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Assassination and terror attack in Egypt

Prosecutor-General Hesham Barakat was assassinated in a roadside bombing on Monday, June 29. The bomb was planted on a road near Mr Barakat’s home and detonated as he was on his way to work. One bystander was killed and at least nine other people wounded. It was the first assassination of a prosecutor-general in Egypt, and Mr Barakat was the most senior government official to be assassinated since 1990.

A group called Giza Popular Resistance claimed the attack but owing to the similarities between the murder and a failed attempt on the life of former interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, in September 2013, experts think the attack was the work of Sinai Province, a group affiliated with Islamic State (IS) and formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdes.

On Sunday, June 28, Sinai Province posted a video called ‘The liquidation of judges’ online, in which it calls on its followers to kill Egyptian judges, which it calls “a junta of oppressors who violated God’s promise.” The video contains footage of the assassination of three prosecutors in the Sinai on May 16.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared Tuesday, June 30, a public holiday. It is the second anniversary of mass protests calling on President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, then defence minister, to remove then-president Mohammed Moursi from power. Mr Sisi ousted Mr Moursi in a coup on 3 July 2013. Mr Barakat will be buried with full State honours after midday prayers on Tuesday.

At the time of the assassination, we warned that more terrorism should be expected in coming weeks. Indeed, on the day after Egypt buried its assassinated prosecutor-general, terrorists killed at least 70 soldiers in North Sinai.

Just after dawn on Wednesday, July 1, minutes before the night curfew ended, militants attacked 15 military checkpoints and security installations in Sheikh Zuwaid, a garrison town between Al-Arish, the biggest town in the province, and Rafah on the border with Gaza. Car bombs were used, and militants took to rooftops from which they fired rocket-propelled grenades or anti-tank missiles at soldiers. Roads near the garrisons were mined to prevent reinforcements from coming to the aid of the besieged soldiers.

While fighting was most serious in Sheikh Zuwaid, there were at least three suicide bombings in Al-Arish. Death tolls still differ: early reports, based on communications from military sources, were that about 70 soldiers had died, but the army says it lost only 17 men, and killed at least 100 terrorists in the counterattack, which saw F-16 jet fighters and Apache helicopter gunships deployed in aerial operations. AFP put the death toll at 36 security forces and 38 militants. There has been little mention of civilian deaths but at least five people from one family were killed, and at least some of the dead that the army counts as ‘terrorists’ appear to be civilian.

Later on Wednesday, police killed nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in a raid on an apartment in Cairo. Police say the men were armed; the MB denies this and says the men were detained then “killed in cold blood.” Among those killed was Nasser Al-Hafi, a lawyer and former Member of Parliament (MP).

In a statement, the MB called the men’s deaths “assassinations” and said the event marked a “new phase where it will not be possible to control the anger of the oppressed.” The statement ends with a call on Egyptians to “rise in revolt.” Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the attack.

On Wednesday, as news of the attack shocked Egypt, the cabinet approved new anti-terror legislation, which President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi will sign into law once it has passed through the State Council. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb told reporters that Egypt is in a “real state of war,” and that new legislation was needed to fight terrorism.

The draft law reportedly mandates penalties as severe as the death sentence for carrying out, attempting or aiding terrorist acts, or funding a terrorist organisation or act, and life in prison for carrying out espionage on behalf of a foreign country or organisation, and for aiding a terrorist through training. Importantly, the legislation absolves security forces from legal repercussions for violence used while putting the law to practice.

Five-year prison terms can be handed to anyone found guilty of the propagation or intended propagation of “ideas and beliefs calling for the use of violence” through social media. Pre-trial detentions can be extended further, and the State’s surveillance powers will be broadened.

The scale of Wednesday’s terror attack is very worrying, and indicates that Sinai Province is large, well-trained, and well-armed. Rights abuses by the State have helped terrorist organisations like Sinai Province recruit by radicalising members of the MB; the deaths of the MB members on Wednesday will further contribute to the negative trend on security risk.

 François Conradie (Political Analyst)

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