A gang of robbers attacked villagers in southern Egypt after being surprised by police, while trying to steal railroad tracks for scrap metal, officials and witnesses said on Tuesday.
It was just one of a number of incidents illustrating the breakdown of law and order in Egypt in the aftermath of the uprising that ousted former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak a year ago.
Residents of Sana’a in the Kharga Oasis 520km south of Cairo said the robbers exchanged fire with police and took villagers as hostages. One resident was killed during the fighting.
The gang then holed up on a mountaintop and threatened to attack the village again if police were sent in, security officials said. The governor of New Valley Governorate General Tarek el-Mahdi fired at the gang, which responded by shooting at his convoy. He escaped unharmed.
In another incident, a family vendetta left five dead in northern Cairo on Tuesday. Others were wounded and dozens of buildings and warehouses were set on fire, according to security officials.
While such violence is on the upswing all over Egypt, the Sinai desert has become especially lawless, with kidnappings, robberies and attacks on Egypt’s gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan becoming routine.
On Tuesday in northern Sinai, 300 Bedouins armed with automatic rifles mounted on pickup trucks surrounded a camp of the international peace force. The context appeared to be the upcoming retrial of five Bedouins sentenced to death or life in prison after being convicted of terrorism in 2005 bombing attacks in Sharm el-Sheik in southern Sinai.
The force, set up under the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979, stepped up security after the incident, said a force official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The breakdown in law enforcement dates back to the uprising, when widely hated police were chased from the streets. They have hesitated to return in full force and a crime wave in relatively peaceful Egypt has resulted.
The security vacuum has also enabled increased weapons smuggling into Egypt across the Libyan border. The surge came after the end of Libya’s civil war last year, when large amounts of arms suddenly became available.
The wave of violence led to stiff criticism of the government on the floor of the Egyptian parliament on Tuesday.
In a heated session, Egyptian lawmakers accused Egyptian Minister of the Interior Mohammed Ibrahim of incompetence.
He responded that 4,000 inmates, including hardcore criminals, remain at large after a series of jailbreaks during the uprising last year, blaming them for much of the crime.
Ibrahim said that another element of the lawlessness comes from youth who have no criminal background, but suffer from unemployment and poverty.
Some Egyptians claim the ruling military council has slowed down the process of calming the streets to show that the military is indispensable when it comes to keeping order. The generals have pledged to turn over power to a civilian administration after a new president is elected in May.