By Amr Khalifa
The sun rose in Cairo on Saturday morning with a fury: another explosive message from “Islamic State” to Al-Sisi. The attack on a building, associated with the Italian consulate, left eight injured and one dead in its wake, and marks the beginning of a far bloodier phase in an insurgency gaining momentum by the day in Egypt. Insofar as casualties are concerned, this was not a large bombing but the location, central Cairo, and the responsible party, “Islamic State” (IS), according to a statement released by the terror group, make Saturday’s bombing a highly worrisome sign for the Al-Sisi regime.
For president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who rose to power on a platform whose headlines screamed: ‘security and stability’, the events of the past two weeks instead bellow of failure. First came an unprecedented attack on a major political figure: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, on 29 June. A mammoth attack in Sinai, possibly by as many as 300 to 400 militants belonging to IS-affiliated “State of Sinai”, killed at least 21 soldiers, according to the army, and as many as 64, as reported by major news organisations both within Egypt and without. The latest shot across the bow came Saturday, when 450 kg of explosives woke up residents of Cairo as far away as 6th of October City, over 11 km away.
Echoing across the loudest chamber of all, social media, was the reasonable question: why the Italian consulate? ‘’Who hates pizza and good wine?’’ was heard more than once on Twitter, in fact. But Saturday’s attack was more about an organization sending a message to a regime terrorising its citizens in a manner not very different from its IS counterpart. The timing, at approximately 6:30am Cairo Local Time and on a Saturday when the consulate-affiliated building is shut down, and its location, in a side street in midtown, are tell-tale signs that the intent here was not to inflict mass causalities. Rather, the statement released is a loud of announcement of the arrival of IS in Al-Sisi’s capital. The explosion was, in fact, more political than military.
The loud subtraction of “State of Sinai’s” name from the IS statement puts the strongman’s regime in direct confrontation with a terror group that has wreaked havoc in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The timing of the attack is devastating to an Egyptian government that sought to paint the massive Sinai attack as a victory for the armed forces. The army claimed to have killed over 100 terrorists and caused the group to flee under a barrage of fire from Egypt’s F16s during the initial defence of the Sheikh Zuweid area. In the days following the assault, termed ‘’Isis’s most complex ground assault outside Iraq and Syria’’ by the Institute for the Study Of War, a total of 205 terrorists were said by the army to have been eliminated.
Saturday’s attack speaks instead of the strategic military and organisational capacities of a terror group that successfully controlled a major town in Sinai for nearly 12 hours through the use of heavy and light weapons, RPGs, mortars, guided missiles and air defence weapons. Saturday’s headline-making explosion was more about sending the following messages to Al-Sisi by the Jihadists:
- We have the tactical strength to hit you in your capital without the aid of darkness.
- The insurgency is alive and well, and may well be entering an even more violent phase, covering larger sectors of Egypt.
- Singularly security-based solutions only bring more terror and do not quell it.
- The timing and location of the attack were a calculated political statement rather than a terror attack meant to inflict heavy casualties.
- Yet another attack that showed the systematic failure of the Egyptian security forces, who did not stop an explosives laden car in central Cairo.
But whereas IS (“State of Sinai”), and other Jihadist outfits, such as the Revolutionary Punishment and Ajnad Masr, continue to show a political coyness, that currency is in short supply on the regime’s side. Indeed, on the very same day of Italian consulate attack, the regime showed why it continues to exacerbate the situation to a boil rather than cool it with diligent and intelligent decision-making.
Shortly after the attack, Egyptians were greeted with repugnantly dictatorial headlines in the official gazette: a presidential decree that allows President Al-Sisi to, for national security purposes, fire, at will, heads of independent monitoring organisations. The language of the decree, another in a long line with the current power vacuum giving Al-Sisi autocratic powers, is so vague that several analysts quipped that the decree gives the strongman the power to do away with political enemies on a whim.
More specifically, it is reasonable to look to Hesham Genenah, the head of the Central Auditing Organisation (CAO), as the man for whom the decree was tailored. Coming on the heels of the promotion of Ahmed Al-Zind to Minister of Justice, a man who has been attacked on multiple occasions by Genenah as corrupt, Saturday evening’s decree appears to potentially signal defeat for the very man tasked by Al-Sisi, himself, as Egypt’s number one corruption czar. This sort of decree presumes a nation, analysts and journalists alike are in a naïve stupor, but political reality says Al-Sisi may be digging his own political grave.
No less stunning is the degree to which Al-Sisi’s ministry of interior consistently buries him in shameful and institutional acts that indicate a carte blanche for gun-carrying members of the Egyptian state. On a busy Saturday on the last week of Ramadan, yet another police shooting brought more embarrassment for Al-Sisi. This time, the victim was a lawyer with a bullet to the stomach at the hands of an Egyptian policeman. The reason was as senseless as the shooting: an argument that devolved into a shooting. The shooting – initially thought to have been fatal – is believed to have severely injured the lawyer, according to the latest news reports. But the repercussions for Egypt are grave in either case: a Ministry of Interior tasked with protecting the people appears, as an entity, far more proficient at shooting them.
On an otherwise typically slow news day, Cairo continues to provide plenty of reason to worry about what lies ahead for Egyptians.
Unless Al-Sisi manages to change the narrative through well-constructed policy, and quickly, future messages from “Islamic State” are likely to be bloodier, more destabilising, and a huge thorn in the side of a regime that cannot get out of its own way.
Al-Sisi needs to say “message received”, and do something other than firing back bullets.
Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator