Perception and reality of Egypt's safety

One of the unanswered questions of post-revolution Egypt is how unsafe things became. (Update: see how seuciryt looms large in this op-ed  by David Ignatius) In the first days of the uprising, as police released common criminals back onto the street and carried out looting themselves, it was clear that security was low. Most of it could be ascribed to action by the security forces themselves. But as that particular problem subsided, and other issues came up.

The collapse of the police state meant that crime was no longer regulated (I tend to see the police as mafia dons who ensured that criminal activity was channeled and was not disruptive to public peace, much like drug kingpins might avoid violence among their ranks to remain below the radar — fans of The Wire will know what I'm talking about). In all likelihood, you had gangs who were no longer limited in what they could do that took matters into their own hands, as well as police officers involved in crime who simply switched sides. You also had, and continue to have, a demoralized police force that often does not want to do its job. 

That being said, Egypt is still relatively safe. Not as safe as it used to be, but far safer than many Latin American countries, for instance. There are carjacks in certain areas, and a few cases of kidnappings of upper-class kids, but it's not chaos. It's not even US levels of criminality (which are quite high, mind you). Yet security regularly tops the concerns of Egyptians in polls, is a major talking point of the government and politicians, and even an argument by some for the postponment of the coming parliamentary elections. Some of this, I feel, is because the increase in security issues — even if small if compared to many other third world countries — is already a huge qualitative difference in the way Egyptians perceive their country. Mubarak's police state, through its regulation of crime and ubiquitous police state, kept things seemingly very safe. The same can be said of Syria I'm sure.

A recent Gallup poll has interesting data showing that while Egyptians worry more about security, they also report fewer incidents. Take a look at the charts below

ABU DHABI -- Egyptians feel less safe now than they did before the uprising that led to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's departure from office. Gallup surveys show 38% Egyptians in July through August 2011 say they do not feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where they live, down from 51% in June, but considerably higher than in previous years.

Do not feel safe walking alone at night

At the same time, Egyptians have become less likely to report that they have been assaulted or had their money stolen during the same period. The percentage of Egyptians who say they had their money or property stolen dropped to 8% in July through August 2011 from 13% in November 2010. Those saying they were victims of assault in the same period dropped from 7% to 3%.

Money/property stolen and been assaulted or mugged

Gallup makes the case that the key thing here is the media, which has been inflating sentiments of insecurity. I think that's partly true, and it has probably been a deliberate policy of the SCAF to justify its measures and buy public support. But we should not lose sight that in certain areas, the increase in certain types of crimes — car thefts, illegal use or purchase of weapons, burglaries, etc. are real. It seems to me that many of these areas are sparsely populated suburbs and major highways. Anecdotally I also hear about inner city crime, but the big-ticket items have been on Cairo's ring road or the Alexandria Desert Highway or Suez road. The poll above also seems to carry a built-in distortion: as people perceive greater insecurity, they take greater precautions.

My take is that insecurity has definitely risen, both naturally (a vacuum created by collapse of police state and slow reconstruction of regular policing) and artificially (media hysteria and perhaps state/former regime collusion in criminality, at least last February). Egypt will probably never be as safe — or perceived to be as safe — as it was under Mubarak. But I think the price is worth paying, especially if you factor in the biggest criminal of all for the last three decades: the state.