CAIRO (AP) — When Egypt's police melted from the streets of Cairo this weekend, the people stepped in.
Civilians armed with knives, axes, golf clubs, firebombs, metal bars and makeshift spears watched over many neighborhoods in the sprawling capital of 18 million people this weekend, defending their families and homes against widespread looting and lawlessness.
The thugs had exploited the chaos created by the largest anti-government protests in decades and the military failed to fill the vacuum left by police.
On Saturday, the army sent out an appeal for citizens to help.
“The military encourages neighborhood youth to defend their property and their honor,” it said in a statement.
On Sunday, joint teams of civilians and military were patrolling, some with guard dogs.
Mohammed Gafaar, a 34-year old salesman in the Nasr City area, said his neighborhood watch organized soon after the night curfew went into force at 4 p.m. They did it at the behest of residents, who appealed for protection of their property, sending out the call from the local mosque.
“I feel betrayed by the police,” said Mr. Gaafar, who had carried rocks, a stick and a Molotov cocktail in a soda bottle. “They have to be tried for the protesters they killed and for their treason. They left the country to be looted. I am angry at the regime.”
Akram al-Sharif, a 33-year old Cairo resident who lives in one of the affluent compounds in the city’s west at the edge of the desert, said locals hired 20 Bedouins with guns and organized into groups to protect the five gates of the compound.
“I am happy this is happening. There was solidarity,” he said, but he criticized the military for failing to protect private property.
The troubles began after days of protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak reached a crescendo Friday, when tens of thousands poured into the streets after noon prayers in the city’s 3,000 mosques. The protests quickly spiraled into clashes with riot police, who fired countless canisters of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons and beat the demonstrators with sticks.
By Friday night, protesters had set fire to the ruling party headquarters along the Nile in central Cairo and the first reports of looting emerged — people making off with electric fans and televisions from the burning complex. Mr. Mubarak ordered the military into the streets for the first time to try to control the escalating turmoil.
On Saturday, the tens of thousands of police who normally patrol the streets vanished. Security officials, asked why they disappeared, said that remained unclear. But the police, who are hated by many, may have been seen as just fanning the flames.
Throughout the day, shops and malls were ransacked and burned, and residents of affluent neighborhoods began reporting burglaries by gangs of thugs roaming the streets with knives and guns. By midafternoon, shopowners and residents were boarding up their stores and houses.
Gangs of armed men attacked jails, sending thousands of inmates into the unpoliced streets.