More thugs and guns on the streets of Cairo

Some Muslim Brotherhood supporters have taken up weapons, and the Egyptian military and police are heavily armed. But now, it seems, they have company.

Manoocher Deghati/AP
Smoke overcasts a minaret and buildings in Cairo, Egypt, Friday.

Persistent reports of "popular committees" being formed are coming in from Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

The term can mean anything from a genial neighborhood watch to groups of young toughs looking for a fight. During the mass protests against Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in January and February 2011, civilians formed popular committees across the city, erecting barricades in front of their neighborhoods and sometimes aggressively questioning anyone who tried to pass.

I lived in Cairo from 2003-2008 and arrived back to cover the uprising on the evening of the bloodiest day to that point. The city was on edge, and I encountered Egyptian popular resistance committees - and weapons in the hands of civilians in the city - for the first time. I wrote then:

Out of the airport, we then easily went through 100 checkpoints and took three hours making a journey that, on a traffic-free day, takes 20 minutes. First were the friendly, almost offhand checkpoints run by Egyptian soldiers backed by Abrams tanks around the airport.

Then there were the “popular committees” – the neighborhood watch groups of young men armed with machetes, clubs, and butcher’s hooks – who were jumpy and a little undisciplined, but full of apologies for the “situation,” solicitousness to us, and full of more “welcome to Egypts” (a phrase commonly graced to foreigners here, both in English and Arabic) than I’d heard in my four years living here.

Finally, after a long, jagged route that took us far around Tahrir Square, we found ourselves on Roda – the Nile island just south of Zamalek that is a bastion of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, the popular committees were more switched on, easier to communicate with – and a little better armed. Mixed in among their clubs and knives were a few narrow-gauge shotguns and pistols.

No one really knew what was to come for Egypt then. But in the two years since, armed popular committees have become part of Cairo's social fabric, particularly as respect for the police has declined. Now, with huge numbers either furiously in support of the Muslim Brotherhood or furiously against them, it appears that the committees - or perhaps, plainclothes agents of the state claiming they belong to the committees, or both - are going to play a larger role.

It's an alarming prospect, and one that bears watching.

The Twitter timeline of an assistant reporter from the New York Times Mayy El Sheikh caught my (and a lot of other people's) eyes today. I don't know her, but a lot of people I know and respect do, and they consider her a careful reporter of what she sees. This is what she said she saw today: 

On the ringroad a group of 20 or so civilians stopped us 2 warn us abt armed MBs ahead.4 of thm had rifles hanging frm ther shoulders!

— Mayy El Sheikh (@MayyNYT) August 16, 2013

She also described a group of men mixed in at a Muslim Brotherhood march along the Nile that frightened her and a number of the Brotherhood supporters she was with. She writes that as the march moved towards the Qasr al-Nil bridge near Tahrir Square, distant shots rang out, and that some people mixed in among them were trying to prevent marchers from moving away to a safer spot. Two masked men with rifles and handguns who had been among the marchers appeared and threatened some bearded Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and tried to force her to stay with the march. 

She explained she was a reporter and wanted to leave. They eventually assented.

That's just one moment in time in a vast city in a vast country. If more of these moments pile up, it won't mean anything good.

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