How to Crush Low-Hanging Fruit

Beset by terrorism, Egypt's military government is blaming everything on the Muslim Brotherhood.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — The Egyptian government, after designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization last week, is now extending its crackdown to an ever-widening list of enemies. But even as the generals in Cairo prepare for a series of crucial elections, persistent terrorist attacks continue to undermine their attempts to restore a sense of normality to the country.

On Sunday, Egyptian police raided a suite in the Marriott hotel in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek neighborhood, arresting four journalists from the Al Jazeera English satellite channel. The hotel has been a studio of sorts since July, when the army raided the offices of Al Jazeera’s sister Arabic-language channel. Correspondent Peter Greste, Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, cameraman Mohamed Fawzy, and producer Baher Mohamed were all thrown in jail, joining two other Al Jazeera journalists who have been jailed since the summer.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry accused the four of "threatening national security" by "broadcasting false news." Badr Abdel Atty, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said they also were found with "literature" about the student protests that have roiled Egypt for weeks. Security officials have made even stronger claims to local media, accusing the team of setting up a Muslim Brotherhood cell at the hotel, and said that they would be brought to trial "within hours."

The arrests are the latest move against the Brotherhood and its alleged supporters, after militants carried out the deadliest bombing on the Egyptian mainland in nearly three years. At least 15 people were killed and over 100 more were injured on Dec. 24, when a car bomb ripped through a police station in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura.

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a North Sinai-based militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack. In the days that followed, however, the Egyptian government moved against a far broader array of opponents, targeting everything from the foreign press corps to the national food bank.

If the crackdown seems incongruous, analysts say, it is because the government is anxious to calm an increasingly angry and frightened public. The army, after all, justified its overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July by saying it was necessary to save Egypt from a "dark tunnel of civil unrest." The low-level insurgency that has taken root in the past six months can be viewed as a direct rebuke to the current government’s claim to be a force for stability.

"Suddenly now the violence is continuing, and increasing, and the government is under pressure from the people to do something serious about it," said Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired major general and security analyst. "The Muslim Brotherhood is here. We can understand that, we can deal with it. [Ansar Bait al-Maqdis], they’re coming from outside."

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis has evolved into a persistent and deadly enemy to the Egyptian government. It has carried out most of the high-profile attacks in Egypt since Morsi’s ouster, and recently has spread beyond its traditional base in the Sinai Peninsula: Last month, it assassinated a high-ranking state security officer in Cairo’s Nasr City district; two months earlier, it tried to kill the interior minister himself in the same neighborhood. The group has also bombed security installations in South Sinai and Ismailia, and is a possible suspect in Sunday’s car bombing at the military intelligence building in the Nile Delta city of Sharqiya.

"There’s definitely been an increase in sophistication," said David Barnett, a researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who tracks the group. "There’s been a spread towards the Delta and Cairo. Rather than numerous attacks, they’re going for bigger and bolder ones."

But even as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’s attacks grow in sophistication, most Egyptians remain unfamiliar with the group. Polls are sometimes unreliable in Egypt, but a survey conducted last week by the Baseera polling center found that 46 percent of Egyptians said they were unsure who bombed the Mansoura police station, and 35 percent blamed the Brotherhood. Just 6 percent said Ansar Bait al-Maqdis was responsible.

Both the Egyptian press and the government have contributed to Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’s low profile by largely disregarding its role in favor of a bigger and more convenient bad guy. "The people demand the execution of the Brotherhood," screamed the front-page headline on Youm al-Sabaa, a tabloid newspaper, the morning after the Mansoura attack.

The interim government also blamed the Mansoura bombing on the Brotherhood, not the group that actually claimed credit for the attack. "Egypt has suffered a heinous crime committed by the Muslim Brotherhood," said Deputy Prime Minister Hossam Eissa.

The cabinet declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in the wake of the attack, even though Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi would later admit he had "no clear evidence" linking the group to the bombing.

Instead, the prime minister offered an analogy: "When there is a family involved in a feud, and one of its members are killed, it is natural that the other family is the one that killed him," he said on Sunday night in an interview with the MBC satellite channel.

Evidence or not, the cabinet used the decision to freeze the assets of hundreds of charities linked to the Brotherhood, including hospitals and the food bank. (After public outcry, it eventually exempted some of those charities from the decision.)

"The government is really focused on trying to decapitate the Brotherhood," said Barnett. "They don’t care if Ansar Bait al-Maqdis take credit when just 6 percent of people believe they’re responsible… For the government, it makes sense to come out and say it’s the Brotherhood."

The crackdown has grown into the widest-ranging effort to eliminate the Brotherhood from Egyptian public life in generations. Private television channels urged their viewers to call an Interior Ministry hotline and report suspected Brothers. In a few cases, citizens went further: Local newspapers reported on Saturday that a man shot his neighbor in a village north of Cairo for making the four-fingered sign symbolic of support for the Brotherhood. Hundreds of people were arrested at pro-Morsi protests over the weekend, and could face five years in prison if convicted of belonging to the Brotherhood.

All these arrests, however, have done nothing to stop the simmering insurgency that continues to destabilize the country. On Dec. 26, a small homemade bomb exploded near a bus in Cairo, injuring five people; officers said they defused two other devices set to detonate by remote control. It was one of countless small attacks over the past six months.

Nobody has claimed responsibility, but many bystanders rushed to blame the Brotherhood. "They want terror and chaos 24 hours a day," said Amr Shobaki, a local resident. "Where is the government? What are they doing?"

Over the weekend there were two more attempted bombings, according to the Interior Ministry — one on a bus in Cairo, the other at a university in the northern city of Alexandria.

Both bombs were defused, but they
added to the feeling of public unease just two weeks before a constitutional referendum scheduled for Jan. 14 and 15. The government is hoping for a sizable turnout: It will be hard for the government to call the charter legitimate unless it outpolls last year’s referendum on the constitution written during Morsi’s presidency, which garnered 64 percent of the roughly 17 million votes cast.

But if the government cannot bring an end to the steady drumbeat of terrorist attacks, it risks losing the support of the very Egyptians on whom it is counting to endorse its rule.

"Under Mubarak’s rule, they kept the country calm. Now who is in charge?" asked Mostafa Hassan, standing a few yards away from the bombed-out bus on Thursday. "This government can’t secure transport, can’t secure the universities, it can’t secure a referendum."

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