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."

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."

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.

Nowhere is the emergence of a parallel law enforcement system more apparent than in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where a growing number of informal Islamic courts claim to have absorbed 75 percent of the caseload once handled by the official justice system. Popular committees are already policing the city of Arish, and the tribal sheikhs who are the de facto rulers of the lawless desert peninsula say they hope to spread the committees to Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah near the Egyptian border with Gaza. In the absence of a credible security apparatus capable of maintaining order, the Sinai is in danger of devolving into a shadow Islamic state ruled by vigilantes.

Despite al-Gamaa al-Islamiya's assurances that its proposed popular committees will be fully integrated within the regular security apparatus and are intended to support -- not replace -- the police, the fact that ad hoc militias are already using lethal force against suspects with no regard for due process suggests that al-Gamaa's plan is fundamentally incompatible with rule of law.

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. Empowering citizen militias is a recipe for lawlessness, not order.

Although Morsi was elected on a platform promising justice, accountability for the abuses of the former regime, and comprehensive reform of a notoriously repressive state security apparatus, there has been negligible progress on any of these fronts. Internal dissension within the state security apparatus has escalated into a full-blown mutiny.

Earlier in March, over 30 police stations joined a nationwide strike demanding the resignation of the Interior Ministry and condemning the government's mismanagement of the state security apparatus, which they feel has been unjustly exploited to crack down on Morsi's opponents. Meanwhile, an increasingly politicized justice system is rapidly losing the public's confidence amid fears that the Morsi-appointed Justice Minister and public prosecutor are prioritizing the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood above the law. If Egypt's government does not take action soon to restore the legitimacy of core state institutions, it risks abandoning the state to vigilantes who are determined to enforce law and order on their own terms.