FOLLOWING the subway bombing incident earlier this month in St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, violent attacks took place a day apart in Stockholm and Cairo, the capitals of Sweden and Egypt, respectively. Another wave of terrorist hits appears to have reared its ugly head.
What happened in Stockholm last week resembled the callous attacks during a parade at the southern French port city of Nice last year, as well as the remorseless assault on Westminster Bridge in the British capital last month, when a terrorist simply drove a vehicle into crowds of pedestrians, killing and maiming many. Although this was not the first instance of terrorism occurring in Sweden, the choice of a pacifist Northern European country to carry out such a dastardly act still seems inexplicable.
Historically, Sweden is of course no pushover, having held sway over large portions of northern and central Europe at the height of its power, with its ancient warrior kings rampaging through European battlefields. But Sweden has toned down remarkably over the centuries. A famous and rather successful Swedish merchant of explosives, Alfred Nobel, even endowed a set of prestigious international awards bestowed in a number of categories in recognition of academic, cultural or scientific advances, although the prize for peace is awarded in Norway.
Modern Sweden is also renowned in the global diplomatic arena for its more or less neutral stance. Many a protracted international problem, if not mediated by the strictly neutral Switzerland, is often also conciliated by Sweden. Besides its famous product brands of Ericsson, Volvo, Ikea and Saab, Sweden is known for at least one other captivating incident, and that was the arrest warrant it issued a few years ago against Julian Assange, the founder of information exposure website Wikileaks.
Conceivably, Sweden must have weighed carefully its renowned high degree of freedom of information against the necessity as perceived by its law enforcement authorities to act against such a legendary figure in exposing misdeeds worldwide. In any case, Assange chose to board himself up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, ostensibly confronting the British authorities intent on extraditing him to Sweden to assist in the investigation into alleged sexual misconduct.
Sweden is of course also well known for its rather liberal asylum policy. After every major conflict around the world, Sweden is sure to be expected to take in a number of refugees or victims of war. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some terrorists may have taken advantage of such generosity and slipped into Sweden, hiding out until the opportune time came to attack. Indeed, both suspects in the Stockholm and St Petersburg attacks possess similar backgrounds, having hailed from Central Asia. It would therefore appear that at least some of the terrorist threats against Russia as discussed in a previous column may have crossed borders into the rest of Europe.
And in distressed Egypt, the new wave of terrorist attacks mainly took the form of suicide bombing, having blown up a few churches, resulting in a few dozen casualties. Egypt is unfortunately a dismaying example in the Arab world. At one point Egypt was the undisputed leading power in the region. This was especially so under the rule of the strongman Gamel Nasser, who advocated Pan-Arabism and even united into a short-lived confederacy with Syria and Iraq. Cairo used to rank high with Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, as the cultural and educational hubs of the Arab world. Anwar Sadat took Egypt to another diplomatic height by concluding a peace treaty with its mortal enemy, Israel, and sharing the Nobel Peace Prizein 1978 with Isreaeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
The downturn, I suspect, came when Sadat was assassinated during a military parade by elements of the Egyptian army upset with his peace initiative which they regarded as selling out the country’s interest. Hosni Mubarak who took over from Sadat continued the peace initiative and maintained cordial working relations with the major power of the West. But Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron grip for three decades. Corruption was rampant, secret police roamed the country to maintain his autocratic regime. Economic development also left much to be desired, resulting in miserable lives for many Egyptians. As such, similar to many other Arab examples, a sizable portion of the Egyptian population turned inexorably to the comfort of religion. They supported the so-called Muslim Brotherhood, a religio-political organization which sometimes dabbles in secular politics but more often engages in extremist activities.
The Arab Spring revolution succeeded in toppling Mubarak. But in the ensuing democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood won power. As these religiously zealous politicians were rolled out increasingly extremist policies, the more or less strictly secular Egyptian military struck and claimed power for themselves.
Egypt looks likely to continue to waver between military rule and religious extremism for the foreseeable future, however deplorable that might seem. In the meantime, a wave of terrorism appears to have swept across at least two continents, sending alarm bells even to our part of the world.