Violence reshapes Egypt’s politics

As part of a series of attacks on police and security personnel, a bomb targeting the convoy of General Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of interior, exploded on Thursday leading to at least one death and the injury of over 20 people. The bombing comes at a critical time as negotiations between the interim government ...

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

As part of a series of attacks on police and security personnel, a bomb targeting the convoy of General Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of interior, exploded on Thursday leading to at least one death and the injury of over 20 people. The bombing comes at a critical time as negotiations between the interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood falters, making the future of political reconciliation all the more uncertain. The attack has serious repercussions on police reform efforts in light of the increasing securitization of the political crisis.

The bombing took place in Cairo's eastern suburb of Nasr City, a few miles away from the famous Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque where thousands of ousted President Mohamed Morsi supporters camped for weeks. While Ibrahim escaped harm, several of his guards and civilians who happened to be in the area were severely wounded as a result of the massive explosion. Early reports suspect that a car implanted with a heavy dose of TNT and parked near the minister's residence was the cause, raising fears of the introduction of roadside explosions into the country. 

The attack makes efforts toward political reconciliation harder given the already existing anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments and allegations of its support of terrorism and violence. While the public awaits results of the official investigations, opponents and supporters of the Brotherhood are blaming the other side for the attack. The Brotherhood's opponents have accused it of at least blessing -- it not authorizing -- the violence, whereas the Freedom and Justice Party's electronic portal accused the ministry of interior of orchestrating the whole episode to justify further incarceration of Islamists. The incident complicates the already stumbling talks between the government and the Brotherhood, as two months of negotiations have not led to significant change in the position on the ground.

As part of a series of attacks on police and security personnel, a bomb targeting the convoy of General Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian minister of interior, exploded on Thursday leading to at least one death and the injury of over 20 people. The bombing comes at a critical time as negotiations between the interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood falters, making the future of political reconciliation all the more uncertain. The attack has serious repercussions on police reform efforts in light of the increasing securitization of the political crisis.

The bombing took place in Cairo’s eastern suburb of Nasr City, a few miles away from the famous Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque where thousands of ousted President Mohamed Morsi supporters camped for weeks. While Ibrahim escaped harm, several of his guards and civilians who happened to be in the area were severely wounded as a result of the massive explosion. Early reports suspect that a car implanted with a heavy dose of TNT and parked near the minister’s residence was the cause, raising fears of the introduction of roadside explosions into the country. 

The attack makes efforts toward political reconciliation harder given the already existing anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments and allegations of its support of terrorism and violence. While the public awaits results of the official investigations, opponents and supporters of the Brotherhood are blaming the other side for the attack. The Brotherhood’s opponents have accused it of at least blessing — it not authorizing — the violence, whereas the Freedom and Justice Party’s electronic portal accused the ministry of interior of orchestrating the whole episode to justify further incarceration of Islamists. The incident complicates the already stumbling talks between the government and the Brotherhood, as two months of negotiations have not led to significant change in the position on the ground.

No doubt the Brotherhood has suffered a major blow through the imprisonment of many of its leaders and freezing of their assets, but its biggest loss has been its declining popularity in society. Notwithstanding its poor governance record, the group’s adoption of violent rhetoric in the weeks prior to and during the pro-Morsi sit-ins impacted negatively its ability to garner support from outside the circle of members and close allies. Inviting militant Islamists such as Assem Abd al-Maged and Tarek al-Zomour (both are from Gamaa Islamiya, were indicted in the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat, and were imprisoned for over 30 years) to lead rallies and make public statements in support of Morsi, raised serious questions about the relationship between the Brotherhood and jihadist groups. Further announcements by prominent Brotherhood leaders that conditioned ending attacks in Sinai on the release of Morsi implicated the group in allegations of anti-state violence. The statements managed to do significant damage to four decades of political activism that aimed to project the group as a mainstream peaceful movement.

The attack on Ibrahim registers a geographic turn in the ongoing confrontation between the state’s security sector and militants. In the aftermath of the June 30 demonstrations and the military’s intervention to oust Morsi, police stations and military personnel came under attack, but most of the violence has been concentrated in Sinai and rural areas. Thursday’s bombing engages the urban residential neighborhoods of the capital, brings back memories of the state’s war with Islamist militants of the 1990s, and makes difficult any effort to reform the security sector.

The resurgence of another wave of anti-state violence risks the securitization of politics especially in light of the increasing ultra-nationalist fervor in Egypt. Calls for the exhaustion of political solutions before resorting to security measures are in the minority while those calling for bringing back Hosni Mubarak’s coercive machine are increasing. On Saturday, a smearing campaign against activists and journalists criticizing the state’s use of force unfolded. Several Egyptian media outlets published news that the general attorney is investigating allegations of activists’ acceptance of funds from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The investigation is based on the recirculation of an old and incorrect translation of a Wikileaks document. In a swift response, activists took legal measures on Sunday to investigate those behind the recirculation of the corrupt document. If past experiences are any indication, the media-legal battle is expected to produce a stronger backlash against the security sector than silence dissenting voices.

Reducing discussions of the political crisis to a security lens may produce short-term solutions and exacerbate current challenges on the long term. Through the 1990s tourists, intellectuals, state officials, and Copts suffered the violence of militant Islamists. In its effort to contain armed non-state actors and monopolize the use of legitimate violence, the regime boosted the institutional and material capacity of the ministry of interior. However, Mubarak’s fight with terrorism had a spill-over effect that left deep marks on the professional preparedness of the ministry. As authorities prioritized anti-terrorism training over civilian community policing, levels of police impunity increased and attention to improving security practices dwindled. Ultimately, mounting grievances with ministry of interior practices galvanized non-politicized youth against the Mubarak regime and led to its eventual fall in 2011.

Managing security sector reform is a big hurdle for both the military and the current government yet should be part of any serious effort to reclaim state power. Police reform is crucial now precisely because any serious confrontation with armed groups requires a close alliance between the authorities and society to prevent the formation of a support structure for militants. Alienating average citizens by using force excessively or tolerating unchecked behavior by security personnel produces a fertile soil for anti-state sentiments, thereby providing a good starting point for both public dissent and terrorism.

The current delicate situation warrants innovative means to provide better policing without compromising state security. It necessitates facing the indiscriminate violence of militants with discriminate and calculated legitimate coercion. This also requires that the ministry of interior manage the spill-over effects of fighting terrorism by offering better training for officers overseeing civilian policing missions. A relapse to previous unchecked security practices threatens recharging public anger against any government.

Dina Rashed is a Ph.D. candidate at the political science department at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on authoritarian regimes, armed actors, and civil-military relations.

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