Terror Makes Its Mark

By Mattoon, Scott | The Middle East, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Terror Makes Its Mark


Mattoon, Scott, The Middle East


GOVERNMENT MEASURES AGAINST Muslim extremists suffered reversals in April. Officers and public officials were targetted by the extremists, culminating in the daylight assassination attempt against a cabinet minister. The Ministry of Interior, meanwhile, was rocked by the sudden replacement of Abdel Halim Mousa only one day after his public admission to having opened a dialogue with the terrorists.

The killing of a state security officer and his six-year old son in mid-March made newspaper headlines and earned nationwide revulsion. As security forces continued to search for the killers, police general Mohammed al Shaimi was assassinated on 11 April in the Upper Egyptian town of Abu Tig.

Al Shaimi, his bodyguard and his driver, were all gunned down in broad daylight. Security sources placed responsibility on the Islamic Jihad, calling the assassination an act of revenge for the killing of the Jihad's Assiut emir, Ahmed Zaki, during the previous month's police crackdown.

The murder of such a high ranking official, as well as the successful escape of his killers, left the nation stunned. Thousands of mourners attended Al Shaimi's funeral in what was the largest national protest against terrorism in recent years. Abdel Halim Mousa led the funeral procession. Days later he denounced the murderers to the People's Assembly, saying the attack came at a time when his ministry was engaged in dialogue with a group of independent Islamists mediating between the government and the extremists.

Mousa's surprise announcement met immediate criticism. The fact that government officials were prepared to negotiate with terrorists only buttressed critics' arguments that the regime was stumbling in its losing war against the extremists. An angry President Hosni Mubarak fired the minister the following day, replacing him with the governor of Assiut, Hassan al Alfi.

The new interior minister had scarcely two days in office before facing his first crisis when, on 20 April, assassins failed in an attempt on the life of the information minister, Safwat al Sharif. The noon attack took place in the upper-class Cairo suburb of Heliopolis at a vulnerable intersection near Al Sharif's house and only a few minutes drive from the homes of the president and prime minister. The ambush, obviously well-planned, was by far the most daring attack on a government official since the 1990 assassination of the parliamentary speaker, Rifaat al Mahgoub.

Al Sharif narrowly escaped death, suffering only cuts to his hand from the shattered windows of his car (although both his driver and bodyguard were wounded). The assailants eluded an initial sweep of the area. However, within one week eight suspected extremists were arrested for the attack. The suspects also reportedly confessed to planting the bomb in front of the Egyptian museum in March, and one was wanted for involvement in last year's assassination of the prominent columnist, Faraq Foda.

The response was swift. The following day extremists shot dead a police officer in a village near Assiut, and released a statement refuting President Mubarak's claim to have brought the culprits to bay.

Public opinion meanwhile has braced itself for more violence. The 22 April conclusion of the trial of 49 accused Muslim extremists imposed the death penalty on seven of those convicted, and prison sentences ranging from two years of hard labour to life imprisonment on another 25 (the remaining 17 were acquitted). The trials were held in a military courtroom, which offers no appeal. Many fear that if the death sentences are ratified, it will provoke an even greater militant backlash.

Violence has been on the increase in Egypt since early spring. March was the bloodiest month of the past year's escalating sectarian violence, leaving the battered tourist industry nervous over future prospects. Explosions opened and closed out the month, bracketing 31 days of sporadic security-extremist clashes and random acts of terror. …

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