A truck bomb struck the main security headquarters in Cairo on Friday, one of a string of bombings targeting police within a 10-hour period, killing six people. The most significant attack yet in the Egyptian capital fuelled a furious backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood amid rising fears of a militant insurgency.
The mayhem on the eve of the third anniversary of Egypt’s once-hopeful revolution pointed to the dangerous slide Egypt has taken since last summer’s military ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi: A mounting confrontation between the military-backed government and Islamist opponents amid the escalating violence.
In the hours after the blast, angry residents – some chanting for the “execution” of Brotherhood members – joined police in clashes with the group’s supporters holding their daily street protests against the government. Smoke rose over Cairo from fires, and fighting around the country left 14 more people dead.
Saturday, the anniversary of the start of the 18-day uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, raised the potential for new violence, as both military supporters and the Islamists vowed to take to the streets with rival rallies.
After Friday’s blasts, interim President Adli Mansour vowed to “uproot terrorism,” just as the government crushed a militant insurgency in the 1990s. The state “will not show them pity or mercy,” he said. “We … will not hesitate to take the necessary measures.”
That could spell an escalation in the crackdown that the government has waged against Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood since his July 3 ouster.
Thousands of Islamists have already been arrested and hundreds killed, with authorities accusing the group of being behind militant violence. The Brotherhood, which allied with some radical groups while in power, denies the claim, saying the government is using it to justify its drive to eliminate it as a rival. The crackdown has expanded to silence other forms of dissent, with arrests of secular activists critical of the military, security forces and the new administration.
For activists, that has raised deep concerns over a return of a police state despite the government’s promises of democracy.
But among a broad swath of the public, those concerns are eclipsed by fear of the wave of militant bombings and shootings since the coup, which have largely targeted police but increasingly hit in public areas taking civilian casualties. And the public fury has been funnelled at the Brotherhood: After Friday’s bombings, TV stations aired telephone calls from viewers pleading with army chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to definitively crush the group.
“Execution for Morsi and his leaders!” one man shouted through a megaphone as an angry crowd gathered outside the Cairo security headquarters, hit in Friday’s first bombing.
The day’s violence began with the 6:30 a.m. blast at the security headquarters, located on downtown Bab el-Khalq Square. Security camera footage showed a white pick-up truck pulling up to the building’s gate. A man jumped out of it, got into another car and drove off. Two policemen inspected the truck for a moment before returning to the headquarters. Two minutes later, it exploded.
The powerful blast ripped down a main avenue, knocking out shop windows for more than 500 metres. The eight-storey headquarters’ facade was shattered, with air conditioning units left dangling out of broken windows.
The explosion also wrecked Cairo’s renowned Islamic Arts Museum, directly across the street, blasting out its windows, causing ceilings to collapse, smashing display cases of porcelain and glasswork and breaking water pipes that sprayed over manuscripts. Museum experts said key pieces in its collection of Islamic artifacts were damaged.
After the blast, several police officers sat on the sidewalk outside the building, weeping as ambulances rushed in. A body lay on the ground, covered by a sheet as a crowd of distraught-looking residents surveyed the damage.
During the day, there were three more blasts in Cairo. Hours after the attacks, the Brotherhood held its daily protests that they have vowed to step up ahead of Saturday’s anniversary. The marches quickly turned into clashes with police, joined by residents furious at the Brotherhood, in several districts of Cairo and in cities across the country. The Health Ministry said 14 people were killed in the violence.
The Islamist alliance grouping the Brotherhood and its allies condemned Friday’s attacks and blamed them on the Interior Ministry, saying it wanted to turn the public against the Islamists.
It vowed to push ahead with protests Saturday, saying, “the revolution will continue down its peaceful track to bring down the military coup.”
Government supporters are also planning giant rallies on Saturday to show their backing for the military – and to call for Gen. el-Sissi to run for president.