ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — At the first protest, on Jan. 25, Majd Mardini noticed that an ambulance could not get through the crowd of demonstrators. Outgoing, voluble and anything but shy, he began asking people to step aside, parting the crowd so the ambulance could get through.
From this small gesture, Mr. Mardini, 37, and several other men who stepped in to help discussed the fact that citizens would have to work together if the protests against the Egyptian government were going to proceed without tearing their city apart.
Out of these humble beginnings, the Popular Committee for the Protection of Properties and Organization of Traffic was born. “What we tried to do first was protect the electricity, water, gas — even the state-owned ones,” Mr. Mardini said, his voice a hoarse whisper after starting on the street at 8 in the morning on Sunday and finishing at 6:30 a.m. Monday, with a two-hour nap before hitting the road again. His stubble is gaining on his soul patch, and if he does not shave soon he will have a full beard.
Compared with the chaos in Cairo, Alexandria has seemed relatively orderly, though only relatively. In some neighborhoods the only building that has been destroyed is the police station, though there has been looting in others. The streets are filled with volunteers.
“We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police,” said Khalid Toufik, 40, a dentist. He said that he also took shifts in his neighborhood watch, along with students and workers. “It doesn’t matter if one is a Muslim or a Christian,” he said, “we all have the same goal.”
“I am glad, that they are all on the streets to protect us from robbers,” said Hannan Selbi, 21, a student. “We are sure that it’s in the interest of the government to create chaos.”
Soon after Mr. Mardini’s first tentative steps, committee members were recognizable by the simple white armbands they wore, often just strips of fabric. They created logos and distributed fliers asking for more help from the public. Some wear photocopied pieces of paper on their chests like marathon runners’ numbers. Mr. Mardini wore a badge that read simply People’s Committee in red Arabic. But the way people walked up to him and began talking, it appeared he needed no introduction.
The civic enterprise is now divided into four branches: traffic, cleanup, protection and emergency response.
Though others refer to him as the head of the committee, Mr. Mardini said: “We don’t have a leader. This is our country, and we all have to protect it.”
Mr. Mardini, of Syrian and Egyptian descent, has lived in Alexandria for 15 years. He studied in Britain and may have unwittingly prepared himself for his current work when he was employed at the Dubai airport in passenger services. His English is quite good, but he kept forgetting the word “demonstration.” “I never actually had to use the word ‘demonstration,’ ” he said, describing himself as apolitical until he became fed up with the police and corruption and joined the protests. (...)
In his neighborhood, Sidi Bishr, volunteers had caught and turned over 20 accused criminals to the military as they searched vehicles and checked registration papers against identity cards. The young men at the checkpoints look scary holding knives and heavy pipes but are polite, and despite being volunteers, professional.
Mr. Mardini said he was doing it for free elections. Asked what kind of government he wanted, he said he did not care, even if he disagreed with it, as long as it represented the people’s will.