03/13/2013 06:10 EDT | Updated 05/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Citizens' Arrest, Expanded In Canada, Feared In Egypt

You'll remember David Chen, the Toronto storeowner who ran after a shoplifter in 2009 and tied him up until police came. He was arrested and charged with forcible confinement, outraging many Canadians.

Chen was eventually cleared and, on Monday, the so-called Lucky Moose bill — named after his store — came into effect, expanding the scope of citizens' arrest.

The event saw little fanfare, save for a small ceremony at the store, attended by Canada's attorney general, Rob Nicholson. There was still some debate, but the Lucky Moose bill is now law.

Contrast this with Egypt where a similar burst of interest in the idea over the weekend has raised the spectre of militias and unleashed a storm of criticism. Within 24 hours it was in full roar on television, online, in newspapers and on the streets.

"To invite citizens to enforce the law with their own hands is only to put Egypt in the kiln of civil strife, and violence of all against all," Amr Hamzawy, an opposition politician and activist, wrote in Monday's al Watan newspaper.

Online, the reaction was somewhere between outrage and ridicule. Jokes about the need for handcuffs and who would arrest whom abound.

The response came after a senior official in the attorney general's office issued a statement late Sunday encouraging Egyptians to make citizens' arrests should they witness acts of destruction of public property or the disruption of traffic or public transport.

Egypt's law does contain an outdated, decades-old article that allows citizens to hand over a person seen to commit a crime to the police.

But given the circumstances — the absence of police on the streets — the statement drew an angry rebuke.

A newly formed Facebook group called for the citizens' arrest of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's dominant political group for "the killing of Egyptians … sowing sedition among people, deliberate destruction of the nation … and inciting a civil war."

One tweet suggested encouraging citizens' arrest would open the door to the creation of an Egyptian version of the Basij, a civilian but brutal Iranian militia loyal to that regime.

Local reports suggest that even the army chief — already displeased with the security vacuum — has now weighed in against encouraging Egyptians to take the law into their own hands.

Police go on strike

A cursory stock-taking of Egypt's current woes does produce a disturbing picture, where vigilantes may not be the most constructive option.

All sides in Egypt's fractured political landscape already accuse each other of encouraging or inciting wanton violence, or worse, of running militias that do it on their behalf.

The security situation meanwhile, has steadily deteriorated in the past few weeks.

This past weekend alone saw the torching of a police club as well as the headquarters of the Egyptian Football federation in Cairo, renewed clashes in Port Said, and attempts to scuttle traffic in the Suez Canal.

There was also a state of emergency in the Sinai over a possible terrorist attack, the shutdown of major routes by drivers striking over a fuel shortage, not to mention the slew of everyday crimes that seem to grow bolder by the day.

Making matters worse was also a remarkable rebellion that has erupted among police.

This past weekend saw lower-ranking officers from as many as 10 out of 29 provinces go on strike.

Taking all this into account makes the statement from the attorney general's office all the more explosive.

"Citizens arrest is not a controversial topic in most countries, but in Egypt, it has brought to mind the idea of essentially endorsing militia groups or gangs," says Cairo-based H.A. Hellyer of the Brookings Institution.

"In a context where the security situation is deteriorating, it's not surprising that people would be taken aback by it."

Volunteer vigilantes

Not everyone, though, is displeased at the prospect of more civilian involvement in policing.

The Islamist Building and Development Party, the political wing of the Gamaa Islamiya, is already putting together lists of volunteer vigilantes eager to fill in for the lack of police.

"The decision comes as a first step to confront systematic violence in Egypt," the party's secretary-general, Alaa Abu el-Nasr told Egypt's state news agency.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, on the other hand, said it does not support the idea of citizens' arrest (although local reports suggested some Brotherhood members have already made their first citizens' arrest of individuals they say were planning an attack on their headquarters).

Jumping in, perhaps to quiet the debate, a spokesman for President Mohammed Morsi said Tuesday that keeping the peace is the job of the Interior Ministry, the department that oversees the police.

The problem there, though, is that at the start of the revolution two years ago, many police disappeared from view after protesters torched several of their detachments and vehicles. They haven't fully returned to the streets since.

Their absence in those days initially led to vigilantes, many of them kids armed with knives and clubs, policing the streets. Then the army took over, but when it handed power to civilian rule last year, many police forces still remained mostly off the streets.

Nearly a year later, the state may be running out of options in attempting to contain the security situation without broad police cooperation.

Egypt's police have come under severe criticism of late because of their harsh tactics whenever they have faced off with opposition protesters.

The rank and file among police who are demanding better arms and higher pay say they have been unfairly painted, and want to be left out of Egypt's political struggles.

What Egypt needs, say the opposition, is total police reform. But that will take years and, likely, a great deal more heated debate.

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