Egyptian soldiers Cairo
© Ahmed Khaled/EPAEgyptian soldiers with armoured vehicles patrol near the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but they are mostly absent away from the main roads.
As police disappear from residential streets, communities take law into their own hands against armed gangs

The security of most neighbourhoods in Egypt lay in the hands of its citizens last night, as residents responded to the disappearance of the police force by setting up makeshift barricades and beginning local patrols to protect themselves from violence.

In extraordinary scenes repeated across the country, communities formed spontaneous militias armed with sticks, knives and guns, and worked through the night to man roadblocks and maintain order on the streets, from which the government security forces are now almost entirely absent. The army remains in place on major highways, squares and public buildings - but away from main roads local residents were left to defend their families and property from looters.

As reports filtered in of gangs attempting to rob and terrorise neighbourhoods in different quarters of the capital, some pointed the finger at escaped prisoners and opportunistic criminals, though many more claimed that groups of policemen, now wearing civilian clothing, were behind the attacks. There were claims that some of those captured by vigilantes were found with police IDs.

In the Marouf neighbourhood of downtown Cairo, the Guardian witnessed residents distributing metal rods and kitchen blades among local young men, who used car tyres, traffic barriers and debris from the day's street battles to block access to roads and check the identity of anyone attempting to enter the area.

"We are looking to see whether we recognise the person, and if not we ask them questions to test their knowledge of the area," said Mahmoud Omar, a 35-year-old film-maker who was using his camera tripod as a weapon. "Everybody is very tense, because it's dark, it's cold, and it's very disorientating out here - we are very wary of any approaching cars or motorbikes. Earlier some thugs on a motorbike attacked a lone soldier and stole his weapon; luckily we apprehended them and tied them to a lamp-post, and then helped the soldier back to his tank."

In the early hours shots rang out from surrounding streets, and armed groups were seen chasing targets down alleyways. "Tonight we are disorganised because we are not experts in urban security, we're learning as we go," said Omar. "Tomorrow will be different, we'll have signalling and identification systems set up, and work out a better distribution of weapons."

The Guardian collated reports from eyewitnesses across the capital to build a picture of how Saturday night unfolded. In the eastern suburb of Heliopolis one residential building came under attack from armed men who demanded that every apartment turn its lights on and throw down money to the street; the attackers were repelled by residents who threw stones and threw boiling water from their balconies.

Across the Nile in the middle-class neighbourhood of Dokki, residents were strengthening their defences in anticipation of another night of violence on the streets. "I've picked up a pistol and a shotgun, and we've also got walkie-talkies so that we can keep contact with the other patrols and work together more effectively," said Nabil Habib, a 26-year-old software engineer.

"It's a strange feeling defending your own community, fear mixed with intense pride," he added. "People are coming together in a way they never have previously. It's really liberating - before we lived in fear of the police and never had the chance to take responsibility for our own communities, but now we are in control. You see the same sentiment among all the volunteers who are going around picking up trash and debris from the streets. It's a continuation of the revolution, bringing it out of the main squares and into our homes."

But not everyone shared his optimism. "It's a deliberate ploy from the government to try and suck the energy out of this uprising," said Karim Ennarah, a 27-year-old protester. "We are now seeing army officers, state television and state radio all saying the same thing: do your patriotic duty, go home and defend your families. They're appealing to our nationalist sentiments, calling on 'true Egyptians' to leave the streets, broadcasting phone calls from crying housewives who declare 'I'm scared, it's all gone too far'. We must resist the rumour-mongering and see this through until Mubarak falls."

By morning many of the street barricades were removed, though vigilante groups continued to patrol local neighbourhoods. In Sayeda Zeinab, a residential area just south of the interior ministry in Cairo, the Guardian watched a suspected robber and two female accomplices being apprehended by armed locals, who dragged them to the neighbourhood's burnt-out police station. There furious discussions among the crowd ensued, before the women were eventually released. The alleged robber was bound with rope and marched away, to be delivered to the nearest army checkpoint.

Outside Cairo, similar scenes were repeated across the country. Speaking by telephone from the town of Sheikh Zoueid in northern Sinai, Khalil Sawarka, a local Bedouin leader, said that the region's tribes were now in full control of security in most of the peninsula, which has seen major clashes between Bedouins and government security forces for many years. "We have distributed weapons and are maintaining order. But we are worried about the food situation; no supplies are reaching us and we fear that our people may start to go hungry if the situation doesn't ease in the next few days."