The attack on plainclothes police officers patrolling in Helwan has raised questions about the true identity of the perpetrators, especially as two militant groups, Islamic State (IS) and “Popular Resistance”, have claimed responsibility for the attack. Both groups also said that they seized the officers’ weapons and claimed that the motive was to fight for the dignity of women in prisons.
Four anonymous militants opened fire on the eight officers from a truck on Sunday morning. The officers were stationed in a minivan at a checkpoint near Helwan Police Station, according to a statement from the Ministry of Interior.
Contrary to reports by national media outlets, several residents in the area told Daily News Egypt, on condition of anonymity, that the motive for the attack is not related to terrorism; rather, the attack is due to tensions between Bedouin tribes in Helwan and the police force there.
A resident told Daily News Egypt on Monday: “During the Mubarak era, there was an informal truce between police and the Abu Arida tribe. This tribe possesses weapons and is involved in drug trafficking but promised the police to not interfere with state security forces [and in return the police would turn a blind eye to illegal activities]. However, following the 25 January Revolution, there were accusations from both sides that this truce had been breached.”
According to the resident, the attack was carried out by members of a subordinate tribe, Arab Abu Maseid, using a machine gun fixed on a truck. Other testimonies indicate that the ambush lasted for five minutes in total.
Preliminary investigations indicate that the militants opened fire on the minibus from an elevated position. Each officer was hit by at least one bullet and nearly 120 shell casings were shot, according to state-run Al-Ahram.
That IS has claimed responsibility for the attack indicates the probability that the militant group has expanded outside North Sinai, which has been the main location of ongoing clashes between IS-affiliates and state security forces following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013.
Military expert Safwat El Zyat told Daily News Egypt on Monday: “The state’s oppressive security measures in addition to the chaos it creates by accusing media institutions of being ‘political opponents’, only serve to increase the possibility of young people turning to militant groups.”
The attacks in Cairo aim to create a split between different political factions by claiming that these attacks are vengeance for the marginalisation of Brotherhood members since 2013. Therefore, accusations will be directed to the Brotherhood itself. The state’s sweeping mistrust, oppression, and blame for every misstep against Islamist groups, deliberate or otherwise, promotes sympathy for the Brotherhood which, in turn, contributes to the militants’ recruitment policies, Zyat said.
Islamist movements expert Sameh Eid told Daily News Egypt that IS has been carrying out operations in Cairo for a long time. These incidents are on the rise due to suppressive policies adopted by police institutions.
The militant group, which is based largely in Syria and Iraq, has extended its operations outside North Sinai through a number of prominent attacks. In July 2015, a car bomb caused significant damage to the Italian consulate located near downtown Cairo. In the same month, IS launched a missile strike on an Egyptian navy vessel in the Mediterranean.
Several Egyptian media outlets responded to the attack by accusing the Brotherhood without any indication from the prosecution investigations. Ahram Online ran a story with the headline: “Muslim Brotherhood cell assassinates officer and 7 low-ranking officers in Helwan”.
The outlet indicated that the militants escaped directly after the attack to the Arab Abu Maseid region in Helwan. It underpinned its accusations with recent verdicts issued against Brotherhood members in the Qatar espionage case.
“The media’s incorrect tackling of any terrorist attack or catastrophe and the rapid accusations which follow without proper legal evidence will cause society to split further and more people will turn to militancy,” said El Zyat.
The chaos caused by media outlets will lead to further instability. A number of media figures affiliated to the regime have begun to scapegoat other journalists, accusing them of being their “opponents”.
On the ground, a police officer and two soldiers were reportedly killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) that targeted their security vehicle on Monday afternoon south of Al Arish, according to North Sinai-based journalist who preferred to remain anonymous.
On Saturday, a police officer was reportedly injured by an IED that targeted his armoured vehicle as it was crossing Arish-Rafah International Road.