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State of emergency and targeting churches in Egypt

Funeral ceremony is held at Church of the Virgin Mary for the victims of the explosion at Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Abbasiya district, in Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt on December 12, 2016.
Funeral ceremony is held at Church of the Virgin Mary for the victims of the explosion at Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Abbasiya district, in Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt on 12 December, 2016

Egypt did not need an exciting event to enter the horizon of tyranny and dictatorship. Since the military coup in July 2013, the authoritarian measures have increased and exceptional provisions have grown. The coordinated attacks on the churches have pushed the country towards completing a totalitarian despotic government. This is because the political coalitions and popular mandates did not realise that the slogan “Egypt is fighting terrorism” would ultimately achieve the goal of reproducing the security military state under the pretext of protecting the government and ensuring stability. The classification of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist movement on 25 December 2013 was only a preliminary step in the path towards the inevitable abuse of the entire spectrum of political and civil society.

After the church attacks on 9 April 2017, which targeted two churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria killing 45 people and injuring 125 others, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi declared a state of emergency throughout Egypt for three months.  This is the first declaration of the state of emergency since the announcement of the 2014 constitution, when the parliament consensually approved the imposition of the state of emergency two days after it. This is an exceptional state that allows the president and government to take extraordinary measures that include the referral of suspects to State Security Courts, restrict the freedom of people to convene, move, reside, or pass through at specific places or times. It also allows them to charge anyone with any task and order the monitoring of any kind of message, in addition to newspapers, publications, pamphlets, or cartoons, as well as any means of expression or advertisement before it is published. They also have the power to seize and confiscate such materials and close companies which print the material.

 Read: Egypt is a big prison

There is no doubt that the exceptional measures imposed by the Emergency Law will not affect the operations of Daesh and its branch in Sinai since the organisation does not operate publically, instead relying on secrecy and the actions of its members are subject to its own requirements, its messages and propaganda, meaning they do not comply with legal regulations. The organisation claimed responsibility for the bombing of the two churches and vowed more attacks via its news agency, Amaq. They also revealed the identity of those bombing the St. George Church in Tanta and St Mark’s Church in Alexandria. They claimed that Abu Ishaq Al Masri, detonated his explosive vest in St. George in Tanta, while Abu Al-Baraa Al Masri detonated his suicide belt in the St. Mark Church in Alexandria, and said in a statement that the two bombings resulted in the death of about 50 people and wounded 140, considering them all “Crusaders”.

Thus, the imposition of a state of emergency mainly affects the remaining political and civil forces that supported the military coup in the past few years who have grown tired and started to express criticism and questioned the official narrative. They seemed uncertain about the state institutions and their narratives as, despite the fact that the Egyptian interior ministry identified those who committed the attacks as Mamdouh Amin Mohammad Baghdadi who bombed the St. George Church in Tanta and Mahmoud Hassan Mubarak Abdullah, who bombed the St. Mark Church in Alexandria, there were still doubts. We also found that the confidence and trust in the state’s ideological and oppressive agencies was suffering from erosion and a lack of credibility.

The truth of the matter is that there is a gap of distrust that is growing very quickly between society and the state in Egypt. Some groups in Egypt have put their trust in the ability of the state to achieve stability by managing the transitional phase, achieving democratic transition, establishing political pluralism, achieving economic growth and curbing any potential “rebellion” and “terrorism” and they conceded accountability of the military authority and overlooked the concept of legitimacy, they are unable to understand the security challenges and increased acts of terrorism. 

US President Donald Trump meets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (L) at the White House in Washington, United States on April 3, 2017. ( Presidency of Egypt / Handout - Anadolu Agency )

US President Donald Trump meets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (L) at the White House in Washington, United States on April 3, 2017. ( Presidency of Egypt / Handout – Anadolu Agency )

Terrorist acts have increased in Egypt in the context of the growing authoritarianism and its entry into the territory of totalitarianism, as the government no longer cares about the requirements of internal legitimacy. It is only concerned with international legitimacy, as President Al-Sisi’s visit to the US and the praise and support he received from the Trump administration, as well as his participation in the Arab Summit and reconciliation with Saudi Arabia has both unleashed and reassured the government, while holding the media and Al-Azhar accountable. However, that was enough for the resurgence of the Egyptian jihadists and the formation of a social incubator that does not necessarily believe in the potential for the Daesh project to succeed, but believes in the failure of the project to rebuild the national state in its oppressive military form.

