CAIRO: A call by Egypt's top prosecutor encouraging citizens to arrest anyone breaking the law or committing a crime has stoked fears of vigilante groups taking over police duties at a time of growing tension and lawlessness.
The prosecutor's call for citizen arrests, made in a statement issued by his office late Sunday, comes at a time when a large segment of the country's police force is on an unprecedented strike, lawlessness and political turmoil appear to be deepening and a rapidly worsening economy is fueling a potential explosive situation.
Islamist groups loyal to President Mohammed Morsi have stated their intention to form vigilante groups to take over police duties, a prospect that has given rise to fears of civil strife.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said Sunday that the police oppose the creation of vigilante groups, but he acknowledged that his force is strained. He said unidentified parties were trying to undermine his ministry and he pleaded with the nation's rival political forces to leave the police out of their disputes.
The statement from the attorney general's office was attributed to a senior aide, Hassan Yassin. He said certain offenses that require citizen arrests, and have been commonplace in Egypt in the two years since Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime was toppled, have been on the rise in recent weeks. Among the offenses are sabotaging state facilities, blocking roads, disrupting public transport, preventing state employees from reaching their workplace and terrorizing citizens.
While provided for in the country's penal code, encouraging citizen arrests at this time was likely to fuel tensions and could also require a need for police or army intervention.
Already, the former jihadist group Gamaa Islamiya has begun enrolling followers in the southern province of Assiut, one of its main strongholds. Lists of volunteers, complete with their address and cellular phone numbers, are being compiled. When activated, they will protect state installations, direct traffic and investigate complaints by residents.
Before it renounced violence, Gamaa Islamiya played a key part in an anti-government insurgency in the 1990s. Now, it says the police strike and civil disobedience -like that seen in the coastal city of Port Said - are part of a conspiracy to topple Morsi's administration.
The group has said it would send members of its "popular committees" to the streets if police abandon their duties, something that hard-line Islamists have already branded as haram, or religiously prohibited, amid calls for legislation outlawing strikes by the police.
The striking police are demanding better job conditions. Some also are protesting what they see as attempts by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood to control the force. Ibrahim, the interior minister, sought to downplay the gravity of the situation, saying the striking policemen constituted only a small part of the force.
Underlining the country's policing woes, thousands of angry soccer fans on Saturday rampaged through the heart of Cairo, attacking and setting ablaze the headquarters of the national soccer federation after they torched a police club.
The twin fires send columns of thick black smoke billowing over the city of some 18 million.
In the coastal city of Port Said, police pulled out of the city on Friday after days of deadly clashes with protesters. The military is now in control of the city, which has been in open rebellion against Morsi's rule since late January.
On Sunday, drivers of Cairo's popular communal taxis staged a strike to protest fuel shortages, creating a traffic nightmare on the already congested streets of the city. Some of the drivers, armed with knives and firearms, attacked others who did not observe the strike or got into fights with motorists angered by their action.