In Egypt, public joins fight against terrorism

Some have questioned why it took so long for police to respond to the attack. Others chose to focus on the heroic intervention by citizens.

Turning point. A priest (C) reacts at the site of attack on a church in the Helwan district south of Cairo, on December 29. (Reuters)

2018/01/07 Issue: 138 Page: 9

The Arab Weekly
Amr Emam

Cairo - As Egypt confronts an evolving terrorist threat, many find posi­tive news in reports that members of the public interceded during an attack on a church in the southern Cairo district of Helwan.

Eleven people, including a po­liceman, were killed December 29 when a gunman attacked the Mar Mina Church. The toll was perhaps limited because the church was barricaded and local citizens con­fronted the attacker.

Salah al-Mougi, who witnessed the attack, said: “I wanted to do something but I couldn’t because he was armed.”

After the attacker found that he could neither enter the church nor leave the area on the motor­bike that he arrived on because residents had hidden it, he stalked the area on foot, looking for more victims.

Dozens of people pursued him, hiding behind vehicles to avoid being shot but waiting for the right moment to act. After a policeman shot the attacker in the leg, Mougi, 50, said he darted from his hiding place to confront and disarm the assailant.

Many people joined Mougi, punching and kicking the attacker into submission. “I had to inter­vene or this man would have kept shooting until all bullets in the high-capacity magazine came to an end,” Mougi said.

The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the Helwan at­tack. The gunman is facing charges of murder, attempted murder and terrorism. Egyptian authorities said they have tied him to other recent attacks.

Some have questioned why it took so long — estimates of 10-20 minutes — for police to respond to the attack. Others chose to focus on the heroic intervention by citi­zens.

Many terrorist organisations have explicitly sought to avoid targeting everyday Egyptians be­cause such attacks are through to hurt future recruitment but that would also mobilise the public to inform against them, analysts said.

“This was clear in the discourse of all terrorist groups active in our country,” said Kamal Habib, an ex­pert on Islamist jihadism and a for­mer member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. “These groups were always keen to show that they were at war only with the army and police.”

This strategy proved successful in parts of Egypt, especially in the Sinai Peninsula where Bedouin tribes have been accused of offer­ing militants sanctuary and per­haps actively cooperating with them.

Egyptian authorities have re­peatedly appealed to the public for information about militants. The National Security Agency, the main domestic security agency in Egypt, has run ads on television calling for greater cooperation from the public.

However, most of the appeals were ignored, experts said, be­cause most of the public did not feel directly threatened.

“A change is, however, hap­pening now that the terrorists are targeting everybody, not only se­curity men or the Christians,” said Sameh Eid, an expert on militant groups and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Eve­rybody here [in Egypt] feels tar­geted, which is why everybody is starting to take the battle against terrorism personally.”

An attack by ISIS on al-Rawdah Mosque near the North Sinai City of El Arish in November could prove to be a major turning point in Egypt’s war on terrorism, ana­lysts said. The attack, which left 310 people, including more than 20 children, dead was the worst terrorist attack in modern Egyp­tian history and the first time that a mosque in the country has been targeted.

ISIS said the attack was specifi­cally against Sufis, members of a mystical branch of Islam consid­ered heretical by ISIS and other ex­tremists. However, few Egyptians seem convinced. What is clear is that after the mosque attack, the war on terrorism in Egypt entered a new stage.

“This is why everybody is ready to act and I am sure public involve­ment will herald the quick end of terrorism,” said Mamdouh al- Kidwani, a retired police general. “Terrorism thrives only where there is public support or sympa­thy that gives the terrorists the in­cubators they need.”

The fight against terrorism, Eid warned, is the job of well-trained security personnel, not the public.

“This fight cannot be allowed to deteriorate into a free-for-all,” he said. “Ordinary people can be use­ful in providing law-enforcement agencies with information but to use them in fighting the terrorists can be very risky.”

Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.

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