If you sit inside the entrance of a Cairo police station you will see a parade of people from all walks of life. Young men in T-shirts and skinny jeans, older men in dress shirts and pressed trousers, villagers in jellabeyas, vegetable sellers in flowing long gowns.
Many of those who passed by on a recent morning were undercover police, plainclothes agents for the state. Their erect posture and the directness of their gaze gave them away. The average Egyptian, upon entering a police station, would show uncertainty, even fear.
But to a person, those who entered shortly after 9:00 a.m. were recognized by the guards on shift and entered with confidence and purpose. They were reporting for work, meeting with supervisors, picking up salaries. There was no need to speak to the officer at reception or show an ID card. They were all known.
In the four years since Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi claimed the presidency, Egypt’s state security has stepped up its surveillance activities and maintains a high-profile presence throughout the country.
Alongside an army of plainclothes agents, video cameras are mandatory inside cafes and businesses in many parts of Cairo. Access to many online news sites has been blocked and social media is widely believed to be under surveillance.
The state is doubling down on its perceived enemies — democracy activists, campaigners for LGBT rights, Islamists, and supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the jailed former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and, for one year, the president of Egypt.
And yet, in what is seen as a troubling paradox, the country’s massive security apparatus failed to prevent the carrying out of two recent military-style terrorist attacks.
On November 24, 2017, 305 people, including 27 children, were killed in the village of Bir al-Abed in North Sinai. During the Friday midday prayers, four vehicles arrived outside Al-Rawdah Mosque, explosives were set off and cars set alight, blocking the surrounding roads. Witnesses said up to 20 men armed with machine guns — and, reportedly, wearing uniforms — then entered the mosque and killed worshippers en masse. The gunmen stayed at the scene long enough to fire their weapons at ambulances dispatched to the scene. It was the bloodiest terrorist attack in Egypt in modern history.
No organization has claimed responsibility for the killings but the attackers are believed to be militants allied with the Islamic State group, which has been at war with the Egyptian state for the past four years. The mosque was the place of worship for followers of the Sufi trend of Islam, considered heretical by hard-line Islamists. The town may also have been targeted because of its alleged support for the state’s military campaign in the region.
A month before, on October 20, a five-vehicle convoy of police was ambushed by Islamic militants near the Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert, 85 miles to the southwest of Cairo. Initial reports by the BBC and Reuters, quoting unnamed senior officials, claimed that more than 50 police had been killed. The Egyptian government, however, disputes that figure, saying that only 16 police died.
A previously unknown militant group with links to al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, claimed it carried out the attack and announced that it was launching a holy war against the Egyptian state. The group is believed to be linked to a former Egyptian military officer who is based in the Libyan city of Derna, near the border with Egypt. The officer, Hisham al-Ashmawy, was fired from the army after adopting radical Islamic beliefs.
War-torn Libya has become an important hub for Islamic State fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. Egypt has been supporting Libya’s eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army has been at war with Islamist militant groups in Benghazi and Derna for more than two years. The Egyptian Air Force has carried out air raids on Derna in retaliation for terrorist attacks committed in Egypt, including the murder of 29 Coptic Egyptians south of Cairo in May.
Days after the October police ambush, President Sisi carried out a major shake-up in the country’s intelligence sector. He removed the chiefs of staff of the Armed Forces and the national security agency, and demoted senior police officers.
A police source who asked to remain unnamed, speaking in a mid-November interview, said that the ill-fated police convoy was carrying out a raid on a militant hideout after receiving intelligence from the Egyptian Air Force — intelligence that proved to be incorrect.
“We read the information from the air force — how many people, how much equipment, how many weapons,” the official said. “But in this mission there is something wrong about the information. The information had many mistakes. The air force reported only four or five terrorists and small weapons — not anti-aircraft [guns], [not] anti-tank — the location where they were.”
As with November’s mosque killings, the attack on the police was a military-style assault. The convoy’s lead and rear vehicles were taken out by rocket-propelled grenades and bombs.
