Four blasts in Cairo kill six before Arab Spring anniversary

Bombings appear to support view that Morsi removal would set off militant Islamist insurgency

A man walks over rubble inside the Islamic Art Museum after a bomb attack in downtown Cairo today. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

A man walks over rubble inside the Islamic Art Museum after a bomb attack in downtown Cairo today. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Fri, Jan 24, 2014, 20:59

Four separate bombings rocked the Egyptian capital today on the eve of the third anniversary of the Arab Spring revolt, killing at least six people, injuring more than 70 and evoking comparisons to Baghdad in a city that for decades has been among the most stable in the Arab world.

The bombings, all targeting the police, were devastating evidence that neither of what the current military-backed government calls Egypt’s “two revolutions” - one ending the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the other the one year in office of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 - has delivered on their promises of either democracy or stability.

Instead, the bombings appeared to mark the fruition of fears that the military ouster of Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, would set off a militant Islamist insurgency against the government installed by Gen Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Although Mubarak was faced with an Islamist insurgency more than a decade ago, the insurgents never struck a blow as unnerving as the four bombs detonated on a single day in the capital when security was already high because of tomorrow’s anniversary.

No one claimed responsibility for the bombings. Some cynical neighbours near the scene of the first bombing suggested it might have been staged by the government itself, to build support for a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. But the bombings occurred just hours after a young Islamist militant group that has claimed responsibility for many recent attacks, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, warned Egyptian security officers in a video message to “escape with your weapons” because “we will target you as we target your leaders”.

If the group is responsible, then a militant strand of Islamist radicalism will have come full circle. Where ideas forged in Egyptian jails under previous crackdowns on Islamist movements became the ideology of al-Qaeda, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis now quotes al-Qaeda leaders in video messages attacking the non-violent politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s new military leaders alike.

By late afternoon the streets of Cairo were eerily deserted as residents stayed inside, seeking safety. Military helicopters buzzed low overhead. Roadside vendors sold Egyptian flags, hoping to capitalise on a surge in nationalistic feeling in reaction to the threats.

The bombs appeared to trigger spontaneous outpourings of support for Gen el-Sissi, who led the ouster of Morsi last summer. Gen el-Sissi is now poised to run unopposed in an election to succeed him, campaigning as the strong leader Egypt needs to battle what he calls the Brotherhood’s “terrorism”.

Less than three hours after the first and largest blast, around dawn outside a security headquarters in the historic district known as Islamic Cairo, the scene outside the police barricades had turned into an impromptu political rally. A crowd of more than 200 people was demonstrating in support of Gen el-Sissi and against the Brotherhood.

“The people want the execution of the Brotherhood,” they chanted, waving Egyptian flags and holding signs depicting a profile of Gen el-Sissi in dark sunglasses against the profile of a lion, or, in other posters, of a hawk.

Half a block away, a police officer clutching an Egyptian flag climbed a barricade in front of the damaged security headquarters to address a small crowd and several television cameras. “We are here for you. We will sacrifice our souls for you. We are here for this,” he said, pointing to the flag and choking back tears. “They are martyrs too,” he said, gesturing at his fellow officers.

Commentators on state television and demonstrators at the scene immediately blamed the Brotherhood for the bombings. In a short statement posted online, the Brotherhood said it “strongly condemns the cowardly bombings in Cairo, expresses condolences to the families of those killed, demands swift investigations.”

It blamed the “coup authorities” for deteriorating security and the failure to apprehend the perpetrators of previous bombings.

The bombings were the latest in a series of attacks on soldiers and the police since August 14th, when security forces broke up two Islamist sit-ins, killing several hundred people. Most of the assaults have taken place in the relatively lawless Sinai Peninsula, but the bombings and assassinations are spreading to other major cities and even the capital, where the government and its supporters are strongest.

Friday’s attack was at least the second car bombing inside Cairo. In September, a smaller blast was set off as part of an attempt to assassinate the interior minister. In late December, a car bomb at a police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura killed at least 15 people and injured more than 100.

The first blast today killed four policemen, injured more than 70 people and left a gaping crater in the pavement in which an underground water pipe had burst. It severely damaged the ground floor and several stories of the security building as well as the facade and contents of the Museum of Islamic Art across the street. An adjacent national library was badly damaged as well.

“It felt like Judgment Day,” said Yahia (26), who had been sleeping at a friend’s home nearby. “Yesterday the whole area was barricaded by the police, and even the residents of the area could not get around,” he said. “If you wanted to take a taxi, they wouldn’t let it stop in front of the security headquarters. How did they get in?”

He declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals, because he was critical of the crackdown on the Islamists, saying that such violence was a predictable response. But Mohamed Ahmed, a banker, said he had come to the scene from across town to show his support for the police. “Who else but the Muslim Brotherhood has an interest in this kind of attack?” he asked. “After they were forced out of politics, they just want to destroy the country.”

The second blast, caused by a bomb thrown at a police vehicle in Dokki, took place within a few hours of the first and killed one bystander. The third bomb was set off near a police station in the Haram area of Giza, near the Pyramids, and did not cause any injuries. The fourth exploded near a movie theatre in the same area, targeting police vehicles returning from fighting Islamist protesters nearby, and it killed the sixth victim.

The explosions increased the high level of anxiety across the city about the anniversary of the 2011 revolt tomorrow, when rival political factions have called for demonstrations. Supporters of Gen el-Sissi have called for demonstrations to demand that he seek the presidency, and the Interior Ministry has urged Egyptians to turn out in support of the police.

The Brotherhood has called for its own demonstrations, against the military takeover. Others, including activists who helped set off the original 2011 revolt, have called for demonstrations opposed to both military- and Islamist-led government.

In anticipation, the government this week cut off train access to Cairo from southern Egypt, where support for the Islamists is strong. The police have closed off Tahrir Square, the centre of the 2011 revolt. And each night, security forces set up heavily armed checkpoints around the city, although the bombers evidently evaded them.

New York Times