By Tom Perry
CAIRO (Reuters) - If there was any hope left that the generals who overthrew Egypt's elected president six months ago might ease the state's crackdown on dissent, a suicide bomb that ripped through a police station on Tuesday may have destroyed it.
The most populous Arab country enters the new year with deeper divisions in its society and more bloodshed on its streets than at any point in its modern history. The prospects for democracy appear bleaker with every bomb blast and arrest.
The army-backed government says it will shepherd Egypt back to democracy and points out that the state defeated Islamist militants when they last launched waves of attacks in the 1990s. But this time around there are more weapons and harder ideologies, and a bitter example of a failed democratic experiment to toughen positions on all sides.
Like much of the recent violence, the bombing that killed 16 people on Tuesday was bloodier than all but the very worst attacks of the 1990s. The tactic of using suicide bombers to hit security forces is more familiar to Iraq or Syria than to Egypt, which for all its history of militancy is one of the few big Arab states that has never experienced a modern civil war.
The blast was claimed by a Sinai Peninsula-based Islamist militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has stepped up attacks on government targets in recent months and narrowly failed to assassinate the interior minister in September.
The blast set off mob attacks on the shops, homes and vehicles of people believed to be supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood.
"After the funerals of the martyrs, angry people smashed my pharmacy and my brother's shop," said Mohamed Heikal, a Brotherhood activist in the city of Mansoura, scene of Tuesday's bombing. "We had nothing to do with what happened," he said, condemning the bombing as a terrorist attack.
With much of the public feverishly backing the government's calls to uproot the Brotherhood, talk of political accommodation is non-existent. Analysts see little or no chances of a political deal to stabilize a nation in turmoil since Hosni Mubarak's downfall in 2011.
Signs of escalation abound. Mursi and other top Brotherhood leaders have been ordered to stand trial on charges that could lead to their execution. They are charged with conspiring with foreigners to carry out a terrorist plot against Egypt.
The government of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi on Wednesday formally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, accusing it of carrying out the attack.
Meanwhile, the frequency of attacks suggests militants are taking centre stage within the Islamist movement, further diminishing hopes of the state reaching an accommodation with moderates and strengthening the hawks in government.
One consequence could be to increase the chances of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi becoming Egypt's next president.
The army chief who deposed Mursi after mass protests against Brotherhood rule has yet to decide whether to run, an army source said. Though Sisi would almost certainly win were he to run, the source said he is hesitant partly due to the mountain of problems awaiting Egypt's next head of state.
But analysts say the increase in violence makes it less likely Sisi and those around him would trust anyone else with the reins of power.
"The more dire the situation becomes, the less a second tier civilian candidate will be seen able to take charge of the situation," said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think-tank. "This type of deterioration will increase pressure on Sisi to run."
MOST SOLDIERS KILLED SINCE '73 WAR
Crowds that gathered outside the compound hit in Tuesday's attack to show support for the security forces brandished Sisi's portrait.
Egypt has experienced violence for decades including the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an Islamist gunman in 1981, and attacks on tourist sites in the 1990s that hurt the economy. But civil bloodshed has now reached an unprecedented level.
A conservative estimate puts the overall death toll since Mursi's fall at well over 1,500. Most of those killed were Mursi supporters, including hundreds gunned down when the security forces cleared a protest vigil outside a Cairo mosque.
At least 350 members of the security forces have also been killed in bombings and shootings since Mursi's downfall. The state has declared them martyrs of a war on terror.
The army has suffered its greatest casualties since the 1973 Middle East war, most of them in the Sinai Peninsula, where the most heavily armed Islamists are based.
The blood spilt since Mursi's downfall has evoked comparisons with Algeria - a country pitched into a decade of civil war in 1991 when its army aborted an experiment with democracy because Islamists looked set to win power.
Some dismiss that comparison, arguing the past failures of militants in Egypt should dissuade Islamists from following that path.
But as the attacks spread beyond the Sinai Peninsula, the risks are compounded by the large quantities of weapons smuggled in from neighboring Libya since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, in a war that saw his arsenals looted by rebels.
"This particular incident shows that the group operating in Mansoura is very organized, well equipped and capable," said Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayid, a professor of political science at Cairo University, referring to the Nile Valley town where Tuesday's attack took place.
"This points to the difficulty of any kind of compromise between the government and Islamist groups."
FREEDOMS IN DANGER
The Brotherhood, most of whose leadership are in jail, continues to reiterate its mantra of peaceful resistance and denies turning to violence.
It is pressing a campaign of protests on university campuses where its followers routinely clash with the police.
But as that strategy fails to make much of an impact, there is a risk of radical logic winning over its supporters, posing a threat to the Brotherhood itself.
Analysts believe the security establishment now has a firm grip over the course of government, reasserting political influence that diminished after the 2011 uprising. Activists say the freedoms won in that uprising are in danger.
The state has widened a crackdown on dissent, on December 22 jailing three leading secular activists to three years in prison for breaking a law that severely curbs the right to protest - a major blow against those behind the January 25, 2011 revolution.
"What we see now is a security apparatus that really seems to be out of control, going after individuals and groups it has grudges against," said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University.
"You do sometimes hear murmurs that people in the leadership worry that an overly harsh set of actions will make the political divisions in Egypt worse, and there has to be some kind of lessening of the security crackdown.
"This bombing puts off that date."
Khaled Dawoud, a liberal politician, said the wave of Islamist attacks will make calls for reconciliation even less popular. He has continued to call for a political accommodation even after being stabbed by Mursi supporters in October.
"In any country where terrorism takes place, public freedoms and hopes for democracy suffer a retreat. That is the law of gravity," he said.
(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Peter Graff and David Evans)