Conflict & Justice

Egypt's dangerous lack of security

By Matthew Bell

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Sectarian clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians broke out in the Egyptian capital on Saturday night.

In some of the worst violence in Cairo since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, at least 12 people were killed, dozens were injured and two churches were set on fire. The deadly street fighting highlights the lack of security following the uprising that began in late January.

The trouble started when a group of Muslim men gathered in front of a Coptic Christian church in the working class neighborhood of Imbaba. They said that Christians were holding a Muslim woman inside the church against her will. And they demanded that she be released.

Soon, a crowd of Christians gathered. Calls for reinforcements went out to both sides. The crowds grew into the hundreds and things got of hand.

Men fought with clubs, knives, rocks and Molotov cocktails. There was sporadic gunfire. The situation didn't quiet down until the early hours of the following morning.

That day, soldiers and police set up roadblocks and secured the area.

But one Christian man still appeared angry. He said the Egyptian army didn't try to stop the fighting until several hours after it started.

"The shooting was coming from all directions," he said. "It wasn't safe to go outside."

Another Christian man from the neighborhood said, "all of this [violence] started with a lie."

He said no Muslim woman was every being held captive in the church. "The police and army should have done more," he said.

A local Muslim man said he felt the same way. "This kind of thing would not happen if there were security," he said. "Some people want to create chaos and violence, and they'll do anything to destroy the country."

Egypt's transitional government wants to show that it's aware of the problem.

Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi said Egypt has become "a nation in danger."

"We will use all laws to strike with iron fist those who would meddle with the security of the homeland," Gindi said.

As if to send a message, the army that said it arrested 190 people on Saturday night and that the detainees will soon face military trials.

This weekend's sectarian clashes were not the only sign of a lack of security in Cairo.

Abdul-Aziz Street is at the heart of one of Cairo's important business districts. It was also the site of a street battle in broad daylight last week.

Merchants said the fight was with competing shop owners from a nearby street, and it went on for hours, they said. A mobile phone shop owner named Ahmed said, "if there's violence here, there can be violence anywhere in Cairo."

Ahmed said he and his fellow merchants on Abdul-Aziz Street are "very happy about the revolution." But he added that they now hope security improves.

That is unlikely to happen quickly, according to the editor of al-Qahira newspaper, Salah Issa.

Issa said, "the backbone of Egyptian security has collapsed, the police are refusing to work."

"They feel demoralized," Issa said. "Some officers are on trial for abusing their power, and the ones who are still in uniform feel that the public is against them."

The only hope for an improvement in security in the short-term lies with the army, Issa said.

"But in the longer-term, there's a danger," he said. "Egyptians might demand that the military stay in charge just to maintain law and order."

Putting an end to the security vacuum in Egypt is one thing. But for the millions of Egyptians who supported the revolution, extended military rule is certainly not what they fought for.