Checkpoints And Curfews Complicate Life For Egyptians

During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, police disappeared from the streets and were replaced by neighborhood watch committees. The groups have re-emerged during the violent stand-off between Egypt's military rulers and Islamist supporters of deposed President Morsi and people are reporting incidents of theft and harassment at checkpoints.

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To Egypt now, where unrest continues to make life difficult following the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi. In addition to coping with the nightly curfew, Egyptians are seeing the return of so-called popular committees, checkpoints manned by civilians. The committees were prominent during the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's reign, but Egyptians say these checkpoints are downright dangerous. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that people are being harassed and even robbed by vigilantes at some of the civilian roadblocks.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The police and the army staff many of the checkpoints that question drivers out after the 7:00 p.m. curfew, but that was not a comfort to Tamir Abdul Raouf(ph), a journalist for a regional bureau of the Al Ahram newspaper. Along with doctors and paramedics, journalists are exempt from the curfew. But when Raouf's car reportedly failed to stop at a checkpoint, Raouf was shot and killed and another journalist wounded.

In a statement, the army said the death was not intentional and that no excessive gunfire was used. Mohammed Saleh(ph), Cairo bureau chief of the London-based Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper, experienced the amateur version of the checkpoint. While driving back from a missed appointment due to hopelessly snarled traffic, Saleh's driver took a side street and suddenly they found themselves at a makeshift checkpoint surrounded by men with clubs, knives and other weapons.

MOHAMMED SALEH: (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: In order to allay our suspicions, they first asked for the car license and registration. By the time we showed them that, they had all the doors open and grabbed the phones and some cash, he said. They took the driver out, but made me stay in the car. They seemed to be in a big rush.

Many of the popular committees do work with the army to search for Muslim Brotherhood members and Saleh says at first he thought that's what this was. But their attitude soon gave them away. They weren't rude enough.

SALEH: (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: The genuine popular committees are usually obnoxious when they stop you, he said. They insult you and try to impress you with their authority. But these guys were in a rush. They grabbed the valuables, hit the driver on the head when he objected, and shoved him back in the car. By day, Cairo is regaining a semblance of normality - the legendary traffic, for instance, is back with a vengeance.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)

KENYON: If anything, it seems worse than usual, if that's possible. A number of main arteries have been closed by the police, forcing even more vehicles onto fewer streets. And everyone has to get their business done before 7:00 p.m., really before 6:00 in order to get home before curfew. For many people, the quickest and most affordable way around town is a servese(ph), one of the ubiquitous minibuses that barrel along the streets packed like sardine cans with sweating passengers.

Twenty-one-year-old drive Mohammed Radwan(ph) says even if you support the army, as he does, there's no denying that life is hard these days.

MOHAMMED RADWAN: (Through translator) This has affected everyone. There's no work. There's no gas. And from 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., we don't have any work to do. It's affected everyone. There's no money. There's less income. It's not something that I am suffering from. It's something that everyone here is suffering from.

KENYON: Fifty-seven-year-old government worker Fataya Ali Shaban(ph) says she's glad the Ministry of Interior has called for the popular committees to disband their civilian checkpoints and go home. Leave the police work to the professionals, she says.

FATAYA ALI SHABAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: The popular committees are uncontrollable. Thugs could infiltrate them and make a real mess of things, she says. It's not our job as citizens to be doing police work. We just hope these terrorists are defeated soon. For many, the curfew may be understandable. Every Egyptian media outlet, after all, is carrying the government's warning of the Islamist terror threat.

But it's still an unnatural way of life. Cairo's a city that only really comes to life after dark, especially in the heat of August. But this summer, many Cairenes are in uncharted territory, figuring out how to spend their evenings at home.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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