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Egypt votes in historic election as crime wave, not revolution, becomes main topic

A pervasive lawlessness is the biggest change in daily life since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the most salient issue in Egypt’s presidential race.
Image: Abdullah Ibrahim Yousseff in Sharqiya, a rural province of Egypt. He survived an attack by carjackers; a brother was killed.
Abdullah Ibrahim Yousseff in Sharqiya, a rural province of Egypt. He survived an attack by carjackers; a brother was killed.Moises Saman for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Parts of the ring road encircling this capital are dangerous no man’s lands, unsafe to drive on, by day or night. Kidnappings and bank robberies are common around the city. And women report sexual assaults by taxi drivers, even in broad daylight.

Across Egypt, carjackers have grown so bold that they steal their victims’ cellphones and tell them to call to negotiate the return of the cars. And in Sharqiya, a rural province in the Nile Delta, villagers have taken the law into their own hands, mutilating and burning the bodies of accused thugs and hanging them from lampposts.

On the eve of the vote to choose Egypt’s first president since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, this pervasive lawlessness is the biggest change in daily life since the revolution and the most salient issue in the presidential race. Random, violent crime was almost unheard-of when the police state was strong.

Now all the presidential candidates vow to make the restoration of security their top priority — pledging to get the police back to work, restore their morale and teach them about human rights. But the tone of their approach to the problem could not be more different.

While the two Islamist contenders talk about reforming the police force, Mubarak-era officials in the running emphasize cracking down with a strong hand. Amr Moussa, who was a foreign minister under Mr. Mubarak, accused an Islamist opponent of fomenting anarchy by attending a protest, while Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force general, has bragged that he could clear the streets of downtown Cairo in a matter of hours by turning off the power.

In Sharqiya, an Islamist stronghold, some place blame for the crime wave on “a lack of religious awareness,” said Mahmoud al Herawy, 51, a member of the ultraconservative Al Nour Party who supports the liberal Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. But crime victims, like Mohamed Ibrahim Yousseff, 63, often pine for the perceived security of the Mubarak era.

Three months ago, Mr. Yousseff saw his son Mahmoud, 29, killed, and another son, Abdullah, 24, crippled when carjackers opened fire with shotguns. A mob of villagers avenged the death by killing and incinerating one of the suspected attackers.

Mr. Yousseff said he would vote for Mr. Shafik, who served as Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister. “He is a military man who has been raised on discipline,” Mr. Yousseff said, explaining his support for Mr. Shafik.

“It is becoming the culture of the Egyptian countryside to confront thuggery with thuggery, to take matters into our own hands,” he lamented.

Undeclared strike?
Some say Egyptian police officers know only two extremes: the excessive brutality they used to employ, or the timid approach they have taken since the revolution.

Others contend that the lack of effective law enforcement is a grand conspiracy to spread nostalgia for the ousted authoritarian government. Said Sadek, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, argued that the internal security forces had, in effect, gone on an undeclared strike in protest against their public indictment for the repression of the past.

“The Ministry of Interior is trying to punish the people,” he said. “ ‘You want a revolution? Enjoy!’ ”

Though he said the hysteria was exaggerated, Mr. Sadek acknowledged that he drove with his car doors carefully locked. “A number of my friends had their cars stolen and never recovered.”

Even Egypt’s best-known politicians have fallen victim to crime. In the last year, the independent presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh; the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary leader, Mohamed Beltagy; and the liberal political organizer Amr Hamzawy have all been attacked by armed men on or near Cairo’s ring road. Mr. Aboul Fotouh lost his car and ended up in the hospital, Mr. Beltagy lost his car, and Mr. Hamzawy’s girlfriend, an actress, was briefly kidnapped.

Amani El Sharkawi, 25, an English teacher, recalled a cab ride that ended abruptly when her driver saw men with chains and weapons stopping cars on a deserted stretch ahead; the driver threw the car into reverse and drove backward down the highway. “Can you imagine that?” she said.

One evening about two months ago, Rena Effendi, 35, a photographer, entered a cab with a licensed driver in one of Cairo’s wealthiest neighborhoods — as she had done countless times without a thought before. But the driver diverted the car; locking the doors, he pulled a knife and tried to rape her. She fought back until he just took her handbag and left her.

On Monday, Ms. Effendi said that the police later showed her a suspect who turned out to be using her stolen cellphone with a different SIM card. But they had made no progress in identifying the driver. “It tells me that if they want to find him they could,” she said. “I don’t know if they are looking very hard.”

Sayid Fathy Mohamed, 32, a cabdriver himself, said he was robbed in broad daylight by two knife-wielding passengers and two accomplices with shotguns who pulled up alongside on a motorcycle. They took his car, cellphone and wallet and left him bloody in a field. But the police showed little interest. “They were scared of coming with me to the location of the incident,” Mr. Mohamed said.

So he called his cellphone and eventually negotiated a ransom of about $2,000 for the return of the cab. “People back in my neighborhood collected the money,” he said. “I paid the money and took the car on the spot.”

In Sharqiya, the recent revenge killings began about four months ago in the village of Haryet Razna. Witnesses said Hazem Farrag, 28, stepped outside his family’s storefront auto supply store one night to help defend the young driver of a motorized cart known as a tuktuk from a threatening passenger.

The passenger shot and killed Mr. Farrag, witnesses said, and a mob of villagers beat to death both the passenger and a relative who they said tried to defend him. Then the villagers strung their nearly naked bodies from a lamppost and filmed the spectacle.

“It was disgraceful,” said Mr. Herawy, 51, an Arabic teacher who said he found the bodies the next morning. “That is not the way to enforce the law.”

Mr. Yousseff, of the village Ezbet el Tamanin, said his sons were shot in February as they tried to intercede in the carjacking of a cousin. They had just left the funeral of another cousin, who was killed in a carjacking just two days before, he said.

“Should we surrender them to the police so they can release him in two hours?” he asked, defending the mob’s killing of one of the suspects. The police have brought no charges against any of the vigilantes. Other communities are banding together to demand law enforcement. Residents of the village of Abu Hammad said the police were initially slow to respond after burglars robbed the home of Hussein Abu Khisha, 50, and kidnapped two children from his family — Ibrahim, 10, and Kareem, 7.

The villagers closed down the main road through town, cutting off traffic. After two days, Mr. Abu Khisha said, the army sent tanks to break up the protests, and after six days the police finally traced the kidnappers’ cellphone to find his children.

Now he has decorated his yard with posters of Mr. Moussa, the former foreign minister who is running as a secular champion of law and order.

The Islamists, often jailed under Mr. Mubarak, just want revenge against the police, Mr. Abu Khisha argued. “They insult the police and talk about all the things they will do to them,” he said. “When you are sick like this, you go to a specialized doctor. You don’t go to a beginner.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

This story, "On eve of historic Egyptian vote, crime wave is the main topic," originally appeared in The New York Times.

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