Many Egyptians see the bombing of the Interior Minister’s convoy earlier this month and the double suicide attack in Rafah last Wednesday, which left six soldiers dead and another 10 and seven civilians wounded, as the beginning of the Islamists’ avowed war of terror against Egypt
“You’ll see terror you [Egyptians] never even thought existed.”
That was the vow the Islamists took, pronounced by the leading Muslim Brotherhood (MB) figure Safwat Higazi at the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in which the Islamists held last July to demand the reinstatement of their ousted president Muhammad Mursi. Once more than 30 million Egyptians took to the streets on 30 June demanding the overthrow of the Mursi and his Islamist regime and, backed by the military, achieved that on 3 July, the MB’s war of terror took off.
Yet the fierce street protests by the Islamists; the armed, ominous, violent five-week-long Cairo sit-ins; the roadblocks; the atrocities and the murderous targeting of Copts and civilians were all but a foretaste of the terror to come.
Predictably, Copts were the first targets. Traditionally peaceful and never resorting to violence, they made the easiest prey. Brutal Islamist raids claimed seven lives and burned and ruined more than 100 Coptic targets: churches, homes, businesses, schools, property—even an orphanage.
But with the rounding up of most of the MB leaders, the Islamists lost street power. Their terrorism was thus channelled otherwise; Egypt came in for bombs, fires, shootings; the most recent being the attempt to bomb the Interior Minister’s convoy in Cairo on Thursday 5 September. The Minister, Muhammad Ibrahim escaped unscathed, but the incident warned that Egypt was on the threshold of Islamist terrorism resembling the horrors of the1980s and 1990s.
The Qur’an and a gun
But Islamist terrorism goes much farther in time than the 1980s and 90s; it has been wired in the MB psyche since its foundation at the hands of Sheikh Hassan al-Banna in 1928 in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire—widely seen by Muslims as the neo Islamic Caliphate—after WWI. When a new member swore the oath, he pledged obedience and concealment. In front of him were a gun and a copy of the Qur’an—the two means by which Islam would ‘triumph’.
The group started with community service, but metamorphosed into a political force to be reckoned with. A wide range of declassified documents from the British, American and Nazi German governmental archives indicate the MB was linked to the Nazis during WWII.
The late 1940s and early 1950s witnessed political assassinations, bombings, and fires. Egypt’s Prime Minister Ahmed Maher was assassinated by the MB in 1945 when he attempted to get al-Azhar to issue a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) against the Islamist group. In March 1948, two MB university students shot to death Judge Ahmed al-Khazindar who had sentenced Maher’s assassin to prison. And in December 1948, a Brother assassinated PM Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi who had dissolved the group in the wake of the wave of crime they had committed then.
The crimes included the bombing in 1946 to 1948 of several Jewish-owned department stores—Cicurel, Oreco, Ben Zion, and Ades—in central Cairo. In 1948, the home of the prominent Egyptian politician and former PM Mustafa al-Nahhas in Cairo, was bombed; as were several trade and advertising agencies and police stations. Later, in 1949, the MB bombed the Cairo courthouse at Bab al-Khalq because it held documents which implicated the MB’s Special Apparatus.
The violence augmented with the general unrest in Egypt fighting the British occupation. In January 1952, central Cairo—which was home to wide British and Jewish interests—erupted in flames in what came to be known as the Fire of Cairo, widely blamed on the MB. Some 750 buildings—mainly stores, theatres, hotels, and nightclubs were destroyed.
The Brothers had no qualms about liquidating any of their own members whose loyalty they doubted; a notorious incident was the November 1953 incident when Special Apparatus member Sayed Fayez Abdel-Muttalib, who had had a difference with the group was handed a box of traditional sweets on the occasion of Mulid al-Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The box, which was stuffed with explosives, immediately blew him and those who were celebrating with him up.
July 1952 brought about the revolution which toppled the monarchy and alter placed Gamal Abdel-Nasser as president. An attempt on the life of Nasser—who had refused to share power with the MB—in Alexandria in 1954 led to a severe crackdown on the group; thousands of its members were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. The MB moved underground and became radicalised; with jihadi (holy war against the enemies of Allah) thought gaining the upper hand. This later acted to spawn other Islamist Jihadi movements not only in Egypt but also in other places in the world. An attempt to blow up the Muhammad Ali Barrage north of Cairo was foiled by the police in 1965; if successful it had the potential of drowning half Egypt’s Nile Delta.
The notorious 1980s
But it had to wait till the 1980s for MB terrorism to erupt in full force.
Nasser died in 1969 and was succeeded by Anwar al-Sadat who, with a view to countering his leftist opponents, granted the MB a pardon and gave them a free hand. Thus began in the 1970s a tidal wave of radical Islamisation in Egypt, implemented in the main part through violence. Especially in Upper Egypt’s universities, non-Islamist students were attacked and forced to comply with ‘Islamic’ standards of behaviour, women were terrorised into wearing the veil, and segregation of male and female students was enforced. Such standards were also imposed on the street in many places in Egypt. Copts came under violent attack.
