across the country. They demanded the ouster of the minister of interior, and more guns and equipment to deal with anti-government protests.

A group of hard-line Islamists then stunned the city, which is south of Cairo, by promising to handle security during the strike. The next day, the policemen were back at work.

But the group, Gamaa al-Islamiya, says it will continue to provide services when the government fails. Analysts say it's a microcosm of a bigger problem: the deterioration of the Egyptian state.

Outside the red and cream-striped mosque where Gamaa al-Islamiya's leadership preaches in this city of about 3 million, Mohammed Ali Ibrahim directs the snarled traffic.

The police don't do their jobs, Ibrahim says, so he will do the work for them.

Stepping Into The Vacuum

Back in the 1990s, Gamaa al-Islamiya waged a bloody insurgency against the government that included some horrific attacks on foreign tourists. But the group renounced violence in the early 2000s.

Now Gamaa al-Islamiya is telling Assiut residents that it is ready to protect this mixed Christian and Muslim city — though its Christian population isn't as confident. Assiut is at the heart of Gamaa al-Islamiya's influence in this region.

"We found that the situation was dangerous. So, after Friday prayers, we decided that if the police do not return, we will be forced to secure the city ourselves," says Sha'aban Ali Ibrahim, one of Gamaa al-Islamiya's leading sheiks in Assiut.

In Assiut, Gamaa al-Islamiya's popular committees even have uniforms: yellow vests with the word "order" on the back.

On a recent day, an elderly man walked into the office on the side of the mosque, with his medical records. He was told he could get help to pay his bills from Gamaa al-Islamiya.

Ibrahim, the sheik, says others also turn to them instead of the local government for help — when, for example, a child is kidnapped or thugs attack.

Outside the mosque, another sheik, Tareq Bedeir, gets a call on his cellphone from a panicked woman. She says her brother is on drugs, he's out of control and she's afraid. She called the police, but she says they wouldn't come.

The sheik hangs up and says he will have to go with others from the group to try to subdue the man.

Bedair says he can't rely on the police. The chief of security is angry with them, he says, because Gamaa al-Islamiya embarrassed the force by showing that it is more capable than the police of controlling the streets.

Vigilante Justice

As crime rises across the country, amid continuing anti-government protests and a worsening economy, the Egyptian state seems unable to provide many basic services or to police the streets. So vigilante justice is growing. Two thieves who tried to steal a motorized rickshaw north of Cairo last week weren't turned in to the police. Instead, a mob of people beat them and strung them up at a bus station by their feet. The two men died.

"There has been a deterioration in policing and control in Egypt across the board," says Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at Georgetown University.

The trend is alarming, Shehata says. And Gamaa al-Islamiya offering to fill the security vacuum in Assiut is a prime example of why.

"I certainly don't want a group like this, with what I consider peculiar and extremist views, to be in charge of law and order," he says. "I don't want them to administer justice on a street corner based on what they consider to be right and wrong."

It hasn't come to that yet. But the prospect alarms the large Christian community in Assiut, among others.

At one of the main police stations in Assiut, the police are back and working. Some say they came back because they were scared that the Islamists of Gamaa al-Islamiya would take control.

Lt. Sami Thawrat, dressed in his green uniform, sits inside the station. He says he cannot allow Gamaa al-Islamiya to form a parallel police force that could turn against him one day, adding that ordinary people don't support what the group is doing.

But many shop owners in downtown Assiut say that without a fully functional police force, they need someone to provide security. If it isn't the state, then it will be Gamaa al-Islamiya or someone else.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to Egypt now, south of Cairo to the city of Assiut. There, a group of hard-line Islamists is trying to deliver services that the government can no longer provide. The group recently stunned the community when it promised to handle security during a strike by police. The next day, policemen returned to work and the Islamists say they will step in elsewhere when the government fails to provide vital services. What's happening, say analysts, is a microcosm of a bigger problem, the deterioration of the Egyptian state.

NPR's Leila Fadel traveled to Assiut and sent this report.

MOHAMMED ALI IBRAHIM: (Speaking foreign language)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Outside the red and cream-striped mosque where Gamaa al-Islamiya's leadership preaches in this city of about 3 million, Mohammed Ali Ibrahim directs the snarled traffic.

M. IBRAHIM: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: The police don't do their jobs, Ibrahim says, so I will do the work for them. In this lush Nile Valley city, the police went on strike earlier this month along with thousands of other cops across the country. They demanded the ouster of the minister of interior and more guns and equipment to deal with anti-government protests.

In the 1990s, Gamaa al-Islamiya waged a bloody insurgency against the government that included some horrific attacks on foreign tourists. But the group renounced violence in the early 2000s. Now, Gamaa al-Islamiya is telling astute residents that it is ready to protect its mixed Christian and Muslim city. Assiut is at the heart of Gamaa al-Islamiya's influence in this region. Sha'aban Ali Ibrahim is one of Gamaa al-Islamiya's leading sheiks in Assiut.

SHEIK SHA'ABAN ALI IBRAHIM: (Through translator) We found that the situation was dangerous. So after Friday prayers, we decided that if the police do not return, we will be forced to secure the city ourselves.

FADEL: The next day the police were back on the job. But still, the Islamists say they're ready to deliver security and other services the government cannot provide.

In Assiut the group's popular committees even have uniforms, yellow vests with the word order on the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: After our interview with Ibrahim, an elderly man walks into the office on the side of the mosque, with his medical records. He was told he could get help to pay his bills from Gamaa al-Islamiya. Others, the sheik says, also turn to them for help instead of the local government - when a child is kidnapped, when thugs attack, when a family needs help.

SHEIK TAREQ BEDEIR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Outside the mosque, another sheik, Tareq Bedeir, gets a call on his cell phone. A woman is panicked, her brother is on drugs, he's out of control and she's afraid. She called the police but she says they wouldn't come.

BEDEIR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The sheik hangs up and says he will have to go with others from the group to try to subdue the man. He says he can't rely on the police. The chief of security is angry with us, he says, because Gamaa al-Islamiya embarrassed the force by showing that it is more capable of controlling the streets than the police.

As crime rises across the country, amid continuing anti-government protests and a worsening economy, the Egyptian state seems unable to provide many basic services or police the streets. So vigilante justice is growing. Two thieves who tried to steal a motorized rickshaw north of Cairo earlier this month weren't turned in to the police. Instead, a mob of people beat them and strung them up at a bus station by their feet. The two men died. Later, a suspected car thief was beaten to death.

Samer Shehata is an Egypt expert at Georgetown University.

SAMER SHEHATA: There has been a deterioration in policing and control in Egypt across the board.

FADEL: The trend is alarming, Shehata says. And Gamaa al-Islamiya offering to fill the security vacuum in Assiut is a prime example of why.

SHEHATA: I certainly don't want a group like this with what I consider peculiar and extremist views to be in charge of law and order, right? I mean, I don't want them or some low-level person in the organization to administer justice on a streetcorner based on what they consider to be right and wrong.

FADEL: It hasn't come to that yet. But the large Christian community in Assiut is certainly alarmed by the prospect as are others.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

FADEL: At one of the main police stations in Assiut, the police are back and working. Some say they came back because they were scared that the Islamists of Gamaa al-Islamiya would take control.

Lieutenant Sami Thawrat, dressed in his green uniform, sits inside the station. I cannot allow them to form a parallel police force that could turn against me one day, he says. Ordinary people do not support what they are doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But many shop owners in downtown Assiut say, without a fully functional police force, they need someone to provide security. If it isn't the state, then it will be Gamaa al-Islamiya or someone else.

Leila Fadel, NPR News,

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.