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Egyptians worry Sinai violence could spread

A drive-by shooting and grenade attacks in Cairo are some of the latest political killings.

Last Modified: 09 Oct 2013 12:30
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Cairo, Egypt - The people of Cairo have known and feared political and religious violence before.

Throughout the 1990s, hundreds of Egyptians were murdered, Christian businesses attacked and tourists slaughtered in a wave of bloody attacks.

On Monday morning, shortly after the sun rose over the skies of the capital, there were signs that the problem which blighted Egypt for more than a decade may be in danger of rearing its head once more.

In the upmarket suburb of Maadi, a district of southern Cairo popular with expats and wealthy Egyptians, fighters armed with a rocket propelled grenade launched an audacious dawn attack on a government satellite station, wounding two people.

Later in the day, six soldiers were gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Ismailia, the city which straddles the mid-section of the Suez Canal.

There was also a massive car bomb attack outside the state security headquarters in El Tor, the administrative capital in South Sinai, killing three policemen.

All of this came after more than 50 supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi were shot dead by the security services during rallies across Egypt.

'Precedent set'

According to some observers, the fact that fighters managed to expand their reach beyond the long-term trouble spot of north Sinai has signalled a possible expansion of their reach.

Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, told Al Jazeera that "a precedent has been set now" and that "only time will tell whether such violence will escalate or simmer away".

He added: "Comparisons with [the Algerian civil war] seem somewhat premature for now, but that's not to say we won't see at least a limited level of organised sub-state violence develop across more areas of 'mainland' Egypt."

Any parallels with Algeria are indeed jumping the gun. But the people of Egypt know all too well what it is like to face a home grown insurgency of their own.

At one point in the early 1990s, Cairo's religious extremists were so strong that they created a mini caliphate in the western slum of Imbaba - seizing control of the neighbourhood and forcing Copts to pay the jizya, a medieval tax imposed on Christians.

Egypt's authorities responded by dispatching thousands of troops armed with automatic rifles to seal off the entire district. Hundreds were arrested, as leaders of fundamentalist groups were carted off screaming into the night.

At the time, Hosni Mubarak's press secretary told reporters that the operation would "finish off" the extremists. He was wrong. It took the best part of a decade before Egypt's militants had given up their arms, renouncing violence after a relentless government campaign against them.

Following the coup which toppled Mohamed Morsi, nobody has yet managed to draw a convincing link between the current crop of fighters and the ousted Muslim Brotherhood regime – despite the best efforts of government propagandists.

'Violence invites violence'

Yet there is little doubt that militias already operating in the north Sinai desert appear to have been spurred to greater action by the government's suppression of the Brothers. The daily toll of checkpoint shootings and attacks which followed the coup is testament to that.

If recent developments do point to an expansion of this trend, then the continued political stalemate – not to mention suppression of Islamist protests using Kalashnikovs and shotguns – will only exacerbate the problem, according to some experts.

"Violence invites violence," said Cairo-based politics expert Dr Emad el-Din Shahin. "You cannot crush your opponents and bring them to submission in order to carry out your political roadmap."

But Egypt's so-called road map, which began after Egypt's general's ousted Mohamed Morsi, is continuing unabated.

A 50-person committee - devoid of any Brotherhood members, and with just a single figure from the ultra-conservative Al Nour Party being among the few members representing Egypt's sizeable political Islamist constituency - is fine-tuning its work on the country's new national charter.

A first draft of the new constitution is due to be completed this week. Eventually, when the final document has been passed, a referendum will follow a fortnight later.

Mohamed al-Salmawy, spokesman of the 50-member Constituent Assemly, this week hailed the draft charter as the "constitution of the revolution". He added that it "meets the aspirations" of the insurrection which led to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Time for a 'deep think'

But some critics have suggested that the new document - which will replace the constitution agreed under controversial circumstances by an Islamist-dominated assembly last year - will represent little more than a grand failure repeating the grievous mistakes of the past.

"What the country really needs is a deep think about what is going wrong and why there is so much corruption in government," said Zaid al-Ali, a constitutional expert. "The constitution needs to be completely redesigned.

"The tinkering they are doing assumes that the state is functioning well and should be maintained in its current form with only slight changes."

There appear to be a plethora of other pitfalls awaiting the current transition. One is the debate over how the next parliamentary elections will be conducted. Many influential figures want an individual member system instead of a list vote – a preference which some politicians complain will lead to a weakening of the post-Mubarak liberal and leftist political forces.

"[The Muslim Brotherhood] are a sizeable minority and have to be taken into account

HA Hellyer, Royal United Services Institute

But according to Nirvana Shawky, a senior figure from the Freedom Egypt Party, the debates surrounding the constitution are a sideshow. The anti-Islamist crackdown being waged by the government means that Egypt "hasn't seen the worst" of its problems, she said, arguing that the real danger was a resurgence of the security state.

"You can have the best constitution in the world, but in practice rules are made to be broken," she added, explaining that the 1971 constitution had not prevented multiple abuses of power by successive regimes.

Shawky criticised activists who had failed to condemn the campaign of arrests and killings against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying the results were affecting everyone. "In the end, the crackdown is effecting my freedom of expression. Doing a sit-in is a completely dismissed idea now. Demos are often not possible. The national sentiment which might accept them is diminishing."

HA Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Brookings Institution, also warned about the dangers of the authorities continuing their crackdown. Conceding that the Brotherhood were "being dumb" by pursuing their current policy of street protests, he nevertheless argued that the government was guilty of responding in an excessively brutal manner.

"[The Muslim Brotherhood] are a sizeable minority and have to be taken into account," he said. "Nobody seems to be doing that. The MB are shooting themselves in the foot [with their current strategy], but shooting yourself in the foot is not enough to deserve a death sentence."

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Al Jazeera
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