Deadly blast sets Egypt on edge ahead of revolt’s anniversary

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

For weeks, Egypt’s military-installed government has claimed that it’s wrested control of an unstable nation from those seeking to destroy it.

It arrested thousands of political dissidents, journalists and opponents who it said threatened the state. Last week, it celebrated that 98.1 percent of Egyptian voters had approved a new constitution. It waged a military campaign against militants in the restive Sinai Peninsula. It all but banned protests and branded its most powerful opponents as terrorists. It promised that it was prepared for any attacks that might coincide with Saturday’s celebration of the third anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The reality, however, told a different story, never more so than on Friday, when four explosions rocked Egypt’s capital, killing six people and wounding at least 100. It was the deadliest series of attacks on government targets in the capital since the uprising. Four other people died in clashes at protests nationwide.

The government’s response to the attacks appeared to be focused primarily on its political opponents. Between the third and fourth bombings, President Adly Mansour released a statement vowing to arrest those responsible. Yet security forces raided the home of a liberal filmmaker, Aalam Wassef, and arrested him for producing satirical videos about the government. He was released around midnight..

In the aftermath of Friday’s attacks, the government said it had arrested 111 people, with the Interior Ministry calling them “Brotherhood elements” who were “trying to provoke riots,” a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned secret organization through which ousted President Mohammed Morsi rose to power.

Even before the bombings, there were signs that the government wasn’t sure of its ability to contain its opponents Saturday, when thousands of supporters and opponents are expected to take to the streets to mark the beginning of the so-called Jan. 25 revolution.

A feeling of angst hung over the capital. Earlier this week, officials closed all traffic through Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, where demonstrators first gathered in 2011. Elsewhere around the country, soldiers and police officers took up positions in a show of force.

Outside police stations, officials erected walls in case protesters tried to storm the facilities and break out prisoners, and some prisoners were moved from jails to prisons in anticipation. On Wednesday, officials suspended Egyptian Railways service to Cairo so that protesters couldn’t overrun the capital; the official reason was technical problems.

The bombings happened despite those efforts, sowing concerns among some Egyptians that in spite of their new military-imposed government, the nation was on the path to persistent instability.

Hundreds took to the streets near the blast sites to show their support for the minister of defense – and Egypt’s de facto leader – Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. They vowed that the attacks wouldn’t deter them from coming back Saturday. But away from the rallies of support, there were quiet murmurs that perhaps the government had orchestrated the bombings and that in any case, the nation was plummeting toward chaos.

The largest of the three explosions was a car bomb, officials said, that detonated in front of the main Cairo police headquarters, killing four people and wounding at least 76, most of them police officers and security personnel who were sleeping in the large, multi-story building. The attackers struck at 6:32 a.m. when officers were changing shifts, creating a security gap. A security camera captured video of a white sedan parked in front of the police station just before the explosion. The video played on a continuous loop on state television.

The second blast, near a police station in the Giza section of Cairo, killed one person. The third, the day’s smallest, detonated near the Harem metro station, near the Pyramids, at 10:23 a.m. The fourth detonated around 5 p.m. at a movie theater near the site of the third, claiming the day’s sixth victim. At least 24 people were wounded in the three smaller explosions.

Were it not that Friday was the start of the weekend here, there probably would have been more victims. The family of each police officer killed will receive 5,000 Egyptian pounds in compensation, about $714; the wounded will receive 2,000 pounds, about $286.

The nation’s divisions were on display at the bombing sites.

Those who support the government’s harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood blamed the group for the blasts.

“Down, down with the Brotherhood!” yelled one man who’d been hoisted on the shoulders of another. Thousands of bystanders, many carrying posters featuring el-Sissi, cheered.

In a 21-minute audio message featured on the website of the newspaper Youm al Sabah immediately after the attacks, Egypt’s most feared Islamist group, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, embraced the attacks but didn’t claim them. The statement said the group was angry about the government and claimed that el-Sissi takes orders from the United States.

“The battle today is between Islam and the international nonbelievers. . . . We are watching every day our brothers being killed. Why? Because they seek to implement God’s Shariah,” the voice on the tape says, referring to Islamic law. “We are calling people to revolt for the sake of God’s Shariah.”

Separately, a statement from the group reportedly urged people to stay home Saturday for their own safety.

While Ansar Beit al Maqdis, like the Muslim Brotherhood, opposed the military’s return to power, the groups aren’t officially affiliated. Through its own online statement, the Brotherhood condemned the attacks, as did the U.S. Embassy and the Arab League.

For those near the sites, it made no difference. The Brotherhood had contributed to divisive streets, the crowds said, and many said the attacks made them more resolute to come out in support of el-Sissi on Saturday. El-Sissi is the front-runner for still-unscheduled presidential elections.

There were worries, however, that the government had failed to provide security.

“The Brotherhood did it, but the government is sleeping. The security forces should have taken better precautions,” Emad Ibrahim, a plastics worker who owns a shop on a nearby side street, said as other shop owners around him cleaned up debris. Of Saturday’s anniversary, he said, “I am expecting chaos.”

The impact of the blast could be seen from hundreds of yards away, where charred glass covered apartment buildings, shops and a number of government buildings.

Perhaps the most devastating damage occurred at the Museum of Islamic Art, across from the police headquarters. Government news publications released photos of destroyed display cases, shattered glass and a gutted building. It was unclear how many artifacts had been damaged.

That an Islamic group could destroy religious artifacts in a quest to go after the government wasn’t lost on some.

“We don’t know who is responsible for this. Every day they tell us someone different. But no one who loves Egypt, who has a heart or mercy would do this,” said Sameer Eran, 51, a furniture shop owner, as he stood over the damage three blocks away from the first bombing. “God only knows what will happen tomorrow.”

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.

Email: nyoussef@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef

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