CAIRO Egyptians armed with sticks and razors have formed vigilante groups to defend their homes from looters after police disappeared from the streets following days of violent protests.
Banks, junctions and important buildings previously guarded by the police and state security were left abandoned on Saturday and civilians have quickly stepped in to fill the void.
"There is no police to be found anywhere," said Ghadeer, 23, from an upscale neighbourhood. "Doormen and young boys from their neighbourhoods are standing outside holding sticks, razors and other weapons to prevent people from coming in."
She added: "The community is working together to stop this and protect ourselves."
Police withdrew from the streets when the army was sent in to take over security in Cairo. Witnesses have since seen mobs storming supermarkets, commercial centres, banks, private property and government buildings in Cairo and elsewhere.
Egyptians have called for army intervention to bring back law and order. On Saturday, many protesters changed: "No to plundering and no to destruction."
Dozens of shops across Egypt have painted display windows white to hide contents and discourage looting. A cash machine was broken in an upscale neighbourhood, witnesses said.
"They are letting Egypt burn to the ground," said Inas Shafik, 35.
Several government buildings were set ablaze during days of protests against President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. They were often left to burn without the intervention of authorities.
State television said army reinforcements were being sent to sites across Egypt to protect public and private property.
Islamic leaders have in the meantime called on people to join vigilante groups to protect their homes themselves. Yet, scenes of looting appeared to spread from upscale parts of Cairo to downtown and poorer areas as well.
"Our jobs are done and over. There are thugs everywhere, ransacking our shops," Saleh Salem, a shop owner in central Cairo. "Since the government is not doing it, we are sending down our boys to create human shields to fight the criminals."
Rumours were rife with reports of escaped convicts running through the streets. State television reported at least 60 rape cases during the unrest. It also reported that the country's cancer hospital for children had been stormed.
"They are torching down the prisons. Our lives and property are at risk. Get out of the way," one shopper shouted, echoing the anxieties of many as they raced to stock up at supermarkets.
Others stayed penned inside their homes for fear of what they said were marauding gangs in some areas. On Friday, looters broke into the Egyptian Museum and destroyed two pharaonic mummies, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist. In walled-off estates on the outskirts of Cairo, private security locked down gates and refuse to let people in.
Gated communities have grown up in recent years in the desert outskirts of Cairo, often grouping expensive villas with open green spaces. Many, like Mohandiseen, are near slums.
"Mohandiseen is surrounded by several shantytowns whose residents have taken advantage of the security vacuum there and started looting private property and shops," said Mohyi Mahmoud, a shop-owner in Mohandiseen.
Ghadeer said: "The looters want to plunder and the government is washing its hands clean of any responsibility."
(Editing by Edmund Blair/Maria Golovnina)