The Sunday announcement by Egyptian Prosecutor-General Talaat Abdullah that citizens have the right to arrest “vandals” has caused a firestorm of controversy.
“Egypt’s prosecutor-general urges all citizens to exercise the right afforded them by Article 37 of Egypt’s criminal procedure law issued in year 1950 to arrest anyone found committing a crime and refer them to official personnel,” said a statement issued by the prosecutor-general’s office.
Another statement issued on Monday by the prosecutor-general’s office said that “the statement of the prosecutor-general did not include granting ‘judicial arrest’ powers to citizens, but rather granting the judicial arrest to officers as defined officially in the law.”
Nevertheless, the statements of the prosecutor-general opened an angry debate about security issues in the face of an ongoing police strike in a number of governorates.
A number of Islamist political groupings welcomed the initial statement of the prosecutor-general. State news agency MENA reported that Alaa Abu El-Nasr, the secretary-general of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s Building and Development Party, praised the move.
“The decision of the prosecutor-general to grant citizens the right to arrest vandals is a correct decision based on the law,” Abu El-Nasr told the media.
“The decision comes as a first step to confront systematic violence in Egypt,” said El-Nasr.
“Political powers have the right to have their own police force, to fight crimes in the street,” said Nazer Gharab, a member of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya on Monday morning during an interview broadcast on CBC channel.
Gharab added that the ultra-conservative Islamist group would found its own “Islamist” police force to restore order in the street.
The group has already declared that it will form popular committees in order to aid the ministry of interior and to restore order in cities, given the ongoing police strike.
On the other hand, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected the idea of citizens’ arrests.
Hussein Ibrahim, the secretary-general of the FJP, issued a statement to the media on Monday stating that the party believes that the role of police cannot be carried out by any other institution than the police.
“The people should not help the police more than is clearly stated by the law,” said Ibrahim.
During clashes at the presidential palace in December last year, Morsi’s supporters and Muslim Brotherhood members detained and reportedly tortured some anti-Morsi protesters, before handing them over to the authorities.
Hours later the East Cairo prosecutor office ordered their release after finding them innocent. Some of the detainees were not actually protesters but passers-by and residents of the area.
The fear that citizens’ arrest powers may give rise to political militias led many to reject the idea.
A military source told Ahram Online that this decision could promote the army to “intervene.”
“This move would open the door to the formation of private militias and raise the spectre of civil war,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The statements of the prosecutor-general regarding granting citizens arrest powers are a clear attempt to legalise the militias of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists on the streets and to give them the right to arrest citizens, which puts Egypt on the verge of a civil war and ends the state of law.”
The Socialist Popular Alliance Party announced its rejection of the prosecutor’s statements as well on Monday, giving examples of how that power could be used to attack political and ideological opponents.
A number of other opposition parties and movements also reacted strongly to the announcement.
Khaled El-Masry, the official spokesperson of the ‘Ahmed Maher Front’ of the 6 April Youth Movement stated that: “The movement will stand against any law or legislation that grants citizens’ arrest powers to groups or committees, or private security companies.”
The liberal Wafd Party also rejected the call of the prosecutor-general. In an interview on Al-Arabiya channel on Sunday, official spokesperson and law expert Abdullah El-Moghazy stated that granting citizens the right to arrest suspects gives a political cover to Islamist militias who have a history of violence.
“As a legal expert I believe the prosecution’s decision is a violation of the constitution and of criminal law,” El-Moghazy said.
There were also concerns expressed by the tourism industry.
“Many tourist agents called me in alarm regarding this news,” the head of the Egyptian Coalition to Support Tourism, Ehab Moussa, told Ahram Online.
“There is concern that citizen’s policing will lead to the mistreatment and blackmail of tourists,” Moussa said, giving examples of how merchants could use this power to force tourists to buy merchandise.
Reformist judge Ahmed Abo Shosha gave another legal perspective to the debate.
“Article 37 is not a new thing; it has clear criminal procedures on how citizens could arrest a defendant accused of a crime, if the punishment for that crime in the law is no less than one year in prison,” said Abo Shosha.
“The only case in which a citizen is allowed to hand over another citizen is if the latter was caught in act of committing a crime or felony; then he should be caught and handed over to the authorities,” said the reformist judge, who warned that if citizens arrested or detained other citizens for crimes that would be penalised with less than a year’s detention, they could be accused of illegal arrest.