Egypt's Fallen Police State Gives Way to Vigilante Justice

The country's security vacuum is being filled by armed mobs who are implementing law and order on their own terms.
egypt burning bus banner.jpg
Anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters stand in front of buses belonging to Brotherhood members after they were set on fire by protesters during clashes near the Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo, on March 22, 2013. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

In recent months, Egypt has experienced a wave of public lynchings targeting suspected criminals. In one particularly extreme case, two young men accused of stealing a motorized rickshaw in a Nile Delta town were stripped naked by a mob of 3,000 people, hung by their feet from the roof of a bus station, and beaten to death. Meanwhile, police have refused to intervene in the attacks. When one witness called local police to break up a lynch mob in Sharqiya, he was told, "After they die, call us back."

The outsourcing of law enforcement functions to vigilantes is an admission of state failure and an insult to a revolution inspired by demands for justice and rule of law.

Two years after a revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak's police state, Egypt's security vacuum is being filled by armed vigilantes whose version of justice is based on Islamic law, not the constitution. As President Mohamed Morsi's embattled government struggles to contain lawlessness, increasingly violent anti-Brotherhood protests, and nationwide police strikes, nostalgia for the days of military rule is on the rise, with a recent opinion poll indicating that 82 percent of Egyptians want the army to return to power. The fact that so many Egyptians are willing to trade their hard-won freedom for martial law is an alarming indicator of the state's inability to enforce order. With public confidence in the official law enforcement agencies and justice system at an all-time low, hardline Islamists are exploiting an opportunity to fill the void with vigilante militias that Egypt's own Justice Minister has described as "one of the signs of the death of the state."

Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, a formerly militant Islamist group still designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, is pioneering an effort to legalize a security force of vigilante police units that it euphemistically refers to as "popular committees." In a draft law proposed to Egypt's legislature, al-Gamaa has called for the creation of citizen militias that would be empowered to patrol communities and arrest suspected criminals.

Although al-Gamaa insists that the committees would be unarmed and subject to the supervision of Ministries of Defense and Interior, human rights activists and lawyers fear that the proposal would create a parallel vigilante police force whose allegiance is to Islamic law, not Egypt's constitution. The ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party recently proposed new legislation that would allow the application of Islamic "haraba" punishments, a tenet of Sharia law that allows for the public execution or corporal punishment of murderers and thieves. Although the haraba draft law is separate from the proposed bill on popular committees, the fact that Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament is contemplating the legalization of vigilantes alongside an expansion of Islamic criminal law is deeply disturbing to the liberal opposition.

While the draft law on popular committees is still being debated in parliament, Egypt's government has done little to discourage the devolution of law enforcement functions to non-state actors. On March 10, the attorney general's office released a statement urging private citizens to arrest lawbreakers, citing an obscure provision in Egypt's criminal procedure code that empowers witnesses of crimes to detain suspects. Although the cabinet has since issued a statement banning the mobilization of any unauthorized security forces that infringe on the jurisdiction of the regular police, al-Gamaa is brazenly continuing its campaign to institutionalize a parallel security apparatus in several provinces including Assiut, where one al-Gamaa leader recently stated, "We don't need anyone's permission to send our popular committees to the streets if the police abandon their role to protect the nation."

Presented by

Mara Revkin and Yussef Auf

Mara Revkin is a student at Yale Law School and former assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Yussef Auf is an Egyptian judge and constitutional scholar. He is a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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