In the early hours of Tuesday, December 24, an explosion rocked the city of Mansoura. Shaken out of their sleep by the blast, residents rushed to the streets as ambulance sirens blared.
The next morning, they heatedly discussed the attack and its perpetrators. Again and again, their fingers pointed at the Muslim Brotherhood. Most believed the recently banned group was trying to compromise state security and terrify citizens ahead of the upcoming constitutional referendum in mid-January.
The explosion targeted the Daqahlia Police Directorate. Initial investigations suggested a suicide bomber drove past the barricades and crashed a car into the building, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Interior.
Sixteen lives were lost, and over 140 people were injured.
The explosion marred a city that was once called the Bride of the Nile, and marked the second bombing in Mansoura since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July.
An explosion had targeted the same directorate building shortly after Morsi was deposed. This first blast wasn’t as severe, leaving one casualty and 16 injured, and causing far less damage to the adjacent building. Several investigations were launched at the time, and reports suggested that the bomb was thrown at a lookout kiosk from the opposite building. The perpetrators were never caught.
That incident was later pinpointed as the trigger for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to declare a nationwide “war on terrorism.”
A Sinai-based militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, claimed responsibility for last week’s deadly attack. In its previous statements, the group said that it committed its attacks as retribution for the violent dispersal of two pro-Morsi sit-ins in August, which left hundreds dead.
However, Mansoura residents still draw a direct link to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ahmed al-Sayed, a pharmacist, says that such acts are not out of character for the Brotherhood. Sayed’s frustration grows as he speaks about the bombing and the ongoing violent clashes at the University of Mansoura, which have become a staple of city life over the past few months.
Sara Gamal, a university student, is also quick to connect the attack to the Brotherhood.
“Just one week ago, terrorists killed a taxi driver simply because he didn’t share their political ideology,” she claims.
The debate around Egypt’s tumultuous political climate is nothing new to the city. However, the gravity of such an attack is. Later on Tuesday, after the funerals, anger was palpable among thousands of the city’s residents.
Following the prayer services, seething mobs reportedly set fire to vehicles and other property belonging to Mansoura’s leading Brotherhood members.
Citizens also threatened the group’s members, warning them to leave town.
A young Brotherhood member, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that he received dozens of threats that day.
He was still recovering from the shock of the explosion and the news that the group had been designated a terrorist organization when his doorbell rang several times.
“Nobody was there, but I looked down to find several notes. One note said I should leave the country if I wanted to stay alive while another was vowing revenge,” he says.
The young man adds that after the Friday prayers, some of his neighbors were talking about reporting him to the police. Two of his friends also advised him leave the city as soon as he could to avoid any further complications.
The conflict escalated as the day wore on.
A crowd broken into a tourism agency only 50 meters away from a police station, claiming it belonged to a Brotherhood member who let Al Jazeera’s crew inside to shoot a video of the funeral. The assailants beat the owner’s driver.
When the victim was transported to a hospital, he was identified as one of the founders of the campaign in Mansoura urging Sisi to run for president.
Now, huge banners that call for a “yes” vote on the constitution adorn the building, along with others that declare support for the interim government.
A supermarket was also attacked after a rumor spread that it belonged to a Brotherhood member.
Ehsan Sultan, an activist who lives in Mansoura, says he saw young men smashing the doors of the supermarket, with no interference from security forces protecting a prison across the street.
“It was chaotic,” he recounts. “Men and kids broke into the place and left with anything they could put in a bag. Some brought their cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks to load with electric appliances.”
In Aga, a small village south of Mansoura, residents reportedly broke into the houses of Muslim Brotherhood members and kicked them out, warning them not to come back.
The lack of security wasn’t only apparent when it came to policing angry civilians. For the few hours following the explosion, the crime scene was anything but closed for inspection. The area overtaken by residents from all over the city taking pictures of the damaged walls and cars. And when the Civil Defense Forces intervened, they removed all the evidence from the scene, leaving nothing behind for any further investigations.
This deep divide between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents is nothing new for Mansoura. Even before the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in last August, demonstrations were a fixture in the city. But in the weeks following the dispersal, Brotherhood protests were increasingly attacked and dispersed by security forces, and even more often by disgruntled locals.
Despite widespread support for the Brotherhood in the city less than two years ago, violent resistance to the group heightened in the months following the Rabea dispersal. To the city’s residents, it has almost become a weekly occurrence in the streets, and a daily one on the university campus.
In one of the most striking clashes last July, four women were killed as they marched with Morsi supporters and came under attack by unknown assailants.
Ahmed Ramadan, a legal and social researcher, says the ongoing conflict in the country has moved far beyond being just a fight over power.
“Mansoura’s bombing has resulted in a new wave of rage that would not only affect the Brotherhood as a group, but also their members as citizens,” he says.
Ramadan explains that people are terrorized by the repeated attacks across the country, and consequently now seek unity with the state. He believes that the people of Egypt are finally one with the state, and that the present conflict is ultimately a war between the government and the international Brotherhood organization.
On the other hand, Ramadan is concerned that the simmering rage on the street could soon boil over.
“The ongoing scuffles all over the country indicate that it may develop into a small-scale civil war. Mansoura, for example, has witnessed several violent actions over the past months,” he warns.
The hometown of many Islamist figures such as Brotherhood strongman Khairat al-Shater, Salafi preachers Mohamed Hassan, Hazim Shouman and others, Mansoura, and the Daqahlia governorate in general, was long considered a Brotherhood and Salafi stronghold,
Only two years ago, 79 percent of the city voted “yes” in the March 2011 referendum that was endorsed by the Brotherhood.
Most of the city’s parliamentary seats also went to Freedom and Justice Party candidates. Brotherhood candidate Yousri Hany even managed to garner a staggering 233,000 votes, the most votes any candidate nationwide received in that election.
But the Brotherhood’s luck began to slightly change over the following months. During the 2012 presidential elections, the governorate gave Ahmed Shafiq 25 percent of the total votes, while Mohamed Morsi came in third with 23 percent. During the second round, the governorate again sided with Shafiq, giving him 55.6 percent of the total votes.
But despite the recent violence, Sayed Tantawy, a parasitology professor and one of Daqahlia’s leading Brotherhood figures, maintains that the Brotherhood would not harm innocent citizens.
The media unfairly encourages people to believe that the Brothers are behind any violence, he insists.
Tantawy asserts that some private television channels accused the Brotherhood of attacking the directorate, and have shown pictures of young Brothers as suspects, although most of them were already in custody for a week and could not have been at the scene.
“The conflict between the Brotherhood and the current government is political. We will never drag innocent civilians into it,” he says.
The current situation in Mansoura and the residents’ reaction to the recent attack remain a bellwether for the country’s transition government. The state’s ability to turn Mansoura’s residents against the Brotherhood, when a majority had sympathized with the group not too long ago, and convince them of the group’s terrorist designation indicates the extent to which the Islamist group can be marginalized in one of its former strongholds. Moreover, it indicates how much the current regime controls, with the help of its media, the country’s narrative in locales beyond the capital.