CAIRO — Islamist opponents of Egypt’s military-led government are increasingly embracing militant tactics to push back against the months-long crackdown that has seen 23,000 people arrested in the past seven months.
Some are joining extremist groups calling for jihad and some are establishing armed groups of their own. Others are turning to social media to advocate a new level of violence, calling for assassinations, kidnappings and the torching of police cars on Facebook pages that quickly draw tens of thousands of “fans” in an eery echo of the way the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak began.
The pages are often deleted before police are able to home in on the creators. Hany Abdel Latif, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said he believes the rise in such calls for violence match what has been an increase in attacks on police, which have killed 233 officers since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was toppled from office July 3.
“It is an attempt to intimidate the police, but they are failing,” he said.
The most recent attacks came Thursday, when gunmen on a motorcycle killed a police officer and injured three others in Sharqiya province, 70 miles north of Cairo. It was one of three drive-by attacks in Sharqiya, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is Morsi’s home province.
Angry Morsi supporters say they believe only tit-for-tat violence will end government oppression, which includes the deaths of hundreds of peaceful protesters and thousands of detentions. Those detained say they’ve been beaten, made to go without food and tortured. Women arrested have told McClatchy they have been subjected to pregnancy and virginity tests.
“I believe that a big part of the oppression we are seeing now will end as soon as the Ministry of Interior collapses,” said a woman in her 20s who asked to be identified only as Sarah. “The army depends on the police. The army is the nation’s prestige, but the Interior Ministry is its power.”
Sarah said she was a sympathizer but not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive Islamist group through which Morsi rose to prominence; it was banned Dec. 25 by the military-led government as a terrorist organization. She said her husband, who is not a Brotherhood member, has been jailed for the past seven months and her sister, who is a Brotherhood member, was arrested and beaten by security forces.
There is little subtle about some of the Facebook pages. One, named “Execution Movement,” declared: “We will not stop until we destroy everyone whose hands had been contaminated with the blood of the honorable Egyptians regardless of their political or religious affiliation.” The page had roughly 20,000 fans before it was deleted.
On Feb. 10, a statement posted on the page claimed responsibility for “operations targeting security forces, thugs and corrupt officials.” The statement also claimed “the abduction of 10 members of the coup,” a reference to Morsi’s ouster, and “the execution of three thugs implicated in supporting the breakup of sit-ins and the killing of citizens.”
The Muslim Brotherhood repeatedly has denounced violence, but with so many of its leaders currently in jail, it appears to have lost control of its younger members.
“The streets’ movement will steer until the security forces surrender,” said a Muslim Brotherhood youth leader in his early 30s, referring to such calls for violence. He asked not to be identified because he fears arrest.
“Instead of cursing the darkness, go and light a candle,” read a slogan below a picture of a torched police car posted on the Facebook page of another group, “Muslim Brotherhood, education, jihad and preaching.” The group posted a long list of contact information and home addresses of policemen.
Such groups terrify police.
Maj. Gen. Sameh Kelani, the head of security in Sharqiya, banned police officers from wearing uniforms outside police headquarters “for their own safety and to prevent any attempt to target them,” according to state radio.
A police colonel in Cairo told McClatchy that someone stole a contact list containing the names, phone numbers and addresses of state security officers throughout the country when protesters overran police headquarters in 2011. “So (the public) has the personal data of the police,” he said, adding that “some police change their numbers and addresses out of fear.” The colonel spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.
“Really?” said Sarah as a smile lit her round face when McClatchy reporter told her that police are living in fear. “I am so happy to hear that.”
Security forces violently dispersed two large encampments in August set up in support of Morsi, killing at least 1,200 and injuring hundreds. Sarah said that some of her friends were among them. After almost seven months of seeing many family members and friends killed, beaten and imprisoned by the security forces, Sarah had decided peaceful protest was not enough.
“I am not really interested in marches anymore,” Sarah said. “Now there are quick marches and protest, just to prove our presence. We are depending on the other work more,” referring to torching police cars and taking revenge and threatening the police forces.
Sarah is one of the 49,421 fans of another Facebook group called “Molotov.”
The group mainly shares videos of “MB members” stopping traffic and throwing Molotov cocktails. The group’s “wall” contained dozens of postings about torched police cars and shootings at police from all over Egypt before the page was deleted.
Almost every day there are reports of police cars or private cars that belong to police officers being set of fire. Sarah said each torching involves “10 young men” who “work together” and use “mainly Molotov cocktails,” glass bottles filled with flammable liquid.
The Egyptian government is also facing violence from already established militant groups. Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, an al-Qaida-inspired group based in the Sinai Peninsula, has claimed a number of assassinations of Interior Ministry officials, and most recently it said it was responsible for the bombing of a tourist bus in southern Sinai that killed four South Koreans.
Another previously unknown group, Ajnad Misr, Arabic for Egypt’s Soldiers, said it had carried out a double bombing that hit a police vehicle on a bridge earlier this month.
Sarah is unsurprised by the direction the opposition movement is now taking. Six months ago, in an interview with McClatchy, she had warned of escalating violence if the clampdown continued on the Brotherhood.
The government “is creating terrorists,” she warned then.