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Once Safe, Cairo's Streets Now Plagued By Crime

Aug 14, 2012
Originally published on August 14, 2012 5:00 am

Voices echo in what once was a bustling women's fitness center in suburban Cairo. The two-story facility is full of modern equipment, but it's covered with a thin layer of dust.

Sally Salema, 28, opened the gym in 2008 because she wanted a place to exercise without having to worry about men seeing her with her veil off.

The facility included a kids' area and nursery, Salema says, so that mothers could bring their children. There's also a cafe, several classrooms and even a massage room that still smells faintly of lavender.

But Salema had to close the center a few months ago after the membership dropped from 550 women to just 120 in the space of 18 months.

"It started in February [of this year], and then it went downhill from there," Salema says. "But then April was bad, May was horrible; so we just had to shut down."

Salema blames the downturn on the security breakdown that followed the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak granted vast powers to the security forces, and they were widely disliked by Egyptians. But most of the country, including the megacity of Cairo, was considered safe.

Since Mubarak's ouster last year, police have been less visible on the streets, and bank robberies, carjackings, kidnappings and other crimes have been on the rise.

The police have come back to the streets to some extent. But the crime, and stories of crime, persist. Stories like that of 27-year-old software engineer Sara El-Rasei, who was robbed by two men while stuck in traffic on a busy highway.

"Almost everybody is suffering from this," says Mohamed Eessa, a manager at G4s Egypt, a private security company.

A Demand For Security

Eessa says his business has gone up about 15 percent since the uprising, and his competition in the sector has doubled. He blames a flood of weapons smuggled in from Libya and Sudan for the uptick in armed robberies.

A retired police officer, Eessa says his former colleagues are now hesitant to go after criminals. In some cases, the criminals may outgun the police. Also, many Egyptians believed that police were allowed to act with impunity under the Mubarak government, and that is no longer the case.

"There [were] lots of illegal things to do with your police work [and] illegal ways to get to your target," he says. "Now they have to go by the book, and they are not ready for this."

President Mohamed Morsi insists that the police are now back and working at full capacity. In a recent radio address, he promised that security would be restored to "its utmost level in all parts of Egypt."

In the same broadcast, however, a caller named Mahmoud Abdel-Azim complained that when he went to the police after his car was stolen, they refused to do anything.

"They kept telling me to come tomorrow," Abdel-Azim says. "I eventually found out where the thieves were and informed the officer, but he still kept telling me to come [back] tomorrow."

All these stories about crime with no consequences have Egyptians, especially women, reluctant to travel alone or at night, especially in outer suburbs that are still under construction. That trend is what Sally Salema believes ruined her fitness center business.

"So just having to give it up because of something you can't control, you're forced to accept this," she says.

Salema is now thinking of starting over with a small studio in a more densely populated area, and waiting for things to get better.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Egypt, last week's attack on a border post in the Sinai desert underscored the security challenges facing the new Egyptian government. Security in the streets of Cairo has also become a challenge. Kimberly Adams reports on a crime wave in the Egyptian capital. It's one of the world's largest cities, and was once considered one of the safest.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

KIMBERLY ADAMS, BYLINE: Hello? Hello?

Voices echo in what once was a bustling women's fitness center in one of Cairo's suburbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ADAMS: It's two stories high and full of modern equipment covered in a thin layer of dust.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sally Salema started the facility n 2008 because she wanted a place to work out without having to worry about men seeing her with her veil off.

SALLY SALEMA: This was a kids' area, this was a nursery for the kids, so that moms could bring their kids with them.

ADAMS: Salema had to close the center few months ago after the membership dropped from 550 women to just 120 in the space of 18 months.

SALEMA: It started in February, and then it went downhill from there. So we just had to shut down.

ADAMS: She blames the downturn on the security breakdown that followed the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak. Bank robberies, car-jackings, kidnappings, previously rare in Egypt, became common occurrences after the Egyptian police disappeared from the streets during the mass protests of 2011. The police have come back to some extent, but the crime, and stories of crime persist.

Stories like that of 27 year-old software engineer Sara El-Rasei, who was robbed by two men while stuck in traffic on a busy highway.

SARA EL-RASEI: One threw a...

ADAMS: One threw a stone at the passenger window. They smashed the glass and the other man snatched my bag.

MOHAMED EESSA: Almost everybody is suffering from this. I don't think that I met anyone that had witnessed that there was no changes or something like that in the last two years.

ADAMS: Mohamed Eessa is a manager at G4S Egypt, a private security company. He says his business has gone up about 15 percent since the uprising, and his competition in the sector has doubled. He blames a flood of weapons smuggled in from Libya and Sudan for the uptick in armed robberies. A retired police officer, Eessa says his former colleagues who have returned to duty are hesitant to go after criminals, who often outgun them, under a new government that doesn't give them the free rein they had in the past.

EESSA: There was lots of illegal things to do with your police work, illegal ways to get to your target. Now they have to go by the book, and they are not ready for this, hundred percent.

ADAMS: Newly-installed President Mohamed Morsi insists that the police are now back to their full capacity.

PRESIDENT MOHAMED MORSI, EGYPT: (Foreign language spoken)

ADAMS: In a recent radio address, he promised security would be restored to its utmost level in all parts of Egypt. But in the same broadcast, a caller named Mahmoud Abdel-Azim complained that when he went to the police after his car was stolen, they refused to do anything.

MAHMOUD ABDEL-AZIM: (Through Translator) They kept telling me to come tomorrow. I eventually found out where the thieves were and informed the officer, but he still kept telling me to come tomorrow.

ADAMS: All these stories about crime with no consequences have Egyptians, especially women, reluctant to travel alone or at night, especially in outer suburbs that are still under construction. That trend is what Sally Salema believes ruined her fitness center business.

SALEMA: So just have to giving it up because of something you can't control, and you're forced to accept this. It's not really fun.

ADAMS: Salema's thinking of starting over with a small studio in a more densely populated area, and waiting for things to get better.

For NPR News, I'm Kimberly Adams, in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.