Here are three numbers that tell the story of Egypt’s simmering insurgency.
16,687. That’s the estimated number of political detainees sent to Egypt’s prisons since the military ousted the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, last July 3.
4,482. That’s the estimated number of people killed in clashes since Morsi’s ouster, many at the hands of security forces.
198. That’s the number of people killed, mostly security force members, in armed attacks on the police and army between July and November 2013. Many more have died since.
These estimates by the Egyptian Center of Economic and Social Rights highlight the killings, insurgent attacks, mass arrests and point to the chronic tensions in what the government says is a war for survival against terrorists.
But analysts say oppressive practices by the military-backed government have encouraged more extreme actions by jihadists — and they predict that the attacks on the state will likely grow.
“The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi created a new narrative for Islamists, both nonviolent Islamists who opposed his overthrow and the more radical ones in Sinai,” said Issandr El Amrani, director of the International Crisis Group for North Africa. “It was a green light for the more radical element to wage a much more widespread campaign of violence.”
He says the types of attacks are things Egypt hasn’t seen for decades: a car bomb at the entrance of Cairo’s security directorate last month; an attempt on the life of the interior minister; the brazen assassination of one of his top deputies in the center of the capital; and a militant downing a helicopter with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile in the Sinai and then posting the video online.
“Something is shifting, Egypt is becoming a legitimate target or a choice target for the international jihadist movement in a way that it wasn’t before,” Amrani says.
Only a few years ago, he says, groups like al-Qaida deemed Egypt a no-go zone, because the state was too strong and operating there was too dangerous. And for a decade there was a debate among Islamists over whether the path to creating an Islamic state was through elections like the Muslim Brotherhood chose or through violence like al-Qaida has chosen.
“The perception among some Islamists is, well, al-Qaida has now won this argument because the brothers took part in the democratic process, won, and now were kicked out,” Amrani says.
So far there is no publicly disclosed evidence to link Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose leadership is mostly in jail, to the attacks on security forces. The brotherhood continues to denounce violence and its leadership has only called for peaceful resistance to the military-backed interim government.
A Sinai-based extremist group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has claimed responsibility for most of the terror attacks.
At least two Egyptians who fought in Syria’s civil war have blown themselves up in Egypt under the auspices of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.
The first was Walid Badr, an Egyptian who fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and who called on others to join the fight. He was the bomber who tried to kill Egypt’s minister of interior last September.
In a video released by the group, the former army officer is dressed in his uniform and sitting in the car that later detonates with him inside.
“Don’t stand with bare chests,” he says to the camera. “Stand with homemade bombs and suicide vests. For we should kill as many of them as they kill of us.”
The jihadist videos and calls to attack the Egyptian army have raised alarm bells for Egypt’s security officials, who have reacted with mass arrests. And the state has blames most all violence on the Muslim Brotherhood.
“What they had done in one year convinced me that they are dangerous,” Talaat Mosallam, a retired Egyptian general, said of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Even their existence is dangerous for our country and for our nation.”
Mosallam said that the Brotherhood is providing political cover for militant attacks carried out by others. His evidence? He knows them, he said, and they are dangerous. And, while a political solution is important, he added, right now a security solution is paramount.
“We have no alternative. We have to defend the state,” he said.
The crackdown on Islamists has broadened to most anyone who voices dissent. Those who protest are described as inciters of violence or terrorists. Some of them aren’t even members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has is now designated as a terrorist group in Egypt. Some dissenters aren’t even Islamists.
Sayed Abdullah was killed on Jan. 25 when he was shot twice by police while protesting, his friends say. He carried no weapon, they added, and said he was opposed to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military leadership.
Outside the mosque where his family received condolences, young men waved white flags with Abdullah’s face on them and the words: “You’re in heaven.”
His friend Ahmed Abdo said that Abdullah was protesting for justice — but was killed and condemned as a terrorist. The real terrorists, according to Abdo, are those who killed his friend.