Christians as bellwether in Egypt's anti-terror campaign

by JAKUB GORSKI April 12, 2017

On April 9th, Palm Sunday, two Coptic Churches were bombed in Egypt. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed at least 49 and wounded 78 of Egypt's largest Christian minority. Coptic Christians make up about 10 Percent of Egypt's population and have come under attack from Islamic terrorists many times before.

The latest attacks occurred in St. George's Church in Tanta and St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria during Palm Sunday Services when the churches were packed with people. The Egyptian authorities have not released the identities of the terrorists, but they are believed to be Egyptian nationals.

In response Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency and promised to form a supreme council to combat terrorism and extremism. Police and military presence has been increased in the cities and around Christian Churches. The measures are meant to protect Coptic Christians and make sure that the country is safe for Pope Francis' visit at the end of April.

With Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the country and IS suffering setbacks in Syria and Iraq, it is likely that the suicide bombings were intended as prelude to a wave of terrorist attacks targeting Egypt's Christians.

IS already controls a part of the Sinai Peninsula where its Wilayah Sinai (IS-Sinai) branch has been targeting Christians and Muslims it considers apostates. In March the Wilayah Sinai released a video entitled "The Light of Sharia" where it boasted of implementing Sharia law on its lands.

Beginning as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) in 2011 the Wilayah Sinai has conducted terrorist attacks on the peninsula and in mainland Egypt. Due to their attacks on the Egyptian army and oil pipelines the government placed Northern Sinai under a state of emergency in October 2014. ABM swore allegiance to the Islamic State in November of 2014 and became the Wilayah Sinai.

Islamic State Wilayah Sinai has since conducted coordinated attacks on Egyptian military bases and Christian churches, such as the recent suicide bombings. Islamic State has already declared more attacks to be on the way, which might force Coptic Christians to flee Egypt in order to escape prosecution.

By February 2017 more than 100 Coptic families had already fled Sinai to escape the Islamic State. Copts have also fled abroad to countries such as Australia and Georgia. They have also tried going to the United States, but during Obama's whole term only 22 were admitted. Should the Islamic State continue its attacks more Coptic Christians might flee Egypt to avoid being targeted.

This would likely be viewed as a win for Islamists because it would make them appear capable of driving out religious minorities despite facing the full force of Egyptian security forces. The ability of Coptic Christians to worship safely has become a bellwether for President al-Sisi campaign against Islamists and so continued IS attacks may begin cast doubts on the success of his counterterrorism campaign against Egyptian jihadists.

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Jakub Gorski writes for the Center for Security Policy

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