Egypt: Islamic State fans flame of sectarianism
Sisi adds to his armoury by declaring state of emergency
The fear among many of Egypt’s Coptic Christians is that the two suicide bombings which killed 44 people and injured more than 100 at churches on Palm Sunday are just a taste of worse to come in Islamic State’s ongoing campaign. Such concerns had earlier seen the beleaguered community swing behind President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s 2013 overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood with the promise he would protect them. The latest attacks and the driving out of Copts from Sinai in February, under threat of assassination, has inevitably undermined that confidence in Sisi who has sought to portray himself as a bulwark against sectarianism and terrorism.
The attacks came just as Sisi returned from the US where he met President Donald Trump and, to his delight, obtained a ringing endorsement of his authoritarian methods and campaign against Islamists. (He might note that Trump said as much of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad until last week). And the Egyptian president proceeded immediately to add to his armoury by declaring a state of emergency, deploying troops around the country and, ominously, warning the press against repeated coverage of massacres and of the need to “deal with the issue with credibility and responsibility”.
Exactly what new powers he has assumed, or why, is not clear as the authorities seem to have no inhibition already in jailing and torturing oppositionists in large numbers – now, presumably, with Trump’s explicit blessing, even less so – while the media is also severely circumscribed. The country lived under a state of emergency for all of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and again for three months in 2013 .
Islamic State said two of its fighters wearing suicide vests carried out the attacks. It also warned of more to come, part of its strategy – akin to its targeting of Shia minorities in Iraq and elsewhere – to fuel sectarian conflict; in this case between Egypt’s majority Sunni population and its nine million Copts. The latter are the biggest Christian minority community in the Middle East. In February, scores of Christian families and students fled Egypt’s North Sinai province after a spate of targeted killings. That followed one of the deadliest attacks when a suicide bomber hit Egypt’s largest Coptic cathedral, killing at least 25 people.
Sunday’s attacks come just weeks before a planned visit to Egypt by Pope Francis, the latest step in a long-running effort, since his elevation to the papacy in 2013, to forge stronger ties between the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders. Relations had become strained in 2011 when Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, implicitly denounced Islam and what he called “a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target”, after a bombing at a church in Alexandria killed at least 23 people. The visit by Francis, if it goes ahead, is likely to be a security nightmare.