In the most brutal attack against the Egyptian Coptic Christian minority in recent memory, ISIS bombed two churches on 9 April. At least 47 Egyptians were killed in Alexandria and Tanta, a small town in the Nile Delta. ISIS claimed responsibility for planting an explosive device under a seat at Tanta’s Saint George’s Church and for the suicide bombing at Alexandria’s Saint Marks’ Coptic Orthodox Cathedral – a few hours later. What does this mean for ISIS, the post-2011 Egypt, and its Coptic community, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East?
Firstly, this attack conforms to the group’s modus operandi of exporting Iraq-style sectarian tactics across the Middle East. The Islamic State has repeatedly attempted to inflame sectarian strife in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous state, where estimates put the Egyptian Coptic community at ten per cent of the country’s 94 million population. Four months ago, another ISIS suicide bomber killed 28 Christians in Cairo, while ISIS had organised the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya in February 2015. Smaller attacks against targets in Cairo and the Delta region, as well as a broader conflict in the remote area of the Sinai Peninsula, have been ongoing since 2013. Despite the state’s efforts, including installing x-ray machines at the entrance of major churches and heightening police protection, combatting the increasing sophistication of ISIS elements is no easy task.
Secondly, why target the Copts? The historically-vulnerable position of the Christian minority has made them an appealing target for extremist elements both ideologically and strategically. Copts have faced tense relations with both state elites as well as extremist Muslim elements for decades. The re-introduction of Islam in the public sphere by President Anwar Sadat led to frequently-violent clashes between Islamist groups and Christians since the 1970s, and led to a major emigration wave of Copts to Europe and North America.
In response, the Coptic leadership pursued closer relations with the government and the military establishment, despite state restrictions in religious freedom, such as building new churches or blasphemy laws. When the Church supported the removal of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi by then-Minister of Defence Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Copts were perceived as encouraging the military takeover of the Revolution, sparking renewed attacks.
A third important point to consider is that the Islamic State’s strategy of instigating massive sectarian upheaval across Egypt appears unpromising. Even when tensions peak – such as in the early phase of the Arab Spring, when the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt led to mass Coptic demonstrations and their violent putdown by the military during the 2011 Maspero Massacre – Egyptians have resisted a descent into mass communal violence. Given the country’s size and its historical and socio-political trajectory, dividing Egypt along sectarian lines is not likely.
Finally, is there no cause for concern? Not necessarily – the re-introduction of the nationwide state of emergency by now-President el-Sisi abrogates one of the few remaining victories of the 2011 Revolution, namely the 2014 Constitution's remarkable limitations on the executive’s ability to impose an indefinite state of exception. As state authorities are granted parliamentary permission to monitor social media sites and search homes without warrants, Egypt takes another step towards restoring the pre-2011 status quo: President Hosni Mubarak had introduced a state of emergency following the 1981 assassination of Sadat, and duly renewed it every three years until 2011. Given the fact that lifting the emergency law was one of the key demands of the 2011 Revolution, and that the Egyptian economy is currently confronted with extreme problems (including its inflation rate reaching a 30-year peak of 32.5 per cent in March, the country faces rough times ahead.
Dr Gerasimos Tsourapas
Lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Political Science and International Studies.