Terrorists hit at the heart of Egypt’s diversity

Sunday 16/04/2017
Common fate. Minarets of a mosque and the cross above a church are seen at the agricultural road that leads to the capital city of Cairo, on April 11. (Reuters)

Cairo - The surge in terrorist at­tacks against Egypt’s Christians divulges the success of terrorist organi­sations carrying out these attacks in achieving their goals. The same groups are widening the geo­graphic scope of their attacks and the social segments they target.

By targeting Christians, observ­ers said, radical Islamist groups achieve different political aims. These groups, they added, hit at the heart of strong relations between the Christians and Egypt’s political leadership. They also tried to affect Egypt’s growing regional impor­tance, they said.

This might explain the April 9 at­tacks claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai against two churches, one in the northern coastal city of Alexandria and the other in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, north of Cairo. The attacks occurred at nearly the same time and while Christians were celebrating Palm Sunday. They left 45 people dead and more than 100 others wounded.

The effects of the bombings can be far-reaching compared to other attacks by Islamist groups. One of the attacks took place at Alexan­dria’s Saint Mark’s Church where Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II was praying minutes earlier.

The two attacks cannot be viewed in isolation from others staged by ISIS against Christians since late last year. The radical group has ex­panded to other Egyptian provinc­es and is coordinating with smaller armed groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This change of tactics was evident in the bombing of a Cairo chapel in December. The attack left 25 people dead and 31 others wounded. Then there were repeated attacks against Christians in North Sinai, which culminated in the evacuation of 120 Christian families from al-Arish to cities in the Nile Delta.

Kamal Habib, an expert in Islam­ist groups, said ISIS has started ap­plying a new strategy, one that be­gan to transpire in the second half of last year.

“The strategy focuses on target­ing minorities that follow different thoughts or faiths,” Habib said. “By doing this, ISIS aims to sow seeds of division among Egyptians, an ob­jective it failed to achieve by target­ing policemen and army personnel earlier.”

In November, ISIS killed Sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz, a 98-year-old who used to head the Sufi order in Sinai. The group targeted several people it accused either of sorcery or spying for the authorities.

Sectarianism, Habib said, is a ba­sic tenet of the ideology of terrorist organisations, which can be seen clearly in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya. He added that ISIS targets Shia groups to spark sectar­ian tensions.

Animosity towards Christians is deeply rooted in the thinking of Egypt’s Islamist groups. The au­thorities’ failure to properly deal with such incidents has led to their escalation.

Hostility towards the Christians reached its peak in the 1980s. Attacks against the Chris­tians also increased following the 2011 uprising against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.

ISIS’s new strategy goes hand in hand with the historical back­ground of armed groups in Egypt, which explains coordination be­tween the two sides in recent ter­rorist attacks, security sources said.

There is a strong similarity, they added, between the December bombing of the Cairo chapel and the attacks at the churches in Alex­andria and Tanta.

It is usually easy to stage attacks during Christian religious occasions because security personnel rarely succeed in controlling the crowds of people arriving at churches for services.

By choosing to hit on these oc­casions, ISIS seeks to invite mas­sive attention because of the large number of victims. It also seeks to deliver the message that Egypt is not safe.

Organisations such as ISIS, Abdel Gelil al-Sharnoubi, an expert in Is­lamist groups, said, know that at­tacks against Christians cause anger in the West.

“This is why these attacks are usually used as a pressure card against the Egyptian regime,” Shar­noubi said.

He referred to what he described as “incitement,” especially on the website of the Muslim Brother­hood, in the past months for radi­cal groups to stage attacks against Christians. He said incendiary mes­sages were addressed to all radi­cal groups, including Brotherhood members, Salafist jihadists and ISIS operatives.

Some observers said this incite­ment was particularly rampant during the visit Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi paid to the United States this month as pro- Brotherhood sites ran news that the Coptic Orthodox Church had asked its followers in the United States to express support for Sisi.

“The Brotherhood always tries to settle scores with all groups backing Sisi as part of its larger war against the government,” said Sharnoubi, who was a member of the Brother­hood but left it years ago. “By do­ing this, the movement hopes it can make any political victories against this government.”