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Political repression undermines Egypt's transition to democracy

Yesterday, a powerful car bomb ripped through a police headquarters in the Egyptian city of Mansoura. At least 14 people were killed and 120 more injured. Reportedly, five senior police officers were among the dead, and the injured include the area's police chief. State television said it was the largest attack in the history of the city, which is 130km north of Cairo.

A spokesman for the interim government accused the Muslim Brotherhood of responsibility for the attack and branded it a "terrorist organisation". For its part, the Brotherhood condemned the attack, and said that the government was exploiting the deaths in order to smear the group.

Political tensions have been high in Egypt for months. On 3 July, the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi – democratically elected after the 2011 revolution – was ousted in a military coup following days of mass protests. Following the coup, there has been a serious crackdown on political opposition. Most of the senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has been imprisoned and are facing trial. The group was officially banned in September. More than 1000 supporters have been killed, and several thousand arrested.

This polarisation has had obvious consequences for Egypt's stability. Since Morsi was overthrown in July, there has been a spate of attacks on government facilities. More than 100 soldiers and police have died in violent clashes and bomb attacks. In September, Egypt's interior minister survived an assassination attempt in Cairo. Nineteen others were killed. Responsibility for that attack – and several others – was claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a jihadist group based in northern Sinai, where extremists are fighting the Egyptian army.

While Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and other groups have specifically claimed responsibility for some of these attacks, the blame has still been laid at the door of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no clear evidence that the group orchestrated the attacks, but Egyptian officials and most media outlets have alleged that the Brotherhood finances and controls these jihadist cells (including those in Sinai). Last week, legal proceedings against Morsi were initiated on this basis. Along with an existing charge of inciting the murder of protesters last year, while he was still president, he will now face charges over alleged links to Hamas and Hezbollah. The prosecution said that Morsi and the Brotherhood was behind an attack on a police truck in Sinai in August, which killed 25 police officers. It said the Brotherhood's involvement with foreign groups, and with financing local jihadist cells, was "the biggest case of conspiracy in Egypt's history".

Today's bombing comes weeks before Egypt is due to hold a referendum on a new constitution. This constitution is the first step in the interim army-backed government's roadmap to democracy, which was outlined after Morsi was deposed. Moving towards labelling the Brotherhood as a "terrorist" organisation appears to be yet another attempt by the current regime to isolate the movement as this crucial referendum approaches.

Yet despite the continued clampdown, it seems unlikely that the interim authorities will be able to stamp out the Brotherhood. The conservative political and social movement has lasted 85 years, frequently going underground. Despite the current crackdown, supporters of the movement continue to demonstrate daily to demand Morsi's reinstatement. The suppression of political opposition now seems to be extending beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to encompass secular human rights workers. Over the weekend, six members of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights were detained; one remains in prison. Human Rights Watch condemned the arrests, saying that they showed that the Egyptian government is "not in the mood for dissent of any kind". As the referendum approaches, one must wonder whether such suppression of political opposition undermines the roadmap to democracy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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