From outside Egypt, it seems clear enough: A massive car bomb exploded outside Cairo police headquarters on Friday and within hours a statement of responsibility was issued by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, also known as Ansar Jerusalem, a militant group that takes its inspiration from al-Qaeda.
Inside Egypt, however, things were not clear at all. The car bomb — as well as attacks on two other police stations in the Egyptian capital that left a total of five dead and 70 injured — was widely viewed as the responsibility of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mothership of political Islam that in the space of six months last year moved from elected governing party of the most populous Arab state to being designated a terrorist organization.
“Everyone is linking it to them,” says Hussein Gohar, a senior official in the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, founded after the 2011 revolution as a liberal party, and polling well behind religious rivals in parliamentary elections. “We are a party of reconciliation and concessions — at the beginning. But as these things go on, it’s making it very difficult now to convince anyone the Brothers are not involved.”
The blast, on the eve of the third anniversary of the start of the popular uprising in Tahrir Square that promised a newly democratic Egypt, instead amplified fears that the country was reverting to the terror of two decades earlier: In the 1980s and 1990s, Islamist extremists carried out waves of assassinations, bombings and mass shootings that destabilized politics, wrecked tourism, and provoked a stern response from the government then headed by President Hosni Mubarak.
But even in those dark days there were no truck bombs in the heart of Cairo. “Obviously, we’re facing something new,” Gohar says. “People are very angry. You can’t believe how angry.”
The smoke of Friday morning’s explosion sent a massive black cloud over downtown Cario, obscuring distinctions that many Egyptians ceased bothering to make after the last explosion, the Dec. 24 bombing of a police station that killed 15 people in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura. That attack was also claimed by Ansar Jerusalem, a group that outside experts know as a specific militant force. Based in the Sinai Peninsula, it is comprised of mostly Bedouins who have embraced a radical vision of Islam associated with al-Qaeda; it has carried out elaborate operations against Israel. After the July 3 overthrow of Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military, the group stepped up attacks on police and military targets, and for the first time reached into mainland Egypt.
“Both this group and the Brotherhood has the same goal, to make Egypt and then the whole Middle East an Islamic state, but they differ on the method of how to do that,” says Aviv Oreg, former head of the Israeli military’s al-Qaeda desk. “The Brotherhood does not support violence.”
That’s been the group’s consistent insistence since its creation 85 years ago in Egypt, even as prominent members turned to terror, including current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. But many Egyptians no longer believe the assurances, according to Gohar and other observers . In the first days after the July 3 coup, prominent Brothers warned of suicide bombings, warning that removing an elected government would channel frustration into violence.
Those warnings — along with Morsi’s decision to release some jihadists from prison, and the freedom his government accorded extremists operating in the Sinai — helped set the stage for the Dec. 25 announcement that the group had been designated a terrorist group by the military-backed provisional government. That action came the day after the car bombing that killed 15 people. “The Brotherhood has been committing terrorist acts and it is time to give things its proper naming,” Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, a Socialist Democrat, said a few days later in a televised interview.
What’s clear enough from both inside and outside Egypt is the terrific power of the bombings to conflate the widely loathed Brotherhood with the extremism of Ansar Jerusalem — if not every other group on the long spectrum of political Islam. The Brotherhood issued a statement condemning the bombing, but news reports said protests broke out in Cairo blaming the group. “They have a common cause,” Gohar says of the Islamist groups, adding: “People are very angry, and they’re expecting more violence.” The hope is that it will not come at Saturday’s gathering at Tahrir Square to mark the anniversary of the mass protests that brought down Mubarak, but outrage is rising along with apprehension. “People are determined to go down to the streets tomorrow.”