Explosive messages

Amira Howeidy , Thursday 12 Mar 2015

The spike in violence targeting businesses ahead of tomorrow’s Economic Conference signals a shift in the pattern of low-level violence

Etisalat store
The aftermath of an explosion that destroyed the front of Etisalat store on Sudan Street in the Mohandiseen area, Cairo 26 February 2015 (Photo: Bassam Alzoghby)

For the past week improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been going off in Cairo, Alexandria and the Delta provinces on a daily basis. Apparently planted by small, hitherto unknown groups, the campaign is targeting businesses in a clear attempt to harm the economy.

Egypt’s three private cell-phone companies — the Emirati Etisalat, Vodafone and Mobinil — which have thousands of shops across the country, took the lion’s share of hits. The Emirates NBD bank was also attacked twice in Mahalla, resulting in 16 injuries and one death. The United Arab Emirates has been an economic ally of Egypt since the miltary's ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

In the coastal city of Alexandria, KFC and Carrefour – the respective franchises are operated by a Kuwaiti and Emirati company — were also targeted.

Casualties have been limited, largely as a result of the timing of the blasts, most of which occurred outside working hours, and because the IEDs, according to experts, aren’t designed to inflict collateral damage.

Little is known about the cells behind these attacks. The Revolutionary Punishment Movement and Popular Resistance Movement, which maintain a presence on social media, have claimed responsibility for some of the bombs. Both issued statements linking the explosions to their opposition to the government-sponsored economic conference which opens in Sharm El-Sheikh tomorrow, and which the government hopes will attract between $12 billion to $15 billion dollars of foreign investment to Egypt.

On Monday evening the Revolutionary Punishment group’s Twitter account posted a statement warning “businessmen and national and multinational corporations” that it will plant more bombs in response to continuing support for the “occupation of the Camp David military,” an apparent reference to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.

The statement claimed it had attacked 47 targets earlier in the week, including police stations, cell-phone companies, banks and KFC outlets. The group advised citizens to avoid the targeted areas “during non-working hours.”

In a statement on Thursday the interior ministry said police had traced and arrested the admin of the Revolutionary Punishment Facebook page, identified as Abdelrahman El-Zalabani from the Brotherhood’s middle leadership. The Twitter account of the group was still active until Thursday morning where it claimed responsibility for two bombings in Giza and El-Menoufiya.

In the last week dozens of IEDs exploded or were diffused near schools, churches, police stations and seemingly random streets. That there were no clear business targets suggests that other smaller cells, or lone wolf individuals, are operating, their only aim to spread fear among the public.

“We understand that we’re being targeted in an attempt to sabotage the economic conference, although we have very little to do with it,” said a senior executive of one of the three cell-phone companies who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals. “We’d like to see the conference finish in the hope that we’ll be given a break,” he added.

Like other multi-million dollar businesses in Egypt, the executive says his company is concerned — it has been targeted by ten explosive devices — but refuses to panic because “we saw far worse” during the 2011 uprising, when many shops were burned to the ground.

“We’re not faced with a situation where we’ll even consider packing up and leaving. We’ve invested in infrastructure here, we have 40 million subscribers and 9,000 Egyptian employees,” said the executive.

He added that security has been beefed up in recent months, “in a non-visible manner because we don’t want security guards in uniforms attracting bombs.”

Following the removal of Morsi in July 2013 violence spiked in North Sinai as militants began to attack military and police targets. The military has been retaliating but the death toll on both sides continues to rise.

The Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis — renamed Wilayet Sinai after it declared allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria — subsequently expanded its attacks to include police targets in the Nile Delta before reverting its focus back to Sinai following security clampdowns.

The operations of Sinai’s jihadists, which have claimed large numbers of casualties, have eclipsed a pattern of low-level violence that has been growing since 2014. Targets include power stations, metro cars and cell-phone towers.

Only recently have observers started to pay attention to the self-proclaimed revolutionary youth groups that espouse economic-targeted violence.

According to research published in Foreign Policy earlier this month, these groups are heavily influenced by the ideas of a Turkey-based anti-globalist American convert to Islam who opposes Egypt’s new regime.

Shahid Bolsen, a 43-year ex-convict in a murder case in the Emirates, is said to have influenced many young Islamists here, offering them a clear vision to channel their anger against the government by attacking multi-national companies.

According to the research, Bolsen outlines specific tactics and even provides targeting information, including addresses.

An Egyptian salafist living in exile helped introduce Bolsen to Egyptian Islamist dissidents in Turkey. He subsequently appeared on the Istanbul-based Brotherhood channel Masr Al-Aaan (Egypt Now). Over the past year his anarchist ideas have increasingly focused on Egypt where it appears he has a growing audience.

The research’s co-author Mokhtar Awad says Bolsen’s importance lies in the fact that Islamists see him as someone who can help promote their message. “It’s basically how to package violence against economic and business targets in a convincing way and send a message that, no, when you start to target businesses it’s not a deviation from your standard creed of saying that you’re engaging in violence because of revenge or because you are seeking retribution against the police and security forces.”

The message “has been pushed and executed and will take on a life of its own,” Awad, a researcher at the Washington-based Centre for American Progress, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Following Morsi’s ouster thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and sympathizers were detained. The organization was designated a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities in December 2013. Its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, was dissolved by court order in August 2014.

Observers have long warned of the negative outcomes of closing all avenues for legal political participation for thousands of young Brotherhood members and other Islamists.

The group’s statements officially condemn violence in all its forms but some of its supporters have no qualms about expressing their support for attacks that hurt the government.

“What we’re seeing now is a wave of political violence,” says Amr Al-Chobaki, a liberal columnist and expert on political Islam. “Its actors need to be separated from jihadist takfiri groups [who deem others, including Muslims, apostates] and don’t seem to have adopted a clear ideological and religious cause yet.”

Charged with the feelings of injustice fanned by the Brotherhood’s discourse of victimhood, these cells “have had no alternative political discourse to engage with.”

“The brakes to this growing trend need to be applied now before it attracts more disgruntled youth. A political channel needs to be offered,” says Al-Chobaki. 

*A version of this article appears in the 12 March 2015 print edition of Ahram Weekly

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