Copts attacked: Can Egypt resist ISIS incitement of sectarian strife?

The ISIS bombing attacks against Coptic churches is testing a fault line in Egyptian society. The Christian minority has faced Muslim mob violence before, but not a full-scale sectarian campaign.

In this photo provided by Egypt's state news agency, MENA, President Abdel-Fatteh el-Sissi, right, offers condolences to Coptic Pope Tawadros II for the victims of twin bombings on Palm Sunday in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, at St. Mark's Cathedral, in Cairo, Thursday, April 13, 2017.

When the Islamic State attacked two Egyptian Coptic churches, killing 45 people on Palm Sunday, it not only threatened Christians but sought to put all Egyptians on notice it was bringing sectarian carnage to Egypt.

After several years of largely escaping the sectarian violence and jihadist insurgencies sweeping much of the Middle East, Egypt’s heartland is now squarely in ISIS’s crosshairs as the group attempts to inflame long-simmering tensions between Muslims and the Copts, the largest Christian population in the region.

Those tensions, which have occasionally erupted in mob violence, made the minority ancient Christian community a convenient target for ISIS. But it remains to be seen whether the jihadist group, whose activities until recently were concentrated in the Sinai Peninsula east of the Suez Canal, can escalate violence in the mainland.

Last Sunday’s bombings – in Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Tanta – and a church bombing in December, involved something Egypt has never seen: a suicide bombing by an Egyptian national targeting Egyptian civilians.

Such suicide bombings have become commonplace in Iraq, Syria, and even Lebanon. But not in Egypt – the Arab world’s most populous country and a key US ally – where groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS have struggled to gain traction in the past.

“There is a significant difference between mob violence, communal violence, and the suicide bombing of three churches in four months,” says Mokhtar Awad, research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

“This is unprecedented by any stretch.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sent troops to protect churches around the country and declared a three-month state of emergency. Coptic churches in the southern province of Minya said they would not celebrate Easter in mourning for the victims of the Palm Sunday attack. But Egypt’s efforts to defeat the ISIS insurgency and prevent a descent into widespread sectarian violence will be complicated by Islamist-fueled resentments of the Copts and the prospect that heavy-handed measures could drive potential sympathizers into the arms of the jihadists.

Targeting Christians

Egypt is no stranger to terrorism and Islamist insurgencies.

In the 1990s, Islamic Jihad and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, the Islamic Group, waged a campaign of terror across Egypt, killing hundreds of intellectuals, police, foreign tourists, and even targeting former President Hosni Mubarak himself.

The groups were responsible for a series of assassinations, shootings, and stabbings of policemen, officers, and secular Egyptians that claimed more than 700 lives. A public backlash against the groups’ violence after the 1997 massacre of 62 tourists and police in Luxor forced them to distance themselves from the attack.

Despite the campaigns, the groups never gained a large following, captured territory, or threatened the country’s stability.

Egypt’s Copts, who make up 10 percent of the country’s 90 million population, have been targets of violence in the past.

Mob violence has occasionally erupted across the country, leading vandals to burn down churches or Christian homes and businesses. Yet these attacks were often riots fueled by rumors and social tensions, such as the alleged prevention of a Christian from converting to Islam or cross-faith couples eloping.

One of the largest waves of anti-Christian violence was after the 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Morsi – democratically elected after the stunning fall of President Mubarak in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – and the army’s bloody crackdown against a sit-in by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in which nearly 1,000 Islamists were killed.

Brotherhood officials singled out Copts, and particularly Coptic Pope Tawadros, for being complicit in the General Sisi-led military coup, and Christians were the target of angry supporters.

In August 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that mob violence led by Brotherhood supporters damaged 42 churches and dozens of schools and businesses owned by Copts across Egypt, killing several and trapping Christians in their homes.

Following the Brotherhood attacks, as in previous instances of Muslim mob violence, the Egyptian government has sought to assure the Coptic community that it had the support and protection of the government, though community officials repeatedly have expressed concerns at what they see as a lack of government follow-up after the violence subsides.

Fault lines

Islamist circles and some Muslims across Egypt, meanwhile, use rhetoric deriding Christians as a “favored class” that is “hoarding wealth” and benefits from the regime, fault-lines that ISIS is looking to exploit.

Brotherhood officials and Salafi politicians also have previously expressed their distrust of Copts, saying they are “standing in between Egypt and Islam.”

Experts say these are prejudices that ISIS is attempting to tap into, in order to escalate “distrust” into full-scale war.

“There has been a kind of anti-Semitic trope, some of the most commonplace, longstanding bigoted things carried by Islamists and some Muslims that Christians control everything and are taking all the wealth,” says Mr. Awad, the George Washington research fellow.

“All ISIS is doing to that discourse is simply adding that, ‘Not only are they the enemy, but it is your duty to kill them.’ ”

In February, ISIS issued a video message to all Egyptians: Christians were now targets.

In the video, which featured clips and images of prominent Copt businessmen and politicians, ISIS announced that Christians were no longer dhimmi, or protected non-Muslims, but were now “infidels.”

It is unclear whether ISIS’s ploy will be effective in the long-run.

Previous jihadist violence, such as the Luxor massacre and the targeting of schools in the 1990s, swung public opinion firmly against hard-line Islamists.

Yet ISIS and its affiliated groups have proved able to find willing members.

Authorities announced that the attacker in the Alexandria blast was an Egyptian citizen, Mahmoud Mubarak. Experts say the bomber’s identity, combined with the reports that authorities have arrested hundreds in the Sinai, is a sign that ISIS and its affiliates have a support base.

“In the 1980s and '90s, jihadist groups had a membership of a few hundred. ISIS has proven that it has a network with supporters that may reach the thousands,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert in jihadist movements.

State of emergency

Sisi has warned of a “long and painful” war against jihadists, and under the three-month state of emergency, the president has sweeping powers to refer citizens to security courts, censor media, impose a curfew and monitor and intercept social media.

Rights groups have expressed concern over Sisi’s use of the powers, noting that his government already has put more than 60,000 people in jail – mostly activists.

But the state of emergency, which must be renewed with a two-thirds parliament majority, may also raise expectations among Egyptians.

“The question is, what happens after these three months? People will expect results, which will be difficult to live up to,” says Mirette Mabrouk, deputy director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Yet the Egyptian government’s heavy hand – particularly its crackdown across the Sinai, during which the military has demolished homes – has already pushed some residents into the ranks of jihadist groups, experts say.

“The jihadist movements in the 1980s and '90s failed because the political climate was different,” says Mr. Abu Haniya. “The Brotherhood were in parliament and Mubarak was then seen by many as legitimate.

“With the 2013 coup, it has all changed – with a dictatorial regime using force, more groups and individuals that would not ideologically side with jihadists are believing the peaceful path is over.”

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