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A series of bomb attacks points to growing violence against the state following a bloody coup.
CAIRO, Egypt — In a cramped Cairo hospital waiting room on Sep. 5, an army lieutenant colonel held a battered copy of a list of names of policemen injured in an assassination attempt against Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim that morning.
The army officer was stationed inside the hospital grounds with dozens of his troops, as part of a large security deployment in the area.
“You want proof that the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists?” the officer, who gave his name as Alaa, said, brandishing the list. “Well here it is.”
The explosion outside Ibrahim’s home in the middle of the afternoon last week killed one person and left 21 injured.
There is no evidence the Muslim Brotherhood — whose president was ousted and leaders arrested by Ibrahim’s forces — is responsible for the blast. But the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes claimed responsibility for the attack, fueling fears that a repressive security crackdown on the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies has pushed some groups to revive an insurgency that mimics the violence of the 1990s here.
Then, Islamist militants carried out violent attacks across the country, typically targeting state institutions, or local Christians, or foreign tourists. In one of the most notorious incidents, militants from the hardline Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) killed 62 tourists at a temple in the southern city of Luxor.
Today, army officials said two suicide car bombs killed at least six conscripts at the military intelligence headquarters in the North Sinai town of Rafah, bordering the Gaza Strip.
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“If the same trend starts again, as appears to be happening, I fear it will be considerably worse,” said Issandr El Amrani, North Africa project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, a think tank. “The events of the past few months were bound to create a sentiment among the wider Islamist community that the injustice they are experiencing should be fought.”
After Egypt’s military forcibly removed Brotherhood leader and elected President Mohamed Morsi from office on July 3, the army-backed government launched a violent campaign to quash the Islamist opposition, many of whom were camped out at large sit-ins in the capital.
In a series of confrontations between pro-Morsi protesters and police and army in July and August, security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators.
On Aug. 14, police backed by military troops launched a deadly operation to disperse the two sit-ins in Cairo. By the end of the day, at least 600 had been killed and thousands injured in what New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch called the worst mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s modern history.
Since then, security forces have arrested thousands in a widespread clampdown on the leadership and supporters of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
The military coup and ensuing violence gave way to increased militant activity in the already restive North Sinai, where Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes operates and that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.
On Aug. 18, militants executed 25 off-duty policemen on a roadside after forcing two buses carrying conscripts to stop. Gruesome photographs showed the corpses face down on the ground, following what appeared to be execution-style killings.
Outside of Sinai, assailants have sporadically attacked churches and police stations. In addition to last week’s car bomb — what analysts say is a serious escalation — security forces defused Saturday munitions planted on a railway line between two Suez Canal cities.
It seems the attacks are not yet coordinated, despite attempts by Egypt’s state-run media to lay blame on the Brotherhood.
“This means war,” said Samer, a young officer also at the hospital with Alaa on Sep. 5. “The Muslim Brotherhood want to destroy Egypt and now we will destroy them.”
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Islamists returned to political life after Egypt's 2011 revolution. Many joined the Muslim Brotherhood or more conservative Salafi political parties.
Members of Gama'a al-Islamiya, an organization on the US State Department's terrorism watch list, also formed a political party to contest elections. But others returned to militant activities, bolstering the ranks of fledgling jihadist groups in Sinai.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London, says the recent incidents are likely the work of “small, localized cells of opportunistic armed men with a grudge against the system.”
"This violence, not involving distinct organized groups, would be qualitatively different to the violence Egypt experienced in the 1980s and 1990s," he said. "Although an evolution towards such a situation in areas of today's mainland Egypt is not implausible."
But even if they are localized and dispersed, El Amrani they are more likely to be linked to jihadist movements elsewhere.
“We've seen the accumulation of a great deal of expertise in Iraq, Syria and various other places,” he said. “They have much better knowledge of improvised explosive devices, suicide bombings, and drop bombings. These weren’t really part of the picture during the 80s and 90s.”
In addition, Sinai is geographically isolated from the rest of Egypt, Lister says.
But if Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes is indeed responsible for the Cairo assassination attempt, it is likely the Sinai-based violence will seep into other regions.
“It is possible that connections exist, or are being made, between Sinai-based militants and aspiring militant cells in places near Suez — and then feasibly down the Nile towards towns like Beni Suef and Assiut,” he said.
For now, the insurgency isn’t full-blown. “But only time will tell if it manages to develop to a sufficient and sustainable level,” Lister said.