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Egypt’s explosive escalation: the warning signs

The wreckage of a bus from a missile attack on a bus on the Sinai border with southern Israel

Yesterday morning a suicide bomber killed at least four security personnel in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. This comes just a few days after another car bomb claimed the lives of three policemen. While Egypt has had far-higher casualty numbers from the running battles that have scarred this country, the growing escalation in the means and method of armed violence should be cause for real concern.

AOAV believes that there have been three developments in explosive violence since the Egyptian army ousted President Morsi.  And that these developments point strongly to worsening security conditions in the country. Things might just be about to get much worse.

1. Suicide bombings return to Egypt
Yesterday’s suicide bombing is not the first to hit Egypt this year. Another car bombing at the beginning of September this year targeted the Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. He survived the attack, but a civilian bystander was killed and over twenty people were injured, including a British girl whose lower-left leg had to be amputated.

We are seeing a steep increase in the use of suicide bombings. Between 1981 and 2011 there were only six suicide attacks in Egypt. But there have already been at least five reported suicide bombs in the last three months.

So far these attacks have been less deadly than the attacks seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq on a weekly basis. And for the most part they have been directed at security forces rather than civilians. But the bombings of a Coptic church in Alexandria in January 2011, where 25 people were killed and 79 were injured, shows how deadly these attacks could become.

2. Cairo under attack: The use of manufactured explosive weapons.
This weekend, rocket-propelled grenades were used to attack a state television network in a Cairo suburb. A new group called the Furqan Brigade were quick to claim responsibility for the incident.

Grenades were also used in an attack last month on a checkpoint north of Cairo, injuring civilians as well as police.

Explosive weapons project blast and fragmentation from around a point of detonation. They affect everyone and anyone within an area. While these are quite short-range explosive weapons, when compared to heavy artillery or rockets, they still represent a concerning escalation in the tools of armed violence in the country. It is notable that armed actors are both willing and able to use explosive weapons, in Cairo itself.

As a symbol of state power, and generally boasting the largest urban population in a country, any use of explosive weapons in a capital city is obviously a concerning development.

Only nine countries have seen manufactured explosive weapons used in their capitals this year; Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon, Rwanda, Somalia, Syria, Thailand, and Turkey.

It’s not a happy list, and not one to which Egypt will want to belong.

3. State use of explosive weapons against its own people
There is a notable correlation between the state’s own use of lethal force and this recent spike in explosive violence by armed actors.

The Egyptian military increasingly resorted to a brutal and excessive crackdown on protesters in August, including the use of air strikes in the volatile Sinai province earlier this year. Most states do not use explosive weapons amongst their own populations in the course of domestic law enforcement. There seems to be a general recognition that these are largely weapons of ‘war’, and that the use of explosive weapons is a distinctive shift from the usual means of policing.

Such attacks legitimise the use of similar weapons in the mind’s of state’s opponents.

If the state continues its transition to increasingly lethal and indiscriminate force, that is a clear indicator of a yet greater decline in security conditions in Egypt.

The scale and frequency of incidents in the country in the last month in particular is potentially of great concern. There is a sense that armed actors are seeking to exploit a perceived security vacuum amid the general political turmoil, and that the state’s armed forces are prepared to use more extreme means to establish control.

If both state forces and militants are indeed turning to bigger and more powerful weapons and are showing less restraint in their use, this should ring alarm bells for the protection of civilians.