An attack on churches is an attack on Egypt’s soft underbelly, a challenge to the ability of the country’s security forces to protect the Christian minority. It is a slap in the face to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who since his election in 2014 has been trying to achieve a reconciliation with Egypt’s Christians.
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The claim of responsibility for Sunday’s attacks on two Coptic churches by the Islamic State organization does not move the war on terror in Egypt to the international level. It is part of a years-long battle between Islamic extremist groups — whether under the aegis of Al-Qaida, Islamic State or neither — and the government, from Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak to Sissi.
It is first and foremost a violent political struggle that has escalated since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted and the Muslim Brotherhood declared a terror organization, three years ago.
It is being waged on two main fronts, northern Sinai and Egypt’s densely populated cities. In Sinai, the main targets are members of the military and security forces, while in the cities, the targets are mainly civilians. But an assault on churches has immediate international repercussions; the international community is much more upset when the victims are Christians rather than Muslims, who are considered an inseparable part of what the West considers the “community of terror.”
But even when the victims are Christian, the West seems to have a different calculus in these circumstances. Whereas an attack on Christians in Europe or the United States is considered a blow against “the West,” such an attack in a Muslim country ranks lower on the outrage scale. It is seen as “only” as part of a domestic ethnic and religious conflict that supposedly doest not pose a threat to “the West.” This artificial, skewed distinction is especially true in regard to Egypt.
Only in December, 29 people died when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral. In February, 40 Christian families fled El Arish after seven of their coreligionists in the city were murdered. In Cairo and in southern Egypt, Christians have been killed in “local” brawls. Promises by the president to vigilantly guard Christian institutions have led to increased security for these institutions, especially during holidays, but as was seen in Sunday’s attacks, the security provided is insufficient. In addition to known flash points, the main problem in Egypt is twofold.
For years, generations even, institutionalized discrimination against the Christian minority has signaled to the public that harming Christians is tolerated. Regulations against the construction of new churches, exclusion from local and national decision-making and the whitewashing of investigations into lethal clashes are only some of the components of this discrimination.
The other, possibly more critical problem, is religious incitement against Christians by Muslim extremists. Egypt’s Religious Edicts Authority found at least 3,000 rulings by religious figures and officials that call on the Muslim faithful to destroy churches, to avoid contact with Christians and even to shun them to the point of not greeting them.
Sissi’s initiative, which included new, even revolutionary legislation easing many restrictions on building churches, has not materially changed the situation in Egypt, in part because it is vague and bureaucratically cumbersome. His call for a new, liberal Islamic discourse that treats minorities in an egalitarian fashion has been met by with resistance by conservative religious leaders.
The challenge for Sissi, who has written a new chapter in Egyptian-U.S. relations, will be to demonstrate, at least, an uncompromising position against terror that targets a particular religion — which could be more dangerous than “ordinary” terror — and above all, to push the Muslim religious conversation in a new direction. This, because this type of terror has the potential to set off an uncontrollable, explosive chain reaction.