CAIRO – We lost count after about the 40th vigilante checkpoint on the way into Cairo from the airport. The Egyptian army, for their part, only seemed to muster four checkpoints, each one in the form of a US-made Abrams tank and two Egyptian soldiers with AK- 47s, many of whom looked recently pubescent.
The vigilante checkpoints, which ran about every 100 meters on the main roads and blocked every side street were at the same time threatening, bizarre, and downright comical.
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The barriers varied from cinder blocks to park benches, scorched trash dumpsters, and at least two that were made up of a line of three shopping carts presumably lifted from a nearby supermarket.
Other than the occasional firearm, the weapons deployed by the vigilantes were cause for some merriment and confusion, with the arsenal including machetes, swords, bed posts, chains, and spiked blunt objects that seem lifted from a Hollywood medieval period piece.
Some weapons were cause for special curiosity, such as the Indiana Jones-style whip carried by a hulking, bald Egyptian man – which begged the question, where does one get such a weapon on short notice? Was it laying around the house waiting for such an opportunity? There also seemed to be a pecking order to the armaments, with some vigilantes packing small-caliber pistols or large hunting rifles, while others, presumably on the lower end of the posse spectrum, making do with thick tree branches.
The vigilantes began to take to the streets after the Egyptian police disappeared from Cairo and other cities earlier in the revolution, which coincided with spontaneous jailbreaks in prisons across the country.
For the most part, the vigilantes apologized profusely for checking passports, but insisted it was for our own safety and theirs, saying that the streets are rife with looters and henchmen paid by Mubarak to wreak havoc and pummel people caught outside after curfew.
Those manning the checkpoints and checking the car trunks ranged from
middleaged men to Egyptian boys who looked no older than seven or eight.
All of them were enforcing the law without any actual jurisdiction or
authority, and often within meters of army checkpoints.
They seemed to be especially fond of my French colleague, smiling and
saying “bon voyage” or “vive l’Mas” (long live Egypt?), and pretty
ambivalent about a “tourist” from Texas interloping in their midst.
It’s hard not to believe that for many of the younger vigilantes,
especially the teenage boys, the experience is great fun, the best show
The power trip is palpable, and staying out all night next to a bonfire,
loitering with a weapon with impunity is a joy any teenage boy should
be able to understand.
Nonetheless, beyond the apparent diversionary and self-protection aspect
of the whole production, it seems the checkpoints are a crude show of
force. In a country where only weeks earlier people shuddered at the
thought of criticizing the regime out loud for fear of violence or
detention, the checkpoints and the improvised arsenals seem to send a
message that these people weren’t to be trifled with. That if the moment
comes when the regime puts this down by force, the work won’t be easy,
that even with US-armed special police units at their disposal, the
regime will have to get their hands very dirty, and battle it out block
Either that, or that after 30 years of biting your tongue, it’s easier to speak loud when you carry a big stick.
While the experience of navigating the vigilante gauntlet was great fun,
hours earlier, leaving the Amman airport for Cairo, it didn’t seem as
if it was going to be all that funny.
In the waiting hall, an Iraqi man carrying $10,000 in cash on him (“you
need at least that much to survive in the Cairo streets now”) said we
would certainly be robbed, beaten, killed or all three, and that by no
means should we try to leave the airport.
He also said that since he drove in a car with diplomatic plates and two
armed guards he would make the journey easily, but that we were taking
our lives into our own hands.
“But good luck,” he added.
The cynical journalist in me at first took his comments with a grain of
salt, as little more than the boasting of a wealthy, shadowy Iraqi expat
enjoying the experience of scaring the living daylights out of some
Americans. That lasted about 10 minutes. Afterwards I began to question
the entire decision of coming to Cairo.
After negotiating an exorbitant fee from a taxi driver breaking the
curfew outside the airport, we set out on what turned out to be a nearly
two-hour trip into town. The lawless “Mad Max” cityscape was so
deserted that it reminded me of Israel on Yom Kippur, with the Israeli
kids on bikes replaced by bonfires, vigilante checkpoints, and the
occasional army tank blocking the road.
And, like on Yom Kippur, I began to consider begging for forgiveness for
my sins – if anything, just so I could make it to the hotel in one