President Sadat was assassinated by the Islamists in October 1981, for having signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. His assassin Khaled al-Islamboli was executed, but his accomplices Aboud and Tareq al-Zummur spent their prison terms and are now free men and Islamist politicians.
In conjunction with the assassination of Sadat, Tanzim al-Jihad began an insurrection in Assiut in Upper Egypt. Rebels took control of the city for a few days on 8 October 1981 before paratroopers from Cairo restored government control. Some 118 men were killed in the fighting, but sentences of arrested militants were relatively light, with most of them serving only three years in prison. In its legal reasoning, the court said that the men had been deceived by erroneous religious notions. Among those sentenced was Assem Abdel-Maged who was handed a 15-year prison term, and is today on the run since he is wanted by the police for his role in inciting Islamist brutality and crime against civilians.
The 1990s started badly. In October 1990, the Speaker of Egypt’s Parliament Rifaat al-Mahgoub, who was a well-respected moderate, was shot dead while in his car, by Islamists rendition from Albania to Egypt. In 1992, the liberal writer and self-declared anti-Islamist Farag Fouda was shot dead in front of his office in Cairo. In 1994, Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz narrowly escaped death on a Cairo street when he was stabbed in the neck by an Islamist who later said he knew nothing about Mahfouz’s literary works; he had merely been told by his Islamist leaders that Mahfouz was an apostate and should be killed. And in June 1995, an attempt was made on the life of President Hosni Mubarak in his motorcade as he just arrived at Addis Ababa for an African conference. The attempt involved gunfire and noxious gases; his presence of mind when he ordered his chauffeur to turn back to the airport and boarded his plane back to Cairo saved his life. At a press conference in Cairo airport, he calmly recounted the details of the machinegun fight. The culprits were Islamic Jihadists.
Other attempts were made by Islamists on the lives of PM Atef Sidqy, several Egyptian interior Ministers—possibly not one was not targeted—writers and intellectuals, and public figures.
From 1993 to 1997, there were regular Islamist bomb or gunfire attacks all over Egypt against police stations and police personnel; some 70 police personnel were killed. Tourist buses and tourist companies were frequently targeted. The famous Wadil-Nil coffeeshop in Tahrir was bombed. Attempts to detonate NATCO, the Mercedes agency in Duqqi, Cairo; and the Egyptian Book Authority on Cairo’s Nile Corniche were foiled, as was an attempt by Afghan Islamists to blow up the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
The Luxor massacre
The 1990s came to a close on a very sad note. In November 1997 the majestic site of Queen Hatshepsut’s (1479 – 1457 BC) temple at Deir al-Bahari on Luxor’s West Bank was the scene of a mid-morning attack by Islamist terrorists who massacred 62 tourists; their modus operandi included beheadings and disembowelments. The six attackers then hijacked a bus, but the police and military engaged in a gun battle with them; they were killed or committed suicide.
Egypt partly blamed the UK for the attack, since it had granted political asylum to Egyptian terrorist leaders. The then Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfy was dismissed and replaced by Habib al-Adly, who remained Interior Minister till the end of the Mubarak time in 2011.
Adly was famous for obliging the Islamists to conduct their “conceptual revisions” through which they were pardoned on condition that they renounce violence. The practice worked, and Egypt entered the new millennium relatively relieved of regular terrorist action. There were sporadic terrorist attacks, such as the Sharm al-Sheikh and Taba attacks which targeted tourists in Sinai and which rudely interrupted Egypt’s thriving tourist industry, but they were different from the day-to-day terror of the previous decades.
The Coptic share
The Copts, of course, came in for more than their fair share of Islamist hate crimes.
The first MB crime against Copts took place in 1952 in Suez, when a dispute over a plot of land used as a Coptic cemetery led to horrendous attack against the Copts; they were killed and their bodies hung from hooks as butchered livestock is hung in Egypt, then the bodies were set on fire and paraded through the streets of Suez till they were finally cast in the church courtyard.
A respite followed during the Nasser years, but the 1970s saw a renewal of the crimes against Copts. The torching and killing of the Copts at Khanka in 1972 marked the beginning of crimes that have gone on uninterrupted ever since.
In the spring of 1981, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman—today in prison in the US for his role in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center—agreed to become the mufti (one who issues fatwa, Islamic legal opinion) of the underground group Tanzeem al-Jihad, the forerunner of the Gamaa Islamiya. He issued a fatwa sanctioning “the robbery and killing of Copts in furtherance of jihad”.
The fatwa unleashed an unprecedented wave of crime against Copts. Coptic shops, especially jewellers—a trade in which Copts have for decades excelled—were robbed and their owners killed. When spared, Coptic shop owners were forced to pay tribute money to the Islamists. Those who refused were promptly killed.
Egypt’s southern provinces, especially Assiut and Minya which have traditionally been Islamist strongholds and where clan loyalties run high, were the scene of an unending string of terror crimes against the Copts who were targeted in their homes, businesses and churches.
The list of crimes goes on seemingly forever and, contrary to terrorist attacks in general which saw a respite during the new millennium, the atrocities against Copts have never ended.
13 September 2013