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New storm in Egypt over citizen arrests

Tuesday - 3/12/2013, 3:00am  ET

Egyptian protesters close the main street by the Nile river in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, March 10, 2013. Hundreds of police officers went on strike in recent days but Egypt’s embattled interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, said on Sunday that he will not allow vigilante groups to fill in for his force, which has been strained by daily protests, violent clashes and harsh criticism from the media. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- An official statement encouraging Egyptian civilians to arrest lawbreakers and hand them over to police has set off a new political storm in a country already mired in crisis.

A senior leader of a hard-line Islamist faction loyal to President Mohammed Morsi said his group was preparing lists of volunteers ready to take over police duties if needed.

The main opposition coalition saw the statement on citizen arrests by the attorney general's office as a prelude to the substitution of the police by militias belonging to Morsi's powerful Muslim Brotherhood group and allied Islamist groups who swept to power after Egypt's uprising two years ago.

"It is now clear why the regime insists on pitting the police against the people and relying on security measures to tackle problems that need social, economic and political solutions," the opposition National Salvation Front said in a statement on Monday.

Egypt has been embroiled in wave after wave of political protests since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime.

The unrest has been fueled by the entire range of social ills from tenuous security to an unraveling economy and the leadership of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood controls parliament as well as the presidency and has won every election since Mubarak's ouster.

Morsi's government says the recent wave of protests sweeping many parts of the country is a conspiracy involving both Mubarak loyalists and the mostly liberal and secular opposition to undermine the authority of a democratically elected president.

The president said in a TV interview aired last month that he would like see more regular Egyptians take the initiative in dealing with protesters such as those who block roads. He has repeatedly warned that while peaceful protests are a given in today's Egypt, those who disrupt normal life hurt the economy and scare investors away.

The opposition statement recalled the events of Dec. 5 when Morsi supporters set upon opposition protesters camped outside the presidential palace and later arrested and interrogated dozens of them in makeshift detention centers outside the palace gates.

Later, videos posted on social networks showed the president's supporters hitting and stripping the protesters.

"That, it is clear now, was not unrelated to the plan designed to divide the country as a prelude to the rule of the militias," the opposition front said.

Former lawmaker Mustafa el-Nagar, a liberal opposition supporter, said the statement by the attorney general's office would cause more divisions in the country and empower anyone to make a citizen arrest under false pretenses.

"Under our present circumstances, we cannot open the door for such action because it will open the door to civil war," he said. "This has to be stopped and authorities must back down."

Late Sunday night, the office of the attorney general, the country's top prosecutor, issued a statement encouraging citizen arrests. It was attributed to a senior aide, Hassan Yassin.

Some of the offenses he cited as warranting citizen arrests have been commonplace in Egypt in the two years since the uprising and have become more frequent in recent weeks.

Among them are sabotaging state facilities, blocking roads, disrupting public transport, preventing state employees from reaching their workplace and terrorizing citizens.

The statement coincided with a partial strike by segments of the police to demand better working conditions and, in some cases, to protest what they see as an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to control the police. The Brotherhood denies the charge.

Meanwhile, the former jihadist group Gamaa Islamiya has begun enrolling followers in the southern province of Assiut, one of its main strongholds, in "popular committees" to maintain law and order, according to a senior leader of the group who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The Islamist group supports Morsi.

Lists of volunteers with their addresses and phone numbers are being compiled there, he said. When activated, they will protect state installations, direct traffic and investigate complaints by residents, he claimed.

Before Gamaa Islamiya renounced violence, it played a key part in an anti-government insurgency in the 1990s. Now, it says the police strike and civil disobedience --like that seen recently 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. Hard-line Islamists have already branded police strikes as religiously prohibited amid calls for legislation outlawing the strikes.

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