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Italian Consulate bombing hits home for Cairo, Rome

The security situation in Egypt is precarious, with little hope for future improvement.
An Egyptian emergency personnel arrives at the site following a bomb blast at the Italian Consulate in Cairo, Egypt, July 11, 2015. A bomb exploded in front of the Italian consulate in Cairo on Saturday, killing one person, the health ministry and security officials said, raising the possibility that Islamist militants could open a new front against foreigners. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RTX1JYUC

The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the July 11 attack on the Italian Consulate in downtown Cairo, which destroyed the historic building, killed a bystander and injured at least 10 others. The attack is unprecedented, if somewhat expected.

Since at least the winter of 2013, diplomats from and bureaucrats in most major Western capitals, including those with warm ties to Cairo, have been expecting an attack on either soft or Western targets in Egypt, and privately expressing this in closed circles. That has been the case for American diplomats, but also for international representatives from most European capitals.

The attack on the morning of July 11 was both, and the first one on Western premises. Italy’s embassy lies several kilometers away, but the consulate in downtown still represents an official Italian — and therefore Western — target.

Italy regards the attack as a direct strike on Rome, insisting it would not be “intimidated." And it is a direct attack, but if this was a militant attack on the consulate, it was likely an attack on the consulate as a Western target rather than specifically on an Italian target. There may be questions around why this vulnerable Western target was attacked as opposed to any other — there are a number of Western interests that could have been targeted, after all. But perhaps a more pertinent question is: Why now?

For months, the expectation expressed by numerous Western diplomats in private briefings was that it was only a matter of time before a soft Western target was attacked in Egypt.

It is possible that a number have been attempted already and were fumbled, such as the attempted Karnak attack June 10, where three men were reported as trying to carry out a suicide bomb operation. Alternatively, attacks may have been foiled, as many claim the Egyptian security services are successfully doing, the details of which remain blurry owing to a lack of information being provided publicly.

The July 11 attack indicates that there is the will and capacity to carry out such operations. The general trend — as shown by the attacks in the Sinai Peninsula earlier this month and the killing of the public prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, June 30 — would further imply that more attacks, and worse ones, are to come.

Indeed, the attack could have been a lot worse. Had the intention been to accrue the maximum number of casualties, it would have been carried out later on in the day — a Saturday — or during the week. Early Saturday morning during Ramadan is one of the quietest times in that part of Cairo.

The timing would indicate that casualties were not the aim. One can only speculate, but it seems to have been more of a deliberate message that the militants can successfully attack a Western target in the center of Cairo. The next attack, therefore — if the escalation continues — would most likely entail more casualties.

At the time of writing, IS reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack. If so, that represents an escalation of the radical group’s activity in Egypt far beyond Sinai. The group’s statement referred not to Italy as a state or Italians as a people; rather, it focused on "security dens." It is unclear what the statement was referring to in that regard.

The statement also did not mention Wilayat Sinai at all, which would indicate that those who carried out the attack had given their pledge to IS as individual members of a distinct cell from that in Sinai, perhaps in Cairo. If so, then the fact that there was such a low casualty count would imply that this attack was intended as some kind of threat; certainly that was borne out in the claim of responsibility that was reported.

Since former President Mohammed Morsi was forcibly removed from office by the military after widespread protests in 2013, a number of Western governments, according to private discussions with high-level officials, have encouraged Cairo to change its tactics and engage in what they see as a more sophisticated and less blunt counter strategy.

Even Cairo’s supporters in different European and North American capitals have been keen to privately stress that Cairo should reconsider its tactics. That applies to the type of security paradigm that currently operates in Sinai, but also in terms of Cairo’s policies in the rest of Egypt with regard to political dissent.

Since 2013, Cairo has introduced an extremely restrictive protest law. A widespread crackdown has taken place against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other measures have been put in place as part of Cairo’s war on terror.

A new counterterrorism law is also being discussed by the Egyptian Cabinet — a law that has been roundly criticized by human rights organizations and civil rights groups across the board in the country because of restrictive and potentially counterproductive measures. Human rights organizations have expressed concerns that "the vague formulation of the law’s criminal provisions will allow it to be used to suppress a broad spectrum of rights and liberties, such as freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and the right of association."

Nevertheless, despite the reservations that exist in many Western capitals around Cairo’s policies, the current political dispensation in Egypt is not seen as a liability. On the contrary, there is a sense that there is no viable alternative to deal with at the present time given the state of other political groupings and the support base that exists for the current administration among the wider population.

That leaves Western capitals attempting to bilaterally advise Cairo to re-strategize, including releasing nonviolent opposition from jail, refocusing on fundamental rights and engaging with more effective counterinsurgency techniques in Sinai. Bilateral efforts as of yet have been ineffective. But there appears to be little will for multilateral activity among Western allies, and certainly not in conjunction with Cairo’s supporters in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The July 11 attack is certainly an escalation in a trend where Egypt can unfortunately expect to see more attempts — and probably more disastrous ones — in the months ahead.

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