Staring into the abyss

An insurgency that began in Sinai could worsen as Egypt’s military-led government declares a war on “terrorism”

Gunmen who fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police station near Cairo and slit an officer’s throat daubed the wall with a warning before they left: “This is the penalty for the oppressors.”

The masked assailants attacked a few hours after the security forces began breaking up protest camps set up by supporters of deposed president Mohamed Mursi in an operation last Wednesday that killed hundreds of people.

The surge in violence has raised fears that a new Islamist insurgency may take root on the Nile, where militants waged a failed campaign against the state in the 1990s.

“Have you ever seen war on TV? That’s what it was like,” says one passerby, speaking in hushed tones outside the abandoned police station in Kerdasa, its scorched facade riddled with bullet holes. He decline to give his name.

The government said nine policemen were killed in the assault in Kerdasa, a bastion of Islamist support.

Residents described offering shelter to terrified policemen who fled the building, aiding their escape by giving them civilian clothes to change into.

Outside stood the charred remains of thirteen vehicles, two of them armoured personnel carriers. Not a policeman was in sight.

Two dozen police stations were attacked across Egypt that day, perhaps heralding more unrest that could cripple hopes of democracy kindled by the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, of which two involved rocket-propelled grenades and all, gunfire.

To the east, the Sinai Peninsula is already in the throes of an insurgency by hardline Islamists — at least two dozen policemen were killed there in an ambush last Monday.

A spate of attacks in the Nile Valley and cities along the Suez Canal since the army toppled Mursi on 3 July  points to the risk of militancy spreading to the more densely populated areas of the country of 85 million.

Some towns in Minya, a province south of Cairo, already resemble war zones, with police stations, churches and other targets hit in persistent violence since 14 August.

Militants have also struck in three cities along the Suez Canal, a vital world shipping artery, killing at least seven policemen. Shipping has not been affected. Security forces are heavily deployed. Soldiers are even guarding petrol stations.

Weapons, mostly smuggled from Libya, are more freely available than in the past.

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