The experience and developments of Daesh in Egypt can be summed up in a series of failed attempts at political transition and transformation, building a democracy and pluralism. The organisation emerged in the beginning as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis on 5 February 2011 with objectives limited to attacking Israel. Its ideology then gradually transitioned, after the military coup, to the priority of targeting the Egyptian army and security agencies. After the escalation of the military campaign against the group’s sites in Sinai, the formation of Wilayet Sinai was announced and it joined Daesh on 14 November 2014, as it adopted an ideology based on widening the circle of those targeted to include those they called “apostates” and “crusaders”.

Despite Daesh’s extremist ideology and violent military tactics, it has noticeably developed, as it has managed to expand the field of recruitment in Egypt and worked to swell its operations. It used the political and economic environment to attract members. It also highlighted the Egyptian army’s violent tactics in Sinai to create sympathetic popular incubators. The government’s atrocious military campaigns in Sinai created impressions doubting the true objectives of the operations that contradicted the basics of “combatting rebellion” based on gaining hearts and minds and creating political and economic atmospheres repressive to the organisation. It seemed that the army was fighting a classic war with a hostile state, as within the framework of the army’s campaign against Sinai, which began in 29 October 2014, over 1,165 families were forcibly displaced and over 800 homes were destroyed in the areas surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Treating the people of Sinai as suspected terrorists and potential enemies has created a state of resentment and anger, and provided an ideal climate for the growing influence of Wilayet Sinai. Moreover, adopting scorched-earth policies by using heavy artillery weapons, as well as air force has led to real disasters and fuelled feelings of hostility towards the government.

One of the problematic issues in the context of the “war on terror” in Egypt is the absence of credibility and transparency. Although the Egyptian authorities have indicated many times that the Wilayet Sinai organisation is made up of a few hundred individuals, which corresponds to the estimated figures of the US intelligence, it announced the death of thousands of terrorists. In the context of boasting about the army’s achievements after announcing the launch of Operation Martyr’s Right in September 2015, the Egyptian army stated that after a year it managed to kill 2,529 individuals and arrest 2,481 others.

Read more: Egypt’s Christians have been forgotten by the church and the government

The operation targeting the churches in Tanta and Alexandria was not an isolated operation, as Daesh sent a clear message that it would be targeting churches, specifically and Copts in general. The organisation wanted to create a state of doubt in the government’s ability to protect minorities, as it always stressed its ability to defeat terrorism and bring stability. It also talked about eliminating Wilayet Sinai. In the context of expanding the target, the organisation classified the Copts as “crusaders”, and despite the religious theme, the organisation was clear in punishing the Copts due to the majority supporting Al-Sisi. On 15 February 2015, Daesh posted a video showing the killing of 21 Egyptian workers who were Copts who had been kidnapped a few months earlier in the Libyan city of Sirte.

In the context of demonstrating the Sisi government’s inability to protect the Copts and the army’s lack of control over Sinai, Wilayet Sinai carried out an intimidation campaign against the Copts in the city of El Arish in Sinai between January and February 2017, killing seven people. This prompted a large number of Christian families, nearly 100, to flee and it raised great anger in Coptic circles and created doubts regarding the ability of the security forces and the army to stand in the face of Daesh in Sinai.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT: People attend a funeral ceremony for the victims of the blast of a bomb attack near St. Mark’s Cathedral, at St. Menas Church, in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt on April 10, 2017. [Ahmed Abd Alkawey/Anadolu Agency]

We can understand the state of anger and resentment among the Copts in particular and the Egyptian people in general following the bombing of the Tanta and Alexandria churches given the clarity of Daesh’s message, which had targeted the Patriarchal Church on 11 December 2016, despite the great protection it has in the Abbasiya district in Cairo. The attack resulted in the death of 25 members of the church and the shock was more dangerous when Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack in the name of the “Islamic State-Egypt” instead of in the name of Wilayet Sinai, which seems to be a clear message revealing the spread of the organisation across Egypt through various networks and cells.

Daesh’s threats were not surprising in targeting the Copts, as a series of threatening messages were sent. “The Islamic State-Egypt” issued a tape on 19 February promising to carry out operations against the Copts in the country during the coming period. It concluded by saying: “To the Crusaders in Egypt, this operation that hit you in your temple is just the first and there will be additional operations. You are our top target, our favourite prey, and the flame of our war.”

In summary, Daesh demonstrates the disastrous strategy of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi regarding the fight against terrorism and clearly reveals that dictatorship is the main reason for the rise of “terrorism”. According to the New York Times, while Al-Sisi is declaring his commitment to fighting terrorism, he is actually putting his effort towards other enemies, including activists who are secularists, journalists, independent MPs, businessmen and his opponents consisting of academics, human rights organisations and peaceful Islamic groups.

Translated from Arabi21, 16 April 2017

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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