Analysis |

ISIS Takes Aim at Egypt's Soft Underbelly: Fragile Muslim-Christian Relations

In the attack on St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai ISIS revealed a new strategy

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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In this Dec. 9, 2013 file photo, visitors leave Saint Catherine's Monastery on camels, in Saint Catherine, Egypt.
In this Dec. 9, 2013 file photo, visitors leave Saint Catherine's Monastery on camels, in Saint Catherine, Egypt. Credit: Hiro Komae/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

St. Catherine of Alexandria was executed in the fourth century C.E. in Islamic State style. First she was tortured on a breaking wheel, and when that didn’t kill her, she was beheaded. This week, ISIS sent a reminder that the site sacred to the Greek Orthodox in Sinai, which is named after St. Catherine, didn’t enjoy the protection of the martyred saint when an Islamic State unit killed an Egyptian policeman in charge of protecting it.

Some 10 days after the twin terror attacks on churches in Egypt, killing at least 40 people, ISIS continues to apply its new strategy that doesn’t suffice with attacking security forces and random victims. Instead, it seeks to rend the fragile fabric of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt.

A few months ago, the Sinai city of El Arish was rocked by the murder of seven Christian civilians, which led to the flight of more than 40 Christian families from El Arish to Ismailia, where they are living as refugees until they can return to their homes.

The Egyptian government, which is very concerned that these attacks will morph into clashes between Christians and Muslims, is trying to assist these families, stationing guards around their homes, arranging alternative jobs for teachers who had to flee, and enrolling in their children, some 400 of them, in local schools. But such assistance hasn’t calmed the great tensions of recent days.

“There’s no difference between the Mubarak period and the period of Abdel Fattah al-Sissi,” said the deputy director of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, Ahmed Munir Mujahed. “Even now there’s not one Christian governor, not one senior Christian commander in the security forces, and not one Christian university president.”

In an interview published this week in Egypt, Mujahed demanded that Cairo not suffice with the war on radical Islamic terror. Instead, he said, it should seek to change the anti-Christian atmosphere. “What’s endangering Egypt today is religious discrimination against Christians,” he said.

Mujahed’s group has a few hundred members, both Christians and Muslims. It was founded in 2006 after attacks on churches in Cairo and has acted ever since as a watchdog against discrimination.

It works with the Morocco-based Believers without Borders, which studies religious discourse in Arab countries. This latter group published a six-volume study this month describing Egypt’s religious groups and relations between Egypt’s various governments and the country’s religious movements.

Intergenerational conflict

In an interview with the Egyptian website Al Modon, Samah Ismail, the executive director of the Daal center for research and media production, said the Coptic Church has traditionally tried to maintain good relations with the regime, and usually voiced support for Egypt’s presidents.

Praying in solidarity with Egyptian Copts, Ein Dor Church, Haifa, Israel. Credit: Haaretz

But this strategy took a blow during the Arab Spring when young Coptic men, against the wishes of their religious leaders, took part in demonstrations against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in October 2011. They established their own group and became active on social media.

This intergenerational conflict has put the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, in a serious dilemma. On the one hand he is working to show support for the new president, Sissi, and on the other trying to calm the young people who question Tawadros’ political authority.

Sissi, who understood the danger of the split in the Coptic community, which numbers 10 million to 12 million in a country of 82 million, launched precedent-setting legislation to assuage the Copts’ grievances, easing restrictions on new-church construction. The community welcomed the new law, and procedures were indeed eased, but they were still complex and plans for building new churches had to be approved by district governors.

The governors could decide, for example, that the size of the Coptic community did not warrant construction of a new church, or that a new church would constitute a “danger to public safety” because it would be too close to a mosque. The ambiguous legislation strengthens the claim that Sissi doesn’t want any real change in the relationship between the Copts and the regime.

“The education system in Egypt must be fundamentally changed, uprooting radical religious education from the schools,” said Mujahed of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination. He is also proposing a dramatic change in the status of Al-Azhar University, the most important Islamic institution in Egypt and probably the entire Muslim world.

Mujahed wants Al-Ahzar, now a university open to all, to become one for religious subjects only. Also, its students would have to have completed undergraduate degrees. The idea is for students to encounter liberal ideas during their general studies, not to come to religious studies straight out of high school, where religious studies are a requirement.

Sissi does his part

Mujahed’s bold proposals are far from being accepted by the Egyptian government, not to mention by Al-Azhar and other religious institutions, especially coming from someone considered a subversive. But Mujahed is far from a marginal figure. He was head of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority when he established the anti-discrimination group.

It seems someone in the Egyptian security apparatus didn’t like his dual role, and in 2015 his contract, under which he would keep working despite his official retirement, was canceled. The rationale he was given, “security reasons,” has never been explained to him.

Sissi has invited Muslim religious figures to apply his initiative to achieve a national conversation that’s not anti-Christian. Government media outlets devote a great deal of space to articles about proper religious discourse, and a number of laws are before Egypt’s parliament to prevent individuals from promulgating religious edicts if they’re not graduates of Al-Azhar.

This week, the important Egyptian commentator Mustafa Al-Faqi published a sharply worded article commending the Christians’ role in Egypt’s national movement, its wars and the Arab Spring.

But the media debate, like Sissi’s initiatives, has encountered resistance by radical religious movements, citing infringement on their right to freedom of expression and even disregard for religious commandments. And so Sissi is trying to act at least in the public arena, appearing for the first time at a Christmas mass, holding conversations with the Coptic pope and dispatching senior ministers to meet with Coptic leaders.

But the younger generation of Copts demands more significant steps that will increase their sense of safety, especially after the attacks on the churches made clear that security arrangements have failed. This is precisely the soft underbelly that the Islamic State is trying to attack, deepening the rift between Christians and the regime and between Muslims and Christians. This is the realm where the Islamic State might succeed even more than with its actions against tourism and the security forces.

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