CAIRO — Cairo residents boarded up homes and set up neighborhood watches of citizens armed with guns, clubs and knives Saturday as looting and violence engulfed the capital.
With the police having disappeared from the streets, the army expanded its presence of tanks and armored personnel carriers but mainly around government buildings. As dusk fell and the chaos continued, the military fanned out to neighborhoods across the city in a bid to quell the lawlessness.
“The army guards big institutions like the gardens and museum, not people and their property,” said Mighaz Sawzi, who lives in central Cairo. “God has to protect us, because who’s going to protect us now?”
Residents reported gangs of youths, some on motorbikes, roaming the streets, looting supermarkets, shopping malls and stores. Some of the gangs made it to affluent residential areas in the suburbs, breaking into luxury homes and apartments. The crackle of gunfire could be heard in the city center as well as outlying districts.
Looters made off with TV sets, electronics and furniture from a mall along the Nile. In Giza on the other side of the city, young men could be seen carting away bottles of alcohol, chairs, sofas and tables from casinos and night clubs and packing them into their rickshaws.
Downtown, thieves broke into the Arab International Bank and several cafes and eateries, including a McDonald’s and a Hardees. The ruling party headquarters was plundered and torched, while a Carrefour supermarket in the south was also hit.
The looting, which has spread despite a 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew, prompted residents in some neighborhoods to establish vigilante groups to protect private property. These groups set up roadblocks at intersections to provide security.
Homes and shops in the upscale Zamalek neighborhood were boarded up by mid-afternoon, and outside some apartment blocks guards armed with machine guns had taken up posts.
In the well-heeled Maadi neighborhood in south Cairo, neighborhood mosques called on young men over loudspeakers to come down to the entrances of building and homes to ward off looters.
Naglaa Mahmoud, a 37-year-old Maadi resident, said thugs were breaking into cars and threatening to get into homes. She said even the ambulance service in the neighborhood had abandoned its offices and accused the regime of planning the chaos by pulling out all of its police forces.
“All this seems to be prearranged. They are punishing us for asking for this change,” she said. “What a shame he (Mubarak) doesn’t care for the people or anything. This is a corrupt regime.”
Looters outside of Cairo were also taking advantage of the chaos.
On the highway from the capital to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, car dealerships were broken into and looted. Banks could be seen abandoned, with papers fluttering out of their smashed windows.
Egyptian state television was running periodic updates throughout the night of areas where looters and criminals had operated – going street-by-street, district-by-district. It aired two numbers that residents could call and report disturbances in their neighborhoods. The report said that some of the citizen watch groups were calling for help from the military.
Defense Ministry spokesman Ismail Othman said that the armed forces will deal with looters, while appealing to Egyptians to protect their property and stand up to the thieves.
Othman also warned against violating the curfew, saying the military will deal firmly with those caught breaking it.