Cairo: The blast echoed around Cairo, shattering a rare quiet morning in a city that is fast growing used to hit and run-style bombings.
Not far from the city’s centre, a policeman lay on his back under one of Cairo’s giant overpasses, his left leg maimed in the explosion, his blood a bright red stain on the brown concrete walkway.
Tuesday’s attack was the latest in a spate of bomb blasts around Egypt that appear to have been designed to minimise civilian casualties, targeting army, police and government officials and moving ever closer to the capital.
More than 500 people – mostly police and soldiers – have died in the insurgency since the army, backed by popular protests, overthrew president Mohamed Mursi last July, government officials say.
But the discovery earlier this month of four bombs at Cairo University – two exploded in quick succession, killing a senior police official, another exploded as investigators and journalists arrived at the scene, while a fourth was defused – brought the campaign closer to civilian targets and hardened the government’s resolve.
Even though it has been driving a ferocious security crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, along with students, academics, unionists and journalists that has resulted in the arrest of at least 16,000 people and the deaths of more than 1400, the government has elected to go further.
Backed by the country’s all-powerful military, Egypt’s interim government looks set to adopt new counter-terrorism laws that significantly broaden the definition of terrorist activities and expand the application of the death penalty.
Human rights groups are deeply concerned by the proposed law, while students from the Anti-Coup Alliance are defiant. “They have already killed and arrested so many of us, what more can they do?” says Mohamed al-Azhary, a student from al-Azhar University.
“Every time there is a bomb blast the debate is reignited around how we deal with political violence . . . and counter-terror legislation,” says Karim Ennarah, a criminal justice researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
The new draft, which has yet to be signed into law by interim President Adly Mansour but which has been approved by the Council of Justice, contains many articles that are “visibly unconstitutional and incredibly repressive”, Mr Ennarah says.
Along with extending detention without charge from 24 hours to 72, its wording is so vague as to deem peaceful protests that hamper the work of government institutions or the economy to be “terrorist activities”, he warned.
“It also expands the scope of the death sentence to include crimes where no loss of life occurred.
“We are against the death penalty – we believe there should at least be a moratorium in Egypt on the death penalty because clearly there is a problem with [the] judiciary,” Mr Ennarah says, referring to the case earlier this month in which a judge sentenced 529 people to death without hearing from the defence, a sentence that is expected to be confirmed by the court on Friday Egyptian time.
There is not doubt that attacks are occurring, Mr Ennarah says, and they fall into two distinct categories – the large, mass-casualty attacks of the Sinai-based terror group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the smaller, improvised attacks targeted mostly at police and army.
“There are genuine fears about these developments . . . but there is also a paranoia on the government’s part and an attempt to completely control and close down the political and public space.
“This has been on the mind of every government in the last three years, but this is the only government that has the power to be able to implement it.”
And although Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for the most lethal attacks, the Egyptian government has repeatedly sought to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for all blasts, large and small.
It designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in a hasty, overnight cabinet decision that Mr Ennarah says lacks legal standing, while the United States this week listed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis as a terrorist group. Egypt says the two work hand in hand – a charge the Brotherhood denies.
In a separate operation, Egypt’s military has been trying to quash what it has described as an Islamist uprising in its restive North Sinai province. It is a battle yet to be won.
“They already have a completely free hand to do whatever they want in the North Sinai and yet still they are not able to win,” Mr Ennarah says. “They have curfew from 4pm, they have shut down whole towns and communication networks, they do whatever they want – it is an army-run operation – and yet they are still not able to accomplish much there.”
Since the government crackdown began, at least 106 students have died and more than 1000 male and 18 female students have been arrested at al-Azhar University, Mr Azhary says.
“The government is now trying to oppress all kinds of opposition,” he says. “It does not matter who this opposition belongs to, whether they are Islamist or not, it is just a further security measure to scare people off, especially to scare the students from protesting, because with this ambiguous law even protesting can be considered a terrorist act.”
Egypt is dealing with “exceptional circumstances”, says Adel Abdel Sadek, a security and strategic expert at al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
The country has tried and failed to tackle the problem of terrorism with a security solution, he said. It was time to work on a political solution – like a tough but short-lived counter-terrorism law.
“The state had to come up with certain legal and political measures to deter these threats against the state and its institutions,” Mr Abdel Sadek says. “I am not saying that this one law will prevent attacks like [Tuesday] morning’s . . . and I do have certain problems with some aspects of the law such as giving extreme power to the president and the police, but we are in exceptional circumstances.”
Many analysts expect the attacks to escalate in the lead-up to the country’s presidential elections on May 25 and 26.
But without any economic or social strategy beyond its proposed anti-terror laws, Egypt’s security forces may be powerless to prevent them.