Improvised Explosive Devices, the infamous IEDs that proved so deadly in Iraq and Afghanistan, have made a devastating appearance in the heart of Cairo. They had already been used in the embattled Sinai peninsula, raising fears about the influence of international terror tactics, but these most recent blasts have taken place in and around the capital where the presidential election campaign is getting underway.
Three coordinated IED were detonated outside the Cairo University campus yesterday, killing a senior security force commander injuring five other police officers. This was the first sense that the tactics of Sinai’s simmering guerrilla insurgency against state security forces have come to campus.
When the security cordon outside the campus was loosened yesterday afternoon the campaigning continued amid the broken glass and debris. Small crowds of people—some draped in Egyptian flags—wandered through the rubble strewn blast site. Kids gathered near a blown out truck for photo-ops carrying pictures of former Field Marshal El Sisi, who represents the military’s solid grip on power.
Yesterday’s blasts killed central security force Brigadier General Tarek al-Mergawy, when he was hit with what is reported to be a remotely detonated nail bomb. Planted in a tree and placed outside a small brick office where police were based, the explosions went off exactly a week after the central security forces shot and killed an 18 year old high school student who joined the Cairo university campus protests against the coup. The attack also comes three days after a bomb was detonated near the dorms of al Azhar University in which no injuries were reported.
A ministry of interior official said police were still investigating who could be responsible for the explosions. However, that didn’t stop the deputy minister going on state TV yesterday and blaming “a terrorist group and its student members,” for the attacks.
While there have been no verified claims of responsibility, a group calling itself Ajnad Misr or Egypt’s Soldiers claimed on its Twitter account that it carried out the attacks on security forces because of the arrest campaigns “targeting women” and pledging more violence. Some local media also attributed claims of responsibility to Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
Cairo University was a scene of chaos as security officials evacuated the campus and cordoned off the explosion site following the attacks. By the afternoon it was a ghost town inside the campus gates. “I was in an exam when I heard the explosion,” says Salma Salah, a campus organizer for a group called Students Against the Coup who uses a pseudonym. “Security told everyone to leave the university.”
She said she was appalled by the carnage, and had cancelled her organization’s expanding Wednesday protests in response to the bombing. Salah claimed the central security force was behind the attack as a ploy to discredit the student protests. The group has no evidence for this assertion but they were quick to spread the allegation on social media. For students who have seen their classmates killed or arrested in campus demonstrations while facing live fire, birdshot and teargas, mistrust of the security forces cuts deep.
In the past, the military and police have blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for all anti-government attacks. The army-installed interim government officially banned the brotherhood as a terrorist organization in December, but the movement has denied involvement in armed action, saying it has focused on non-violent protests against military rule.
The explosions shook Cairo as Egypt’s presidential election campaign gets underway, following Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s official resignation from the military last Thursday, declaring his candidacy in which his victory is seen as a foregone conclusion.
The image of mass student led civil unrest that has increasingly defined university life since September now looks like it is being scorched by the weapons of a guerilla war engulfing the northern Sinai Peninsula. Sinai was the only place to take up arms against the former dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and since Sisi deposed former president Mohammad Morsi in July, the conflict lead by Bedouins and Islamists has only intensified.
Egypt’s post coup crackdown around the country has been bloody with over 1400 killed since Morsi’s overthrow and at least 16,000 jailed but yesterday’s bombings add a new dimension to the conflict. With 15 arrested near the scene of the attack for alleged questioning, students are paying an immediate price.