Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A deadly attack

This week’s attack on the police in the Cairo suburb of Helwan will complicate the already delicate security situation in the country, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Terrorism dealt the Egyptian police and Egypt a serious blow at dawn on Sunday 8 May in the suburb of Helwan, 25 km south of Cairo, when an officer and seven policemen on patrol were killed. It was the most deadly terrorist attack against the police in the Greater Cairo area since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government three years ago.

The terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the killings. The same organisation was responsible for the downing of the Russian plane over Sinai last year. Needless to say, the carrying out of such an attack in the capital will impact on the policies of the Ministry of the Interior and could lead to a complete reappraisal of the strategies of the Egyptian police in fighting IS.

The attack took place less than 12 hours after an Egyptian court put on trial Mohamed Morsi, the former Egyptian president, and other defendants on charges of passing to Qatar highly classified information concerning the army and its military operations in northern Sinai. The court asked the mufti of Egypt to look into passing the death sentence on six of the defendants. Morsi is not among those threatened with execution.

This means that if he is found guilty by the court the former president will get a lighter sentence than capital punishment. Acquittal should not be excluded. In Egypt, when a criminal court sends the papers of defendants to the mufti for an opinion this means that the likelihood of sentencing them to death is to be expected.

This week’s attack took place in a highly charged environment in the country. There is the showdown between the Ministry of the Interior and the Press Syndicate that has lasted for more than a week because of the arrest of two journalism trainees after the issuing of arrest warrants from the state prosecutor’s office. The two have been charged with violating the law governing demonstrations in Egypt, in addition to other serious offences.

The syndicate has raised the stakes in reacting to the incident, thus politicising the affair to a degree that has added to the political and security instability in the country. So far, there appears to be no end in sight to this political crisis. The syndicate wants the president to apologise for no fault of his own. It has also asked for the resignation of the minister of the interior. It is doubtful that the government will ask for his resignation, particularly after the terrorist attack on 8 May.

The attack will only complicate an already very delicate political situation within the country. The government will have to steer a delicate course between fighting terrorism and making sure that such attacks will not be repeated and making sure that in doing so it will not limit or restrict a more open political atmosphere across the country.

In its confrontation with terrorism the government needs widespread political support inside and outside of Egypt. But thus far some Western governments, including the US government and the European Union, have accused Egypt of instrumentalising the fight against terrorism to stifle political dissent and public liberties.

On 18 March, US Secretary of State John Kerry made a statement in which he expressed his “deep concern” at what he described as “the deterioration of the human rights situation in Egypt in recent weeks and months”.

He concluded his statement, which took most Egyptians and the Egyptian media by surprise, by saying that “restrictions on the space for civil society activity will produce neither stability nor security. I urge the government of Egypt to work with civic groups to ease restrictions on association and expression and to take action to allow these and other human rights NGOs to operate freely.”

The government is facing a serious dilemma. It has to tighten security not only in Cairo, but also around the country, and in particular in big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria. But in the meantime it is being called upon to adopt tough security measures without appearing to be mounting a crackdown on dissidents and the political opposition in the country.

It would be useful if the newly elected House of Representatives in Egypt played a greater role in partnering with the executive to mobilise popular support behind any new security plans to ward off similar attacks in the future.

Similarly, the political vocabulary that is being used by some Egyptian officials should see some changes that would be reassuring to the outside world, to the effect that tightening security measures will not take place at the price of curtailing public liberties or the freedom of human rights associations in the country.

In these trying hours, the country needs a more open political space and a more forward-looking public debate on the challenges facing it and on how best to tackle them. The government should do its utmost to associate as many NGOs as possible in its fight against terrorism. A meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and representatives of civil society and the media would not be a bad idea either.

In order to protect and defend Cairo and Egypt against more deadly attacks in the future, the government has no alternative but to encourage political parties, NGOs and the political opposition to form a common front against terrorism. There is no other conceivable option in order to defeat the terrorists. More liberties and a more open political space are effective antibodies against terrorist organisations and their deadly appeal to the frustrated and destitute among Egyptian young people.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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