ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Egypt, this is a dark time. A low-level insurgency is simmering and the military-backed government claims it's in a war for survival with dangerous terrorists. The threat is real. But analysts and critics say if authorities continue their oppressive practices, attacks on the state will likely get worse.
NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Sixteen thousand six hundred and eighty-seven, that's the estimated number of political detainees sent to Egypt's prisons since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown on July 3rd.
Four thousand four and eighty-two, that's the estimated number of people who've been killed in clashes since Morsi's ouster, many at the hands of security forces.
And 198, that's the number of people, mostly security forces, who were killed in armed attacks on the police and army from July through November of 2013. More have died since.
These are estimates by the Egyptian Center of Economic and Social Rights. The numbers tell a story, a story of killings, insurgent attacks, mass arrests, and fear in what the government calls a war on terror. But analysts say the oppressive practices of the government have created more space and sympathy for jihadists to operate.
Issandr el Amrani is the International Crisis Group's North African director.
ISSANDR EL AMRANI: The overthrow of Mohamed Morsi created a new narrative for Islamists, both non-violent Islamists who opposed his overthrow and the more radical ones in Sinai. It was a green light for the more radical element to wage a much more widespread campaign of violence.
FADEL: He says the effectiveness and the types of attacks are things Egypt hasn't seen for decades: a car bomb at the entrance of Cairo's security directorate last month, an attempt on the life of the Interior Minister, the brazen assassination of one of his top deputies in the center of the capital, and a militant downing a helicopter with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile in the Sinai and then posting the video online.
AMRANI: Something is shifting. I mean Egypt is becoming a legitimate target or a choice target for the international jihadist movement in a way that it wasn't before.
FADEL: Amrani says, only a few years ago, groups like al-Qaida deemed Egypt a no-go-zone, because the state was too strong and operating was too dangerous. And for a decade, there was a debate among Islamists over whether the path to power was through elections like the Muslim Brotherhood chose, or through violence like al-Qaida has chosen.
AMRANI: The perception among some Islamists is that, well, al-Qaida has now won this argument because the brothers took part in the democratic process, won. And now we're kicked out.
FADEL: So far there is no publicly disclosed evidence to link Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, whose leadership is mostly in jail, to the attacks on security forces. The Brotherhood continues to denounce violence and its leadership has only called for peaceful resistance to the military-backed interim government.
A Sinai-based extremist group, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, has claimed responsibility for most of the terror attacks. At least two Egyptians who'd fought in Syria's civil war have blown themselves up in Egypt under the auspices of Ansar Beit al Maqdis.
WALID BADR FORMER ARMY OFFICER: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: The first was Walid Badr an Egyptian who'd fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and who called on others to join the fight. He was the bomber who tried to kill Egypt's Minister of Interior.
OFFICER: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: In a video released by the group, the former army officer is dressed in his uniform and sitting in the car that later detonates with him inside. Don't stand with bare chests, he says to the camera, stand with homemade bombs and suicide vests, for we should kill as many of them as they kill of us.
The jihadist videos and calls to attack the Egyptian army have raised alarm bells for Egypt's security officials who've reacted with mass arrests. And with no evidence, the state blames pretty much all violence in Egypt on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Talaat Mosallam is a retired Egyptian general.
GENERAL TALAAT MOSALLAM: What they had done in one year convinced me that they are dangerous. Even their life, even their existence is dangerous for our country and for our nation.
FADEL: He says the Brotherhood is providing political cover for militant attacks carried out by others. His evidence? He knows them, he says, and they are dangerous. And while a political solution is important, he says right now a security solution is paramount.
MOSALLAM: We have no alternative. We have to defend the state.
FADEL: The crackdown on Islamists has broadened to anyone who voices dissent. Those who protest are described as inciters of violence or terrorists. Some of them aren't even members of the Muslim Brotherhood now designated as a terrorist group in Egypt. Some aren't even Islamists. Sayed Abdullah was killed on January 25 while protesting, his friends say. More than 100 others were killed that day, too. He carried no weapon. He was both anti-Brotherhood and anti the military leadership. He was shot twice by police, his friends say.
Outside the mosque where his family received condolences, young men waved white flags with Sayed's face on them and the words: You are in heaven.
AHMED ABDO: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: His friend Ahmed Abdo says that Sayed was protesting for justice, but he was killed and condemned as a terrorist. Abdo says those who killed his friend are the real terrorists. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.
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