New York Times
January 24, 2014
CAIRO — Three years after the start of its revolt for democracy, the capital was shaken Friday by four deadly bombings, in the clearest sign yet that Egypt is entering a prolonged and violent struggle between the military-backed government and a growing Islamist insurgency.
The bombs, scattered around the city and aimed at the police, killed six people and left in their aftermath a grim realization that a cycle of terrorism and repression is hardening the determination of each side to fight to the death, all but extinguishing the three-year-old dream of an inclusive democracy and open debate.
“The timing is a message that the third anniversary of the revolution will not be a celebration; they want to color it with blood,” said Moataz Abdel-Fattah, a political scientist at the American University of Cairo. “And it will only darken the political waters, with more people calling for a hard-line stance against the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters.”
Within two hours of the first and largest explosion, a car bombing at dawn outside a security headquarters, a crowd of at least 200 had gathered at the police line to cheer for Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who deposed President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last summer and is now poised to succeed him. “The people want the execution of the Brothers,” they chanted, blaming the Brotherhood for the attack in a bloodthirsty imitation of the calls that rang out three years ago calling for “the fall of the regime.”
A government statement evoked the earlier battle against a militant Islamist insurgency that flared here in the 1990s, vowing to “uproot it once again” and “show neither pity nor mercy.”
“Everything is left now to the army and the police, there is no politics in Egypt,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a veteran columnist considered sympathetic to political Islam. “And if you close the door against peaceful solutions, you should expect violence as an alternative.”
No one had claimed responsibility for Friday’s bombings by the end of the night. But the explosions occurred just hours after a young Islamist militant group that has claimed responsibility for many recent attacks, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, warned Egyptian security officers in a video message to “escape with your weapons” because “we will target you as we target your leaders.”
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis often quotes the leaders of Al Qaeda in video messages. Those Qaeda leaders, in turn, drew their inspiration from an ideology forged in Egyptian jails under previous crackdowns on Islamists by Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. If the group is responsible, then a militant strand of Islamist radicalism will have come full circle.
Although commentators on state television and demonstrators at the scene immediately blamed the Brotherhood, the group said in a statement that it “strongly condemns the cowardly bombings in Cairo, expresses condolences to the families of those killed” and “demands swift investigations.” It blamed the “coup authorities” for deteriorating security, including the failure to apprehend the perpetrators of previous bombings.
Security forces around the capital had been on high alert even before the bombings in anticipation of the anniversary on Saturday. The police had already cut off train access from southern Egypt, where support for the Islamists is strong. Each night this week security forces have set up heavily armed checkpoints around the city, although they apparently did little to stop the bombers.
Egyptian television networks broadcast security camera footage of the scene leading up to the first attack: a handful of figures walking slowly away from a white pickup truck just minutes before it explodes.
“It felt like Judgment Day,” said Yahia, 26, who was sleeping at a friend’s home nearby and declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals.
“Yesterday, the whole area was barricaded by the police, and even the residents of the area could not get around,” he said. “If you wanted to take a taxi, they wouldn’t let it stop in front of the security headquarters. How did they get in?”
The blast killed four policemen and injured more than 70 people, the government said in a statement. The explosion left a truck-size crater in the pavement so deep that it burst an underground water pipe.
In addition to severely damaging several stories of the security building, the bomb damaged the facade and contents of the Museum of Islamic Art across the street and an adjacent national library as well.
Supporters of General Sisi began gathering almost immediately, waving Egyptian flags and holding signs depicting a profile of General Sisi in dark sunglasses against the profile of a lion, or, in other posters, of a hawk.
Half a block away, a police officer clutching an Egyptian flag climbed a barricade in front of the damaged security headquarters to address a small crowd and several television cameras. “We are here for you, we will sacrifice our souls for you, we are here for this,” he said, pointing to the flag and choking back tears. “They are martyrs, too,” he said, gesturing at his fellow officers.
Mohamed Ahmed, a banker, said he had come to show his support for the police. “Who else but the Muslim Brotherhood has an interest in this kind of attack?” he asked. “After they were forced out of politics, they just want to destroy the country.”
The interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, arrived at the scene of the first bombing around 9 a.m. in a heavily armed motorcade to inspect the damage. “They don’t want the people to celebrate,” he told reporters, according to state news media, in an apparent reference to the Brotherhood. He called on Egyptians to take to the streets on Saturday to demonstrate in support of the police, and said the attacks would not deter them “in their war against black terrorism.”
Two more attacks unfolded the same morning. In the Dokki neighborhood across the Nile in Giza, three men threw a bag of explosives at a security vehicle, killing a soldier and injuring 11 other security personnel, according to a statement from the public prosecutor. Another pro-Sisi crowd responded with the same chant for the “execution” of the Brotherhood members.
The third blast came from a primitive explosive device thrown at a police station in the Talbeya neighborhood of the Haram district in Giza; no one was hurt.
Then, in the late afternoon, a roadside bomb in the Haram district targeted a group of police vehicles returning from the clashes with Islamists protesting the military takeover. At least one bystander was killed in the explosion.
In addition to the six people killed by the bombs, at least eight more civilian protesters were killed in battles with the police, the Health Ministry said, bringing to 14 the total number who died Friday in violence.
Deadly attacks on soldiers and police officers have become commonplace since the military takeover, especially in the lawless Sinai. But Friday’s attack was at least the second car bombing inside Cairo, where the government and its supporters are strongest. In September, a smaller car bomb was detonated in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the interior minister. In late December, a car bomb at a police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura killed at least 15 people and injured more than 100.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group whose name means “Supporters of Jerusalem,” has claimed responsibility for both the assassination attempt on the interior minister and the Mansoura bombing. In its video messages the group often criticizes the Brotherhood for its nonviolent politics, which failed to stop the military takeover. But the new Egyptian authorities treat Ansar Beit al-Maqdis as an extension of the Brotherhood, and in response they outlawed the Brotherhood.
By late afternoon the streets of Cairo were eerily deserted. Military helicopters buzzed low overhead, and roadside vendors hawked Egyptian flags, hoping to capitalize on a surge in nationalistic feeling.
Many were increasingly fearful about Saturday. General Sisi’s supporters have called for a rally to demand that he seek the presidency. The Brotherhood has called for its own demonstrations against the military takeover. A smaller third contingent, which comprises the April 6 Group and other activists who helped set off the original 2011 revolt, has called for demonstrations in opposition to either a military- or Islamist-led government.
*Marwa Nasser contributed reporting.
**Photo by Mahmoud Khaled courtesy of AFP