CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s interior minister survived an assassination attempt unscathed on Thursday when a car bomb blew up next to his convoy and gunmen strafed his vehicle, prompting him to warn that a wave of terrorism by opponents of the military-installed government was just beginning.
The minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, has been involved in overseeing a violent crackdown on supporters of Mohamed Mursi, the elected Islamist president who was overthrown on July 3 by the army following mass protests against his rule.
No organization immediately claimed responsibility for the first attempt to kill an Egyptian minister since the 1990s, but it appeared to bear the hallmarks of an Islamist attack.
“It is likely that it was a suicide explosion as a result of a high explosive device,” an Interior Ministry statement said.
Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood - accused by the government of terrorism and inciting violence - condemned it.
But the sophisticated attack, possibly involving a suicide bomber with a massive bomb, as well as a follow-up attack with firearms, showed the risk that Egypt’s crisis could spawn a wave of Islamist attacks like those of the 1980s and 1990s.
Staged in broad daylight, it was by far the most audacious act of militancy since Mursi’s overthrow, although radicals have also stepped up an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Video footage emerged on Thursday showing two militants firing rocket-propelled grenades at a container ship as it passed through the Suez Canal in the eastern Sinai on Saturday.
Online calls from Islamists for an even more violent response have intensified since August 14, when the security forces killed hundreds of Mursi’s supporters while breaking up their protest camps in Cairo.
“What happened today is not the end but the beginning,” Ibrahim said.
The Interior Ministry said the blast damage indicated that a 50-kg (110-pound) bomb had been used.
Footage taken by a bystander and posted on YouTube showed a vehicle ablaze as shots rang out for three minutes. A distant, unidentified voice could also be heard defiantly shouting the Islamic rallying cry “Allahu Akbar! (God is Greatest!)”
A government video showed bullet holes all along the side of a white car identified as Ibrahim’s, and security sources said police had killed two attackers.
A Reuters reporter saw blood and flesh scattered on the ground amid the charred wreckage of several cars.
The head of Cairo security, Osama Al-Saghir, said the ambush began seconds after Ibrahim left his house in the capital’s Nasr City on his way to work. A car driving ahead of the convoy exploded and the minister’s armored vehicle also came under heavy gunfire, Saghir told the newspaper Al-Ahram.
Senior Brotherhood leader Amr Darrag issued a statement on behalf of the Brotherhood-led Anti-Coup Alliance saying it strongly condemned the attack.
Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was overthrown in response to mass protests. The new authorities have imposed a state of emergency and nightly curfews, and Mursi and most of the Brotherhood’s leaders have been arrested.
More than 900 of its supporters have been killed, many of them when security forces stormed the pro-Mursi protest camps on August 14, and at least 2,000 rounded up. About 100 members of the security forces have also been killed in the political violence.
The Muslim Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful resistance and has twice in the last week brought thousands onto the streets to denounce what it calls a coup against democracy.
Ibrahim said this week he had been told of plans to kill him and that “foreign elements” were involved. Armed forces chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave him an armored car, he said.
The ministry said 10 policemen had been wounded, some of them critically, as well as 11 civilians. Ibrahim said a police officer and a small child had both lost legs.
Many Egyptians have expressed support for the crackdown.
But the Brotherhood, which was voted into power after the overthrow of general-turned-president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, says the allegations of terrorism are a pretext for neutralizing it and returning Egypt to the repression of the Mubarak era.
“Innocent people have died today,” said bystander Ahmed Mahmoud, 32, “but the government needs to know that terrorism will bring more terrorism and violence will bring more violence.
“So when they use violence to disperse protesters, despite our opinion of those Brotherhood protesters, what did they expect to get in return? Peace and prosperity?”
An Islamist insurgency in the 1990s destabilized Egypt and badly damaged tourism, an economic mainstay that has again been ravaged by the upheavals of the past two years.
Gamaa Islamiya, a group involved in 1990s attacks that has since renounced violence, denied any link to Thursday’s assault.
“These are new, small, unknown networks, independent of any organization,” said Kamal Habib, an expert on Islamist groups. “This was expected. We said it a million times.”
Nasr City was the scene of Egypt’s most famous assassination - Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor as president, was killed by Islamist militants on October 6, 1981.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Shaimaa Fayed, Ali Abdellati and Asma Alsharif; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Mark Heinrich