BY AYA BATRAWY
CAIRO — Egyptian vigilantes beat two men accused of stealing a rickshaw, then stripped them half-naked and hung them from a tree in a bus station in a small Nile Delta town on Sunday, according to security officials who said both men died.
The killings came a week after the attorney general's office encouraged civilians to arrest lawbreakers and hand them over to police.
It was one of the most extreme cases of vigilantism in two years of sharp deterioration in security following Egypt's 2011 uprising. The worsening security coupled with a police strike prompted the attorney general's call for citizen arrests last week.
The state-run newspaper Ahram reported on its website that the two were dragged in the street after being caught "red-handed" trying to steal a rickshaw. It said they were beaten but alive before they were hung.
Photographs from the scene show the two men lying on the ground dead in their underwear, their bodies covered in dirt, bruises, blood and lacerations, with a group of angry looking men gathered around them. One man in the crowd grasped a knife in one fist and another held up a bloodied wooden stick.
Ahram reported that police were delayed from reaching the site of the hangings because residents had cut off the roads to protest a shortage of diesel fuel, one of Egypt's many crises. Earlier in the day, residents of the nearby city of Mahalla had cut off a main train track to protest the fuel shortages.
The scenes in the town of Samanod, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Cairo, were emblematic of the chaos that is sweeping the country, mired in protests over a range of social, economic and political problems and with security breaking down to frightening proportions.
Security officials said those who tried to help free the two men were pushed back by others in a crowd in the small town, which is in the Nile Delta province of Gharabiya.
They said they are preparing for possible blood feuds between residents of Samanod and the nearby village of Mahallahit Ziyad, where the two men were from.
The bodies were taken to the morgue for identification, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Similar attacks have happened elsewhere in Egypt, though vigilante killings are not frequent.
Citizens have grown bolder in taking matters into their own hands following the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. The country's once powerful and feared police force was left weakened after the revolt.
Egypt is embroiled in another wave of political unrest that has also engulfed the nation's police force. Thousands of officers and low-ranking policemen have broken ranks, staging protests and waging strikes against what they say is the politicization of the force by President Mohammed Morsi and his interior minister.
Some of the striking police officers allege that the Brotherhood group is attempting to control them. The Brotherhood denies that.
Opponents of the attorney general's call for citizen arrests fear that it is a prelude to the substitution of police by militias belonging to Morsi's powerful Muslim Brotherhood group and other allied Islamist groups.
On Sunday, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who oversees the country's police, met with officers and low-ranking policemen to hear their demands.
A statement from the ministry said Ibrahim thanked the police for their efforts. Two days earlier, Morsi attended traditional Islamic prayers at a Cairo-based camp for riot police where he praised the force despite public criticism over their violent response to anti-government demonstrations.
Also on Sunday, dozens of journalists protested outside their syndicate in Cairo against what they claim were assaults on their colleagues by members of the Brotherhood.
Diaa Rashwan, the newly elected head of the syndicate who replaced a figure considered by most journalists as pro-Brotherhood, condemned the alleged assault Saturday evening outside the Brotherhood's headquarters where journalists were covering a meeting.
The journalists say that after activists sprayed anti-Brotherhood graffiti on the ground outside the headquarters, the Brotherhood guards attacked with sticks and chains.
The Brotherhood said in a statement that guards outside the building were provoked and insulted by the activists and journalists. Many of the group's offices were attacked across the country in December during violent protests over the drafting of the constitution.
Police fired tear gas and a police vehicle was torched during Saturday night's clashes. Opposition groups blamed the Brotherhood's leadership for allegedly encouraging "militias" loyal to the group to join the fight.
The unrest has hurt Egypt's economy and gutted its foreign currency reserves, which stood at $36 billion before the uprising two years ago. Morsi's government is seeking a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to help boost reserve levels, which now stand at $13.5 billion.
A top IMF official arrived in Egypt on Sunday for a 3-day visit and met ministers over the country's economic reform program.
Economic experts say the IMF deal has been stalled because Morsi's government is phasing in subsidy reforms to apparently delay implementing the unpopular measures ahead of parliamentary elections.
In other developments, the Supreme Administrative Court said a body of judges is reviewing an appeal against suspending parliamentary elections. The voting was slated to begin in April and be held in several stages through June.
Morsi's Islamist supporters and some in the public exhausted by the turmoil hope the elections will be a step toward bringing some stability, accusing the opposition of stirring up unrest to derail the voting.
But the mainly liberal and secular opposition has called for a boycott of the vote, saying Morsi must first find some political consensus and ease the wave of popular anger.