News / Middle East

As Egypt Hardliners Gain, Scope of Conflict Grows

A crowd of mourners surge toward a vehicle carrying wrapped bodies during a funeral service for policemen, people killed in a car bomb explosion, in Egypt's Nile Delta city of Mansoura, about 120 km northeast of Cairo, Dec. 24, 2013.
A crowd of mourners surge toward a vehicle carrying wrapped bodies during a funeral service for policemen, people killed in a car bomb explosion, in Egypt's Nile Delta city of Mansoura, about 120 km northeast of Cairo, Dec. 24, 2013.
Reuters
If there was any hope left that the generals who overthrew Egypt's elected president six months ago might ease the state's crackdown on dissent, a suicide bomb that ripped through a police station on Tuesday may have destroyed it.

The most populous Arab country enters the new year with deeper divisions in its society and more bloodshed on its streets than at any point in its modern history. The prospects for democracy appear bleaker with every bomb blast and arrest.

The army-backed government says it will shepherd Egypt back to democracy, and it points out that the state defeated Islamist militants when they last launched waves of attacks in the 1990s. But this time around there are more weapons and harder ideologies, and a bitter example of a failed democratic experiment to toughen positions on all sides.

Like much of the recent violence, the bombing that killed 16 people on Tuesday was bloodier than all but the very worst attacks of the 1990s. The tactic of using suicide bombers to hit security forces is more familiar to Iraq or Syria than to Egypt, which for all its history of militancy is one of the few big Arab states that has never experienced a modern civil war.

The Muslim Brotherhood

  • Egypt's largest and oldest Islamist organization
  • Was banned under Hosni Mubarak
  • The Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012
  • The Brotherhood won the most seats in 2012 parliamentary elections
  • Brotherhood supporters have staged massive protests since Morsi's ouster
  • Egypt outlawed the group again in September 2013
  • Egypt's military-installed government declared it a terrorist organization in December 2013
The blast was claimed by a Sinai Peninsula-based Islamist militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has stepped up attacks on government targets in recent months and narrowly failed to assassinate the interior minister in September.

The blast set off mob attacks on the shops, homes and vehicles of people believed to be supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

“After the funerals of the martyrs, angry people smashed my pharmacy and my brother's shop,” said Mohamed Heikal, a Brotherhood activist in the city of Mansoura, scene of Tuesday's bombing. “We had nothing to do with what happened,” he said, condemning the bombing as a terrorist attack.

With much of the public feverishly backing the government's calls to uproot the Brotherhood, talk of political accommodation is non-existent. Analysts see little or no chances of a political deal to stabilize a nation in turmoil since Hosni Mubarak's downfall in 2011.

Signs of escalation abound. Morsi and other top Brotherhood leaders have been ordered to stand trial on charges that could lead to their execution. They are charged with conspiring with foreigners to carry out a terrorist plot against Egypt.

The government of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi on Wednesday formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, accusing it of carrying out the attack.

Meanwhile, the frequency of attacks suggests militants are taking center stage within the Islamist movement, further diminishing hopes of the state reaching an accommodation with moderates and strengthening the hawks in government.

One consequence could be to increase the chances of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi becoming Egypt's next president.

The army chief who deposed Morsi after mass protests against Brotherhood rule has yet to decide whether to run, an army source said. Though Sisi would almost certainly win were he to run, the source said he is hesitant partly due to the mountain of problems awaiting Egypt's next head of state.

But analysts say the increase in violence makes it less likely Sisi and those around him would trust anyone else with the reins of power.

“The more dire the situation becomes, the less a second tier civilian candidate will be seen able to take charge of the situation,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think-tank. “This type of deterioration will increase pressure on Sisi to run.”

Most soldiers killed since 1973 war

Crowds that gathered outside the compound hit in Tuesday's attack to show support for the security forces brandished Sisi's portrait.

Egypt has experienced violence for decades including the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an Islamist gunman in 1981, and attacks on tourist sites in the 1990s that hurt the economy. But civil bloodshed has now reached an unprecedented level.

A conservative estimate puts the overall death toll since Morsi's fall at well over 1,500. Most of those killed were Morsi supporters, including hundreds gunned down when the security forces cleared a protest vigil outside a Cairo mosque.

At least 350 members of the security forces have also been killed in bombings and shootings since Morsi's downfall. The state has declared them martyrs of a war on terror.

The army has suffered its greatest casualties since the 1973 Middle East war, most of them in the Sinai Peninsula, where the most heavily armed Islamists are based.

The blood spilt since Morsi's downfall has evoked comparisons with Algeria - a country pitched into a decade of civil war in 1991 when its army aborted an experiment with democracy because Islamists looked set to win power.

Some dismiss that comparison, arguing the past failures of militants in Egypt should dissuade Islamists from following that path.

But as the attacks spread beyond the Sinai Peninsula, the risks are compounded by the large quantities of weapons smuggled in from neighboring Libya since the downfall of Moammer Gadhafi in 2011, in a war that saw his arsenals looted by rebels.

“This particular incident shows that the group operating in Mansoura is very organized, well equipped and capable,” said Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayid, a professor of political science at Cairo University, referring to the Nile Valley town where Tuesday's attack took place.

“This points to the difficulty of any kind of compromise between the government and Islamist groups,” he said.

Freedoms in danger

The Brotherhood, most of whose leadership are in jail, continues to reiterate its mantra of peaceful resistance and denies turning to violence.

It is pressing a campaign of protests on university campuses where its followers routinely clash with the police.

But as that strategy fails to make much of an impact, there is a risk of radical logic winning over its supporters, posing a threat to the Brotherhood itself.

Analysts believe the security establishment now has a firm grip over the course of government, reasserting political influence that diminished after the 2011 uprising. Activists say the freedoms won in that uprising are in danger.

The state has widened a crackdown on dissent, on Dec. 22 jailing three leading secular activists to three years in prison for breaking a law that severely curbs the right to protest - a major blow against those behind the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution.

“What we see now is a security apparatus that really seems to be out of control, going after individuals and groups it has grudges against,” said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “You do sometimes hear murmurs that people in the leadership worry that an overly harsh set of actions will make the political divisions in Egypt worse, and there has to be some kind of lessening of the security crackdown. This bombing puts off that date.”

Khaled Dawoud, a liberal politician, said the wave of Islamist attacks will make calls for reconciliation even less popular. He has continued to call for a political accommodation even after being stabbed by Morsi supporters in October.

“In any country where terrorism takes place, public freedoms and hopes for democracy suffer a retreat. That is the law of gravity,” he said.

You May Like

Video Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

Al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs