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
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
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."
In Assiut, al-Gamaa's popular committees wear a uniform - fluorescent yellow vests
bearing the word "order" - and have been observed patrolling
the streets on motorcycles at night, armed with knives. Although some residents have praised the vigilantes for responding to distress calls faster than
the regular police, others - particularly Coptic Christians -- are disturbed by the outsourcing of state law enforcement functions to hardline Islamists.
Al-Gamaa insists that its popular committees are committed to security and justice, but many fear that their informal policing activities are further
undermining an already dysfunctional state security apparatus and encouraging victims of crime to resort to vigilantism and arbitrary violence, rather than
seek recourse through Egypt's legal system.