Cairo shootout stokes fears of terrorist attacks ahead of Ramadan

Egypt closed down its churches and mosques on March 21 in a bid to narrow the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunday 19/04/2020
A file picture shows Egyptian police cadets takeing part in a training session at a police academy in Cairo. (AFP)
On alert. A file picture shows Egyptian police cadets takeing part in a training session at a police academy in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Recent clashes in the densely populated Amiriya district in eastern Cairo have raised fears of possible attacks on Muslim and Christian holidays in the coming period.

Egypt's Coptic Christians celebrate Easter on April 19, marking the end of the 55-day Lent or Great Fast.

A police officer was killed and another critically injured, along with two security guards, on April 14 during clashes between Egyptian police and militants hiding in an apartment, on the eve of Egypt's celebration of Easter. 

Seven militants were killed in the clashes, which disrupted a two-year period of calm in the Egyptian capital after police successfully stamped out militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS failed to strike there. 

The shootout occurred as the country awaited the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan expected to start April 24. The holy month is often used by Jihadist groups to ratchet up terrorist activities.

 Security agencies received a tip prior to the April 14 incident about the presence of a group of militants in Amiriya that were preparing for attacks against security posts and Christians in different parts of the country, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The militants had also stockpiled arms and explosives in southern Cairo in order to stage attacks against churches, it said. 

Despite COVID-19 fears, Egypt's Christians held limited Easter celebrations on April 12. Pope Tawadros II attended the Easter service at a church in Wadi al-Natrun in the Western Desert with a limited group of priests.

Millions of Christians watched the event being broadcast on the Coptic Orthodox Church's website from home.

Egypt had closed down its churches and mosques on March 21 in a bid to narrow the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Amiriya clashes, security analysts said, comes at a critical time for the populous Arab country, especially as it devotes much of its resources to its COVID-19 response.

Police are also busy enforcing a nationwide night-time curfew that has been in effect since March 25. The night-time curfew was among a series of measures taken by Egyptian authorities to prevent the new disease from further spreading.

"These terrorists wanted to strike while everybody was looking somewhere else," said retired police general Fouad Allam.

Egypt's majority Muslim population is also preparing for the fasting month of Ramadan, which is set to begin on April 24. Security forces are on alert during Ramadan for any terrorist attacks by extremists.

Egyptian Muslims are stocking up on dried fruit, nuts and other Ramadan foods, even as restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis are taking a toll on their finances.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the clashes yet. Egypt has been battling ISIS in Sinai and militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in a number of its provinces, including in Cairo, for several years now.

Egypt has seen numerous terror attacks against army troops, police and its Christian minority, which comprise about 10% of the population of 100 millions.

In November 2018, ISIS killed seven Christians and wounded several others in an attack on a bus carrying Christian pilgrims in southern Egypt.

 In May of the same year, the terrorist group killed 28 Christians and wounded several others in an attack on another bus in almost the same area.

In December 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on a church in southern Cairo that left nine people dead and several others injured.

 In December 2016, ISIS attacked the chapel of a major church in central Cairo, killing 28 people and injuring dozens of others.

Militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood have also attacked dozens of churches, especially following the organisation's downfall in the country in mid-2013.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, meanwhile, is ramping up a media campaign against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

According to a Muslim Brotherhood document leaked in early March, the Islamist group views the outbreak of the coronavirus as an opportunity to undermine Sisi.

 The document asked Brotherhood affiliates to encourage Egyptians to look over social distancing calls by the authorities.

A major outbreak of the disease, the document said, would confuse Egyptian authorities and potentially cause things to spiral out of control, eventually leading to Sisi's downfall.

 Sisi said earlier this month that his country's battle against the Muslim Brotherhood was not over yet.

The Amiriya clashes, experts said, could be a prelude to more attacks. 

"The terrorists believe this is an opportune time for them to carry out attacks, while state authorities are busy fighting the coronavirus," said Islamism expert Muneer Adeeb. "They will most likely try to strike somewhere else in the future, which requires caution."