The bus stood empty, most of its windows shattered, the result of a roadside bomb that exploded in Cairo on Thursday morning and injured five people. Police closed the road in both directions, and small crowds of onlookers gathered along the cordons. An officer presented to the crowds a bowl-shaped device, a second bomb, they said, discovered inside a roadside advertising box. Students carrying books, coming from the Islamic al-Azhar University, paused as they walked past.
The blast was the second in Egypt in three days. Fifteen people were killed in a much larger explosion, a suicide car bombing, according to the Interior Ministry, at a police headquarters in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura early on Tuesday. In response to the Mansoura bombing, the military-backed government officially branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a measure that deepens the military-backed government’s clampdown on the Islamist group following the military’s removal of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi from power in July. The new designation criminalizes membership in the organization and its activities and finances.
No evidence has surfaced linking the Muslim Brotherhood to either attack. The Brotherhood’s official media organs condemned the Mansoura bombing, and a separate group, Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for it. Nevertheless the government appears determined to use the violence as an opportunity to pursue its crackdown on the organization. “From [the security establishment’s] perspective, they see this as an opportunity to eradicate, once and for all, an organization that they hate. That takes precedence over everything else,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
Morsi was removed by the military in July following vast protests against his rule. In the months following the coup, more than a thousand people died in a security crackdown on protests against Morsi’s removal. The new terrorist designation could shutter hundreds of Brotherhood-affiliated charities and could also drive members of the organization further underground, but it is unlikely to completely eliminate the Brotherhood as a social movement. On Wednesday night, one Cairo-area member of the Brotherhood, who asked not to be named over concern for his safety, said he met with other members of the group following the declaration. “What will the government do after this decision? Arrest? They already arrest us. Kill? They already kill us,” he said.
Despite the current clampdown, Brookings’ Hamid argues, the Brotherhood is steeped in an “organizational ethos of not resorting to violence” owing in part to its experience of brutal repression for years under the regime of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. “But in a situation in which the leadership is decapitated and people aren’t getting clear orders,” he says, “you might have individuals who are going their own way because you lose the superstructure of the Brotherhood as an organization.”
In recent weeks the military-led government has also extended the clampdown to include non-Islamist opposition groups who carry the torch of the January 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak. On Sunday a court sentenced three prominent activists who helped spearhead the 2011 revolt to three years in prison for violating a new law that criminalizes all street protests that take place without explicit government permission. The three, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, founders of the April 6 youth movement, declared a hunger strike on Wednesday in protest of the conditions of their detention. Their winter clothes, they said through an intermediary, had been taken away, with no replacement, by guards who said the garments were the wrong color.
Everywhere in Egypt, the raucous, unpredictable space for political expression opened by the 2011 revolution appears to be shrinking. The government asserts that the clampdown on the Brotherhood and restrictions on protest are needed in order to restore the security needed to proceed with a “road map” for political transition. The next step on the road map is a referendum, scheduled for mid-January, on a new constitution drafted in the wake of the coup. Fatigued after nearly three years of periodic unrest and distrusting of the Brotherhood after Morsi’s presidency, a vocal portion of the public backs the government, though some of last summer’s militaristic fervor has faded. In a sign of persisting sectarianism, the Brotherhood released a statement on its official website that in part faulted the Coptic Church, which backed Morsi’s removal, for the government crackdown.
Thursday’s roadside bombing proved for some that the insurgent activity common in the Sinai is taking root in mainland Egypt — a sign that the country as a whole is sliding deeper into a spiral of repression and violence. Some experts suggest that a violent showdown suits the designs of hard-liners within Egypt’s security state. “It is obvious that there is a faction within this government that is pushing everything toward escalation and violence in order to force their opponents to resort to violence,” says Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. He argues that the government’s real aim with the terrorist designation is to stamp out the “culture of protest” that flourished in 2011. “This regime is trying to tame a revolution,” he says.