At least two of the wounded police were based at Al-Modireyet Amn Al-Giza, the Giza Directorate of Security, where the official was speaking from. “Those who were killed were from the secret police and special operations, all based in Cairo,” he said.
On the question of whether or not the attackers had crossed into Egypt from Libya, to the west, he said, “In the desert, between Libya and our Western Desert, it is very difficult to control.”
Questions remain as to why the police rather than the military were deployed to carry out an attack on a terrorist camp. The official’s claim that the police were killed as the result of poor intelligence from the Egyptian Air Force passed onto the police indicates tension between the different security sectors.
While Egyptian police are often feared by the public and criticized for their dire human rights record, there was an outpouring of public support in the days following the ambush.
“I was crying yesterday, the night before and the morning,” said Tarik, a Cairo businessman. “When I see the mothers who lost their only son, and even he didn’t serve in the army but he went to the police.” He was referring to Egypt’s mandatory military conscription that exempts only-sons from serving in the army.
Hundreds of policemen have died in the last year alone. Said the man, “They are carrying the security on their backs.”
There is a growing sense of unease in the Egyptian capital. The economy has yet to rebound from the political upheavals of 2011 and 2013. Hopes that foreign tourists will return are set back with each new terrorist attack. The wider region is in turmoil. Pass through Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square before dawn and you will see long lines of people in front of the Mugamma (“The Complex”), the massive Soviet-style building where citizens and visitors deal with state bureaucracy, including the issuance of visas and residency permits.
They come from wars in Syria, Libya, Sudan, and South Sudan, from unstable police states like Eritrea and Ethiopia. If they are lucky, they will be allowed to enter at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, where they will join a crush of humanity hoping to receive documents from harried clerks sitting behind barred windows.
And now the spread of the terrorist attacks from the Sinai Peninsula to the Western Desert has heightened concerns about the safety of the heavily militarized capital. The sight of masked men guarding Coptic churches, ministries, and other state buildings has become normalized, hardly worth noting.
Of course, Cairo residents have long contended with the presence of informants and plainclothes agents in their neighborhoods. There are few secrets in this city of 20 million people. But a recent development adds a new layer of tension: heavily armed special forces moving in unmarked vehicles through the city’s congested streets.
On a recent Friday morning a white van cut off a taxi. For a second, the passenger's eyes locked with those of the errant driver. It was a woman wearing a niqab, the full-face veil. But no, the passenger quickly realized, the eyes belonged not to a veiled woman but to a twenty-something man wearing a black balaclava. Only his eyes were visible. The masked man was a member of the special forces, his face hidden for fear of being identified and possibly killed by enemies of the state. But there were no state markings on his vehicle, nothing to indicate that a heavily armed man was inside.
On October 21, one day after the assault on the police convoy in the Western Desert, a somber ceremony was held on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria. This was the site of one of the most famous defeats of German forces in World War II, the Battle of El Alamein. To mark the battle’s 75th anniversary, hundreds of diplomats and military personnel from a reported 50 nations traveled from Cairo and beyond to stand in remembrance at the Commonwealth War Cemetery. Prayers were read, a Scottish piper played, the last post rang out over the graves of 7,240 men who fought with the Allied forces.
President Sisi had been expected to attend the ceremony, but the assault on the police convoy the night before meant a change in his plans. Instead, he arrived by helicopter shortly after the ceremony and stayed on the ground for less than an hour. He met with the representatives of a handful of countries and then flew out once more.
It was as the ceremony ended that at least one attendee realized that something wasn’t quite right with the Egyptian security arrangements for the event. Balaclava-wearing Egyptian soldiers, at intervals of 10 yards or so, were arrayed around the perimeter of the cemetery entrance, some 40 yards away from the seating area. Their eyes were covered with goggles and their hands gripped automatic weapons. It was a hot day and one could feel sympathy for these young men standing guard for several hours on the expanse of white ground.
The weapons of the Egyptian soldiers encircling the cemetery were pointing not into the surrounding desert, from where an attacker could conceivably come, but toward the assembled ambassadors, consuls, clergy, and veterans gathered to commemorate the Battle of El Alamein.