Egyptian men and boys pray at a mosque in Assiut, southern Egypt, that serves as the headquarters for Gamaa al-Islamiya, a group that once waged a bloody insurgency, attacking police and Christians in a campaign to create an Islamic state. Now the Islamist group says it's determined to ensure law and order in the area.
Egyptian men and boys pray at a mosque in Assiut, southern Egypt, that serves as the headquarters for Gamaa al-Islamiya, a group that once waged a bloody insurgency, attacking police and Christians in a campaign to create an Islamic state. Now the Islamist group says it's determined to ensure law and order in the area. Nariman El-Mofty/AP
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.
An Egyptian man waits to join afternoon prayers at the mosque used as Gamaa al-Islamiya's headquarters in Assiut, southern Egypt. The banners feature slogans such as "we are against violence and destruction" and "shame to thugs."
An Egyptian man waits to join afternoon prayers at the mosque used as Gamaa al-Islamiya's headquarters in Assiut, southern Egypt. The banners feature slogans such as "we are against violence and destruction" and "shame to thugs." Nariman El-Mofty/AP
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.
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.