Egyptians weary and fearful in face of ‘existential war’ in Sinai, Cairo
Cairo looked a little like Beirut when on 29 June a car bomb killed General Prosecutor Hisham Barakat.
Northern Sinai, in turn, looked a lot like Iraq when on 1 July, militants from the Islamic State Sinai Province attacked and almost took control of the city of Sheikh Zuweid, a few miles away from the Gaza border.
“Egypt never witnessed such a level of terrorism before, not even in the ‘90s” when a wave of Islamist attacks shook Mubarak’s regime, says the Big Pharaoh, one of Egypt’s leading bloggers and internet activists.
Since the then chief of the armed forces Abdel Fattah al Sisi declared a “war on terrorism” on 26 July 2013, terrorist attacks have instead become a feature of daily life in Egypt.
It is not the first time that a bomb has exploded in Cairo. It has become somehow so normal, that suspected IEDs are reported by citizens using Bey2ollak, a popular app for smartphones otherwise used for crowd-sourced alerts on traffic.
Over recent months, militants have targeted judges and police officers. It is, however, the first time in more than 20 years that a terrorist group successfully carried out a targeted assassination of a high-profile state official.
Similarly, it is not the first time that dozens of checkpoints have been attacked in Sinai, leaving several soldiers and police officers injured or dead.
It is, however, the first time that a militant group has tried to take over a whole city of around 60,000 inhabitants and not just a few abandoned outposts and villages.
In a Cairo almost deserted during the day and with streets packed at night for Ramadan, the uneasy feeling of resignation for a situation that is getting worse and worse is mixed with the equally uneasy feeling of normalcy.
In a restaurant in downtown Cairo, people gather to break the fast at sunset. Families and couples share their meal paying little to no attention to the TV broadcasting the footage released by the Egyptian armed forces after regaining control of Sheikh Zuweid. The discomfort and grieving for the death of so many young soldiers and of the general prosecutor goes hand in hand with a sense of detachment and fatalism. As if everything was so shocking, but somehow far away.
Outside in the cafés, people watch the latest news and keep chatting as they would on any other night. Life goes on as usual. There are those who comment with a few strongly nationalistic and pro-regime lines. There are those who do not dare to speak about politics in public for fear of saying something that will get them in trouble with the authorities.
Ahmed, a 40-year-old man, is confused when asked his opinion about the situation in the country. “Terrorists are not targeting civilians, but only security forces,” he tells Middle East Eye. “So I am not afraid of dying because of a bomb or a terrorist attack. I’m more scared that the situation will turn into chaos, that police will retreat as it happened during the 25 January revolution. I already heard rumours of burglaries, of robberies,” he says. He looks across the street, pointing to the nearby Ministry of Interior, then adds that “in general, the situation is much better than last year, there are more check points, security forces are patrolling the streets. I feel safe.”
Many are too distracted by daily issues to really have an opinion. Others avoid making any comment because they are skeptical. “There are no journalists allowed to report in Sinai, we only have contrasting numbers about casualties and what the army tells us,” says one, who does not give his name. “The situation has been bad for a while anyway,” he adds shrugging his shoulders.
'Trick of the regime'
Sherif is not afraid of speaking his mind because, as he constantly points out, he is a true revolutionary who was injured several times in Tahrir Square in confrontations against both security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s the system hitting itself to appear weak and come back stronger. It’s an old trick that the regime, no matter who is the president, has always used,” he says.
His opinion sounds quite bizzarre in light of the recent events, but it is secretly shared by quite a few. After all, conspiracy theories abound in Cairo’s streets these days. The actors blamed for the attacks - whether the one in Sinai or against the general prosecutor - range from the Muslim Brotherhood to the army itself, from Hamas to Israel or the United States.
The idea that terrorism will not turn people against the government but rather bring them closer to the regime seems to be well grounded.
“People are shocked and the army is the only entity they can turn to in the midst of this turmoil. Especially if the army is fighting for the country against the Islamic State,” says The Big Pharaoh.
“The strategy of the government is a big failure. They keep issuing statements saying that they have arrested terrorists, disrupted plans for attacks or killed militants, but then you have a major wave of attacks in both Cairo and Sinai,” he explains.
However, even those who do not like or support the army realise that “the soldiers dying in Sinai are kids, they are mostly young conscripts and they have nothing to do with this war”.
While the siege of Sheikh Zuweid developed, with scarce information coming from the ground, Egyptians took to social media to share the pictures of the young soldiers who had fallen in the battle. Some posts blamed President Sisi for letting the insurgency in Sinai escalate in the first place, others praised the armed forces for their efforts. Yet the majority stood in solidarity with the families of those who died.
Two days earlier, when a car bomb killed Hisham Barakat, Egyptian social media accounts were similarly swept by posts reporting the news. Side by side with the shock for the targeted killing, many expressed their own fear of being caught in the fire between terrorist groups and the regime.
Fear of backlash
“I am not scared of the terrorist attacks. The odds of a bomb exploding next to me are still low, and if it does… well... I am just going to die,” says Amr, a 26-year-old photographer from Alexandria who lives in Cairo. “What I’m really scared of is the backlash from security forces. I’m more scared of being randomly arrested and tortured, of disappearing in a secret jail, being hanged without anyone knowing it or without having committed a crime,” he tells Middle East Eye.
“As an Egyptian I am scared and angry about what is going on, both in Sinai and in Cairo. I feel that the police and the army are not doing their job. We are spending millions of dollars in security and they are not protecting the country,” he says. “They knew something like this was coming. Sure, no one could imagine the magnitude of the attacks, but they let people die because they were too busy arresting kids in central Cairo instead of securing the country.” In the meantime, the increased security measures and police presence are for him “a cover up to make people feel that there is security and the government is protecting them, when it’s not”.
He looks around, then adds that “the state is weak and it is just throwing punches in the air, randomly, taking it out on the weakest ones, on the innocent ones. This is what I’m scared of”.
Tight security measures and repression “can keep the government safe, but judging from what has happened and how the situation is evolving, it’s not going to be enough without a political solution,” says the Big Pharaoh.
The government seems eager to adopt an even harsher approach with the approval of a new draconian anti-terrorism law and possible changes to trial procedures to allow faster executions.
“There should have been a political solution, but now we are past the time for that. Both [the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime] perceive it as an existential war in which only one can survive,” says The Big Pharaoh. “The young Muslim Brotherhood members are angry and disillusioned, they start to believe that violence is the only way,” he adds.
Amr does not know what to expect for the near future. “The Islamic State is really getting closer,” he says.
Then, he whispers something he feels uncomfortable to admit. “I see what happens to the revolutionaries like us, I see what happens to the normal people who try to voice an opinion and I wonder… What would I do if I was the son of a Muslim Brotherhood member who had been killed in Rabaa or abducted and executed by police?” He adds, “I can understand where this rage and violence comes from.”