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Punishing the state: The rise of urban militant cells
 
 
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On April 14, most of Egypt’s satellite channels went down after two electricity grids feeding Cairo’s Media Production City were bombed.

 

Hours later, a group calling itself Revolutionary Punishment claimed responsibility for the attack in a strongly worded statement. Their declaration marked a new shift in anti-state militancy in Egypt.

 

Following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and the takeover of a military-backed government, a fresh wave of organized militancy targeting state institutions swept across Egypt.

 

Two overtly Islamist militant groups emerged, claiming responsibility for targeting both security and military forces: Ansar Beit al-Maqdes in Sinai, who in 2014 swore loyalty to the Islamic State, and Ajnad Misr.

 

This year, around the fourth anniversary of the January 25, 2011 revolution, the country witnessed the rise of smaller, ostensibly “revolutionary” militant groups that have targeted security and state institutions. Notably, Revolutionary Punishment and Execution Battalion, who have both claimed attacks on police personnel nationwide.

 

Execution Battalion came under the spotlight in April, following the assassination of former head of the notorious Matareya police station Colonel Wael Tahoun. The group published a statement on Facebook in which they claimed responsibility for the assassination to avenge the killing of lawyer Karim Hamdy, who was tortured to death while in police custody in February.

 

Statements by Ajnad Misr and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes carry overt anti-state messages, while the discourse of emerging militant groups tends to employ a more “revolutionary” discourse. 

 

“We declare the start of a wide campaign of revenge against police officers implicated in the killing of January 25 martyrs up until now. Tahoun is not the first, and won’t be the last,” the Execution Battalion said in a statement.

 

The group claimed to have a hit list of police officers implicated in violence and torture.

 

Likewise, Revolutionary Punishment, in a YouTube video published on January 25 2015, claimed complete independence from all political affiliations, vowing to “not fall prey to political bribery.”  The video, unlike many by its Islamist counterparts, did not use Quranic verses, anthems or graphics. In fact, there was no soundtrack or sloganeering of any kind. Two masked men, clad entirely in black and carrying machine guns, appeared against a black background, proclaiming their existence and the presence of active cells in 15 governorates.

 

“There is no solution but to strip dictatorship of its weapons. We are fed up with calls for peacefulness,” read one of the masked men.

 

In contrast, a March 28 statement by Ajnad Misr, claiming responsibility for a bombing targeting police forces at Cairo University, was riddled with Islamist rhetoric.

 

“[The injured police officers] will feel the bitterness they made other Muslims taste … Oh God, let your Sharia prevail,” the statement read.

 

The emergence of more rudimentary cells has seen the number of small-scale urban bombings spike significantly across Egypt. Both explosive devices and “sound bombs” — as authorities refer to them — have reportedly been found in metro cars, airport terminals and malls, as well as outside governmental buildings and police stations. A spate of bombings also recently targeted a number of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets.

 

According to statements by Execution Battalion’s Facebook page, created in March, their operations have included the assassination of a low-ranking national security police officer in Alexandria and the targeting of the head of the notorious Azouly military prison in Ismailia.

 

Such groups, however, are not new. In August 2014, a group calling itself Helwan Brigades declared it would seek revenge against security forces, following raids in the southern Cairo suburb that targeted protesters and residents. In a video posted on YouTube, the group promised to kill, rape and rob, saying, “We are tired of the Brotherhood’s peaceful protests.” The men claimed to have been coerced into violence in response to police brutality.

 

“No peaceful protest with the Ministry of Interior,” chanted the masked men towards the end of the video.

 

Soon after publishing the video, the group’s members were arrested.

 

Little in the way of demographics is known about these new groups — for example, who are their leaders, and what is their geographical influence? A look at Revolutionary Punishment’s blog reveals that most of the operations carried out by the group revolve around confrontations at security checkpoints in various governorates, mostly Fayoum, Sharqiya and Qalyubeya. Other operations were conducted in Aswan and Port Said.

 

Another attack — perhaps telling of their ideological motivations — took place against a villa purportedly owned by former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa in Fayoum. Gomaa is known for his support of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. The group dubbed him, “the sheikh of the military occupation.”

 

While, as this piece highlights, there are clear distinctions between various Islamist groups in Egypt in terms of their political affiliations and methods of mobilization, the discourse of the state and many other political factions and popular groups have tended to tar them all with the same brush, amid a rhetoric of stability and anti-terrorism. Despite the fact that many of the attacks on police and military personnel and state buildings have been claimed by specific militant groups, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular has often been blamed for such attacks in the context of a crackdown on their organization and movements.

 

Those with Islamist affiliations and leanings who spoke to Mada Masr were quick to condemn these attacks, given the current climate and popular opinion against them.

 

Ahmed Nasif, spokesperson of Students against the Coup, a student group largely believed to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, explained to Mada Masr that, unlike Ajnad Misr and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, these newer groups carry a revolutionary agenda. “The movement against the military takeover is largely peaceful, but with the increasing oppression against all political groups, it is natural that some would take more violent action,” he asserted.

 

Under the leadership of the Anti-Coup Alliance, the Muslim Brotherhood adopted protest actions as their major oppositional tactic against the current regime. But, following the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda protest camps in August 2013 and the death of hundreds of the group’s supporters, more radical groups like Ultras Rabeawy and Ultras Nahdawy began to emerge.

 

Islamist activist Houzaifa Fatouh, who currently lives in Turkey, told Mada Masr that it’s difficult to consider these new violent entities as a natural development of the Brotherhood-ultras groups.

 

“If these ultras groups adopted violence, Egypt would become another Syria,” Fatouh claimed, speculating that members of Revolutionary Punishment and similar groups are likely mostly teenagers.

 

“Older generations are not yet militarized. They are aware of the level of destruction we could be dragged into,” he stated, stressing he has no direct connection with these groups.

 

Haitham Ghoniem, who also lives in Turkey, told Mada Masr that resorting to violence is certainly not a new idea among revolutionaries. The use of violence in the past five years can be traced back in a “primitive” way to January 28, 2011, and later, during the Mohamed Mahmoud and Cabinet clashes. Groups like the Black Bloc, who emerged in opposition to Morsi’s rule are another example.

 

“So it’s very difficult to tie these violent groups directly to the Brotherhood,” he explained.

 

But Sherif Mohy, a researcher of counter terrorism and human rights with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), disagrees.

 

“It is obvious that their supporters are mostly among social media circles close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in general. The low quality of the bombs used and the randomness of the attacks imply they could possibly belong to the Brotherhood,” he explained.

 

Mohy argues that, just as Ajnad Misr was formed on January 25, 2014, when anti-regime protests were crushed by police, the same scenario occurred in 2015.

 

“The reaction to state violence is obvious here,” he asserts.

 

“This does not negate the fact that there was a violent reaction from Islamists following the Rabea dispersal, especially the targeting of police stations and check points, as well as churches in Upper Egypt. But, we can say that it is the organized and systematic violent reaction that was delayed.”

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Mai Shams El-Din