Christians face ISIS attacks in Egypt
Cairo - The Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai has carried out attacks against Christians in North Sinai, creating Egypt’s first ISIS violence-induced internal displacement crisis, experts said.
ISIS is apparently trying to embarrass Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ahead of his planned visit to the United States and show that Egypt is incapable of protecting its largest minority, despite Sisi’s promises to defend the Christians.
“The army has been fighting against Sinai militants for three years now, a period during which the militants had not singled Christians out for their attacks,” said Megahid al-Zayat, director of the National Centre for Middle East Studies think-tank. “They are doing this only now, which shows that the timing of the attacks matters.”
Dozens of Christian families have left their homes in the North Sinai cities of El Arish and Sheikh Zuweid after militants killed several Christians.
Egyptian authorities said 118 families had fled ISIS violence to Ismailia where they were given accommodations, their children admitted into schools and universities and elders offered financial support.
ISIS militants recently killed eight Christians, including a man and his son whose home in El Arish was burned with their corpses inside.
The attacks came a few days after ISIS threatened Egypt’s Christians, whom it calls “infidels”. Last December, ISIS claimed responsibility for bombing a Cairo cathedral, killing 26 people.
The events and the apparent lack of response from authorities left a bitter taste in the mouths of the country’s Christians.
“The situation of the Christians has become so precarious in Egypt,” said Christian researcher Ishaq Ibrahim. “State protection is becoming rare.”
There is no official figure for the number of Christian residents in North Sinai but independent estimates put them at 4,000. Some of the displaced Christians complained that army troops and police personnel in North Sinai are so busy protecting their checkpoints from ISIS attacks that they have little chance to defend civilians.
This can be true on the surface but the fact is that the army is scoring huge victories against the militants, experts said.
Having killed and arrested scores of militants in recent weeks, the army, which has posted close to 40,000 troops in its Sinai operations, is pushing into Mount Halal in the eastern Sinai and a no-go area for the military for years.
The mount is believed to be ISIS’s last refuge in the peninsula, which borders both Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
“This operation will significantly undermine the terrorist group and destroy its command centre,” said Osama Radi, a retired army general and a member of the National Security Committee in parliament. “This is why I say ISIS’s anti-Christians drive aims to deflect attention from this operation and enshroud its success.”
The attacks on Christians also aim to strangle Egypt’s tourism sector, which had been showing signs of recovery after a number of countries lifted flight suspensions to tourist sites, other experts said.
In November 2015, ISIS downed a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, killing all 224 passengers and crew members aboard. Subsequent actions by various countries, including Russia and Britain, caused a large drop in Egyptian tourism, a sector that in 2010 was worth $12 billion in revenues. In 2016, tourism revenues were $5.6 billion and tourist inflows were down more than 60%.
The timing of the attacks against the Christians cannot be worse, experts said. Sisi has sent his Foreign minister to Washington to prepare for his first visit to the White House with US President Donald Trump.
Before the election Trump called Sisi a “fantastic guy” and expressed admiration of his “tough approach to wipe out the Islamists” when he travelled to New York in last September to meet the Egyptian president, who was attending the UN General Assembly meeting.
“The displacement of scores of Christian families is a huge affront to a president who wants to project the image of a strong ruler heavily and mercilessly cracking down on ISIS,” Zayat said. “The protection of the Christian minority matters highly for Egypt’s ties with the mainly Christian West, which is why such attacks were the last thing Sisi wants now.”
Sisi said the attacks were planned to divide Egyptians and lead Christians to think the army is not doing enough to protect them.
“Why this timing in particular?” Sisi asked on February 28th at a youth leadership programme organised by the presidency. “Are we going to make some [outside] visits? What is the message they [ISIS] want to deliver? Isn’t this the country that fights terrorism? [They want to make the world believe that because] these people were forced to leave their homes it proves that Egypt is not effective [in fighting terrorism].”