Egypt’s Coptic community scaled down last weekend’s Easter celebrations following twin suicide bombings at churches in Tanta and Alexandria on April 9. These attacks killed 47 worshippers, reaping the highest toll ever among Copts who account for 10 per cent of Egypt’s 92 million people. Daesh-affiliate Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed the bombings and promised further attacks. The government responded by imposing a three-month state of emergency.
Although security was supposed to be tight around the targeted churches, this was provided by a private company hired by the Coptic Church rather than the authorities. Still the bombers succeeded, demonstrating once again that the government is unable or unwilling to exert a sufficient effort to protect this vulnerable community. The government does not crack down on mosque preachers who incite their congregations against Christians. One of the prime suspects in the Alexandria bombings was, reportedly, identified as a Daesh supporter by Kuwait and extradited to Egypt but released ahead of the attack. The interior ministry belatedly deployed troops and police to churches across the country, fearing violence during the visit at the end of this month by Roman Catholic Pope Francis.
The arrest on Easter of three alleged members of a terrorist group said to have been involved in the attacks is unlikely to calm Coptic fears or reduce Coptic anger. The detainees are also accused of the January killing of a policeman at a checkpoint in New Valley province.
Muhammad al-Ghoul, deputy head of Egypt’s human rights committee, accused jailed or fugitive leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and related groups of ordering their followers based in North Sinai province to carry out attacks against Christians. He demanded the closure of channels of communication and funding and speedy prosecution of perpetrators.
Last December a suicide bomber slew 29 worshippers at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in central Cairo and in recent weeks Daesh-affiliated fighters have driven hundreds of Copts from Northern Sinai. A video released in February called for war against “idolators,” Christians, Muslims and others who do not subscribe to Daesh’s ultra-puritan ideology.
Attacks against Copts should be anticipated and prepared for since they are traditionally targeted by Muslim radicals and troublemakers and often suffer from village feuds. Egyptian governments have for decades made a practice of playing off one community against the other, at the expense of the Copts.
A newspaper normally supportive of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Al-Bawabeh, called the bombings a “major security lapse,” urged the government to hold the perpetrators accountable, and demanded a new strategy for combating terrorism. Commentators in other media accuse the government of using the fight against terrorism to arrest secular dissidents and critics while failing to tackle Daesh terrorism.
Sisi won 97 per cent of the vote in the 2014 election after pledging to end violence stirred by the Muslim Brotherhood following the 2013 ouster of president Muhammad Morsi, a Brotherhood stalwart. Unfortunately for Sisi, a former army chief and head of military intelligence, Daesh attacks have multiplied and grown more deadly.
While Daesh is facing elimination in Iraq and Syria, the cult seems to be gaining strength in Egypt. Sisi’s failure to stabilise the economy, his second most important task, in order to improve the lives of poor Egyptians has increased alienation and radicalisation.
Instead of building roads, schools and clinics, he has focused on high profile projects, like the unprofitable expansion of the Suez Canal and the creation of new agricultural lands for exploitation by businessmen rather than farmers. He has failed to reform the massive bureaucracy which discourages potential foreign investors. Tourism, a foreign currency earner and large-scale employer, has collapsed. To qualify for a $12.5 billion (Dhs45.9b) International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan Sisi has cut subsidies which keep the poor in food and fuel.
Following devaluation of Egypt’s currency inflation has soared from 14 to more than 30 per cent. Fuel prices are set to rise due to a reduction in subsidies. Youth unemployment has reached 40 per cent. During a visit to Washington Sisi met IMF director Christine Lagarde who said the organisation is working “to help the government and the central bank bring inflation under control and supports the steps the Egyptian authorities are taking to protect its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.” Sisi praised Egyptians for their “patience and understanding of the latest economic measures despite their harshness.”
Egyptian patience is, however, wearing thin. When protests erupted in mid-March over food shortages, rising prices, and the decision to reduce the number of loaves of bread in subsidised packets, demonstrators in a number of Egyptian cities took to the streets shouting, “Down with Sisi.” General Muhammad Mansour added insult to injury when he told Egyptians to “sacrifice their dinners” to boost the faltering economy. His words, recorded on video and picked up by social media, sparked widespread outrage.
Millions of Egyptians, who rose up in January 2011 against Hosni Mubarak’s luxury-living, uncaring regime, remain marginalised. Weary of marches, demonstrations, bomb blasts, and shootings they are, for the time being, largely silent. Patience is not the key factor. Insecurity is, even though the government has not been able to suppress Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and similar radical groupings which continue to kill and maim innocent civilians as well as police and soldiers.
Until grievances of the populace are addressed, Daesh, al-Qaeda and their offshoots will continue to win recruits from rebellious, vengeful, undereducated and unemployed youth in Egypt and across the world.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict