Over the weekend, chaos came to Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak called in the army to keep peace in the city. Police forces abruptly disappeared from their posts, allowing widespread looting, prison breaks and lawlessness.

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Over the weekend, chaos came to Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak called in the army to keep peace in the city. Police forces abruptly disappeared from their posts, allowing widespread looting, prison breaks and lawlessness.

I witnessed as much out my window. Moments after the curfew came into effect on Saturday afternoon, a convoy of six or seven police trucks pulled up to the abandoned corner of the Khamarat street coffee house. The black-clad officers jumped out and fled down the block with no weapons, shedding the jackets of their uniforms as they ran.

Then another group of security forces dressed in black, but with different uniforms than the police, appeared from around the corner and began to open fire at the rooftops.

“Hosh Gowa!” they shouted. —”Get inside!”

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A woman and her daughter were pleading from the balcony to the security forces that their father was still in the street and didn’t know about the curfew. A plainclothes officer walked over and listened to them for a moment. It was difficult to hear, but from my balcony it looked as though he wanted to help them. But suddenly he turned his back and walked away without a word as a uniformed police officer, his junior, sprinted forward, aimed his rifle at the family and began shooting.

The mother and daughter ran inside screaming. The soldier turned and opened fire at the surrounding rooftops. My fiancée and I leaped inside and fell to the ground, crawling away from the windows. We heard glass shattering, then a chorus of gunshots lasting nearly a minute. A long silence followed but we stayed cowering in the living room.

That night reports came in from around the city from terrified residents who had banded together to protect their neighborhoods, but were defenseless against gangs of armed men on motorcycles. A number of the callers who phoned in to Nile TV said they thought the armed gangs were police who had shed their uniforms.

The calls came mainly from women in upper-class neighborhoods around the city. Their husbands were in the streets with broomsticks. The women spoke in desperation about the urgency of their situation. None of the emergency phone numbers the TV had been broadcasting were working. Flames engulfed the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in Tahrir Square, one woman said, but there were no fire engines.

“Where is the army?” people exclaimed. The most horrific description was of Ahmed Orabi street in Mohandessin where residents had joined together to defend their homes with ad hoc weapons: sticks and knives. They faced a small band of reckless hoodlums who had looted weapons from a police station, stolen a police car and an ambulance and were racing down the long street firing randomly at residents.

My cell phone began to work for the first time in nearly 48 hours. I called my German friend Andres who lives near Sayida Zainab, where a police station had been lit on fire the night before. Andres had ventured into the streets in search of food, he told me, and he found small gangs of young men fleeing down the street with their arms full of looted goods. The liquor store by his house had been looted.

Stories of looting dominated state television. The broadcasters relayed announcements from the army that citizens should take measures to protect themselves. The street was empty. The police were gone.

As night fell, the men of Khamarat Street emerged from their homes carrying sticks, branches and knives, and congregated at the once brightly-lit intersection that was now illuminated by a single streetlight.

One young man carried a metal rod. Another one carried a broken two-by-four. A local street-fighter who I had seen brawl with another kid weeks before the demonstrations appeared with his broken hand, a knife tucked into his waistband, and began trying to organize the amassing crowd.

Our upstairs neighbor Mahmood and his son, Ahmed, walked towards the group. I broke the head from our broomstick, tested its weight and went downstairs. No one knew yet that the police had been already been dismissed. The police forces were still visible from Khamarat, concentrated against the foot of the Interior Ministry building at Lazoghly.

Mahmood, a retired military captain, had moved to the center of the crowd and began telling the group that they should form smaller units of 2 or 3 and spread out to secure the perimeter of the neighborhood. I withdrew to the coffee house. The waiters, Abdel-Gowab and Ahmed, who usually slept inside the cafe, stood leaning against the tree. They were excited to see me.

“Nice club.” Ahmed exclaimed. Some of the other locals who I knew only by face came to greet me.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in the entire history of Egypt,” exclaimed the normally reserved Ahmed.

Abdel-Gowab asked me if freedom was like this in America. Ahmed thought that was a stupid question and smacked him lightly. America is not like Egypt, Ahmed said. But Abdel-Gowab wanted to know if the freedom of America was better than the system in Egypt.”It’s pretty good,” I told him. “I like it.”¨

Mahmood came to greet me enthusiastically.

“I’m the only one without a club,” he said. “Even the Russian has a club.” (My nickname because they think I look Russian).

Men like Mahmood with a certain degree of local clout, many of whom had merely watched events unfold on the television, were now thrust into a position of leadership to restore order in their city. The youth of Khamarat deferred to older men like him.

For the first time I felt a sense of relief. I leaned against the tree with Ahmed; we laughed at Abdel-Gowab’s broken stick and surveyed the intersection. Groups of friends sparred with one another casually. It didn’t seem likely that a looter would be able to break this informal circle of community authority. It suddenly occurred to me that there was no enemy in this struggle. The people of Khamarat were directing their own destiny.

“Each neighborhood for itself,” Mahmood’s son said. “This neighborhood has a pretty good chance,” I said to him, using English for the first time. He agreed.

Around 10:30 p.m. a surge of energy exploded. Two kids from Ahmed’s crew had captured a looter. He was thrust into the center of the circle. An older man grabbed him and shook him, then unleashed a series of blows to the perpetrator’s arms and back. Others interceded and the man was finally drug to the end of the block and turned over to a remaining group of police officers holding their position around Lazoghly.

I wondered aloud what would happen when the military tanks returned and found the streets full of young men wielding clubs.”Nothing,” Mahmood’s son said. “Because the army is with the people.”

I had heard this same thing all day long. Sure enough, sometime after midnight the tanks rolled through and were greeted with cheering and applause. The soldiers rode past and left the men to defend themselves.