Once safe, Cairo's streets now plagued by crime

/AP

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, NPR reports.

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.

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