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Egypt Church Attacks Prompt Unusually Open Media Criticism

Egypt- victims of Egypt's church attack
Mourners attend the funeral of the victims of a suicide bomb attack in a church in Tanta, Egypt, 10 April 2017. Photo Eyevine

Two suicide bombings that killed almost 50 people at churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday (9 April 2017), prompted local media, which usually toes a pro-state line, to criticize the security forces and their ‘failing’ counterterrorism strategy. The bombings were the latest in a series of attacks on the country’s Christians by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, who also claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Coptic cathedral in Cairo last December 2016.

On the Monday after the attacks, al-Bawaba newspaper ran a controversial headline calling for the Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, under whom authority for Egypt’s police and security forces fall, to step down. The paper never made it to the newsstands, however, as ministry officials stopped it from being printed. The Tuesday edition was also confiscated before it went to print.

Abdel Rehim Ali, al-Bawaba’s editor-in-chief and an independent member of parliament, has no doubt who is to blame for the attacks. “I still can’t grasp that terrorists struck in the heartland of Egypt, Alexandria and Tanta,” he told Fanack. “This is a result of the failure or incompetence of the police. What have they been doing for the past four months [since the last church attack]?”

According to Ali, the problem lies with intelligence gathering, crucial in non-conventional warfare. The police do not have sufficient intelligence to discover and stop terrorist cells. When the police do track suspects, they often kill them while trying to make an arrest, losing a valuable source of information. “They shoot, don’t ask,” Ali said.

Examples of such incidents are abundant, provoking criticism from human rights groups, who claim that they amount to extrajudicial killings. The day after the Palm Sunday attacks, police forces killed seven suspected ISIS militants, who were believed to be planning a new attack over Easter.

Ali also points to a lack of police training. “In the army, you are trained throughout your career in one specialty. In the police, one day you are directing traffic, the next you are securing a church.” He further claimed that those in the Interior Ministry responsible for the security strategy lack experience.

Despite these strong words, Ali is not considered a regime critic. On the contrary, in his television show Black Box in 2014 and 2015, he frequently aired leaked phone calls that discredited the Muslim Brotherhood and political activists. He credits himself with “exposing the fifth column and hidden cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group”. His newspaper is also known to be pro-regime, and more specifically pro-army. A cartoon from 2015 showing a soldier being attacked by Islamist terrorists from one side and the media from the other exemplifies al-Bawaba’s editorial stance.

Ali limits his criticism to the police and Interior Ministry, which he said should be “completely reorganized”, and stays away from the army and president. In fact, he believes that the “last hope” Egypt has for defeating terrorism is the new body President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced after the attacks. Called the Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism, the body will include ministers and the heads of state apparatuses involved in fighting terrorism as well as permanent committees that include public figures and experts. Ali believes it should be headed by al-Sisi himself.

Ali’s criticisms of the police may indicate some sort of conflict behind the scenes between the army and Interior Ministry on how to fight terrorism. Another hint in that direction is that directly after the attacks, the army, rather than the police, was deployed to secure state institutions and protect churches over the Easter weekend.

Also following the attacks, al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency. Human rights and activist organizations denounced the move, saying that the extended powers it gives the government over emergency courts and censorship is a further blow for human rights and civil society. Ali seemed less concerned with the human rights implications, but believes the state of emergency will not prevent new attacks. “We lived for 30 years [the Mubarak era] under a state of emergency, and still major terrorist attacks happened.”

His argument follows the dominant state narrative, in the sense that he was addressing the issue primarily from a security perspective. He reiterated al-Sisi’s comment that the attack was “not directed at Copts, but at all Egyptians”.

Other analysts, often based outside Egypt, have pointed to a number of other reasons for Egypt’s vulnerability to terrorism in general and church attacks in particular. Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington DC, argued in an opinion piece for CNN that discrimination against Christians and sectarian tensions are widespread in Egypt, and, without addressing this, the fertile ground for Islamic extremism and violence against Christians will persist.

‘Egyptians will insist [in response to the church attacks] that they are a united people. Muslim Egyptians will speak glowingly of their Christian brothers and sisters and recount stories of close Christian friends. Ultimately, however, the broader spectre of religious discrimination that has long existed in Egyptian society will not have disappeared,’ Kaldas wrote.

Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University, also in Washington DC, followed roughly the same line in The Atlantic, arguing that ‘deep-rooted sectarianism’ is a result of Islamists going unchecked and flawed government policies. ‘Egypt … still enforces blasphemy laws, places discriminatory restrictions on the building of churches and fails to prosecute sectarian offenders, while Islamists continue to spew hate against minorities unchecked,’ he stated.

Egyptian Christians themselves are increasingly calling for a different response, starting with the acknowledgement that there is a sectarian problem, instead of downplaying or denying it. “We are not a unity,” Egyptian Christian Kamal el-Mallakh told Dutch newspaper Trouw after the cathedral attack in December. “There are tensions between Muslims and Christians. If we cannot name them, we will not be able to solve them.”

Al-Azhar, the country’s highest Sunni institution, faced a storm of criticism following the Palm Sunday attacks. Its teachings foster religious extremism, said critics, in part by legitimizing the violence practised by ISIS. The institution’s Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, who faces a two-term limit if a proposed new law goes through, called the criticism “an organized campaign by some media outlets against al-Azhar”.

The attacks seem to have opened up some room for debate in Egypt. However, the official rhetoric maintains a strict focus on security and ‘national unity’, casting doubt on the regime’s willingness to address the root causes of extremism.