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Copts of Egypt: more than political pawns for ISIS and el-Sisi

Recent attacks on Copts cannot be understood exclusively as militant resistance to authoritarianism in Egypt.

A Coptic mass following recent church bombings. A Coptic mass following recent church bombings. PA Images. All rights reserved.

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the recent bombings of two Coptic churches in Egypt, and named the suicide bombers involved, it also issued yet another warning to the “crusaders.” It said: “the bill between us and them is very great and they will pay for it with rivers of their children’s blood, God willing.”

What is this “bill” between ISIS and the Copts? That’s an issue of speculation and debate both in Egypt and beyond.

One explanation links the increasing violence of Islamist groups with the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the dim prospects of instating a system of Islamic-inspired governance in Egypt. For example, Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert in jihadist movements, has recently suggested that, since 2013, “more groups and individuals that would not ideologically side with jihadists are believing the peaceful path is over.”

Along similar lines is a view that attributes the endurance of Islamist militancy in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula to the repression of non-violent expression and popular mobilisation.

But this narrative – folding the attacks on Copts into a broader story of political resistance to the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, and the instatement of an authoritarian regime – must be unpacked. It is a popular opinion, that the violence is reactive: a response to limits on more peaceful forms of political expression. The truth is more complex.

It is a popular opinion, that the violence is reactive...The truth is more complex.

Without a doubt, repression can increase the chance that some citizens will resort to violence to be heard. But the genealogy of jihadist violence in Sinai – from where Islamist militants including ISIS have set up camp and expanded – is not of this nature. If it were, we would have seen jihadist violence emerge after 2013 when peaceful pathways of expression of voice became restricted, including through a new law curtailing protests.

However, the meticulous mapping of jihadi groups by Ali Bakr suggests that in fact jihadis set up camp in Sinai several years earlier, in 2011, amid an opening of political space in the wake of the Arab revolts and the fall of Hosni Mubarak. In other words: there appears to have been a proactive plan to pursue the establishment of an Islamic emirate (a self-ruled Islamic principality), capitalising on this new political space – along with lax security and the ability of arms and jihadis to enter Egypt from Libya.

If there were any truth to the notion that militancy increased in response to grievances tied to the demise of a democratically-elected Islamist regime, one would have also expected that the activity of Islamist militants to subside once Morsi assumed power in 2012. Instead, the opposite occurred: Bakr notes that jihadi movements flourished during the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign, with Morsi turning a blind eye to their activity – including several attacks on Coptic civilians.

Unprovoked assaults

At the apex of the Muslim Brotherhood’s period in power, Islamists attacked Copts in Sinai. These attacks were few in number compared to overall incidents of sectarian violence against Copts while Morsi was in power. But, significantly, they occurred in a political climate in which the President was granting presidential pardons to a number of renowned Islamist terrorists.

In September 2012, seven Coptic civil servants, and their families, were transferred from Rafah to el Arish – two towns in North Sinai – under orders of the governor as jihadi groups mounted a campaign of intimidation and the issuance of death threats.

These were unprovoked assaults intended to clear the land of any Christian presence. In October 2012, Copts in Rafah found themselves caught between a governor who did not want them to leave in mass –to avoid coming under fire in the press, presumably – and an increased vulnerability to jihadi attacks. Flyers distributed in town declared: “no to the Nazarenes on the land of Islam” and were openly signed by a militant group called the “Islamic Badeya” army.

The assault on Copts spread from one town in north Sinai to the next. On 8 January 2013 (Coptic Christmas), there was a failed attempt to bomb the church in Rafah, suspected to be the work of Islamists. Roughly six months later, on 14 August 2013, the church was torched by pro-Morsi supporters.

Whatever grievances militants may have had against the Morsi regime, this violence against Copts was at least partly ideologically-motivated. These were unprovoked assaults intended to clear the land of any Christian presence. Though, attacks on Copts certainly increased after Morsi’s fall from power.

The Morsi regime itself issued a general warning to the population not to take part in the uprisings but had also specifically warned Christians not to take part in the popular uprising that was planned for 30 June 2013. However, Copts did join the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets calling for his resignation and for early presidential elections to take place. (These were countered by smaller, more geographically bound pro-Morsi protests).

On the night that Abdul Fattah el-Sisi – then defense minister, and now President – announced the end of Mubarak’s reign, pro-Morsi factions roamed main streets in Minya, in Upper Egypt firing shots in the air and chanting: “Oh how pathetic, oh how shameful, the Copts have become revolutionaries.”

For pro-Morsi supporters, the Copts’ participation in the uprisings would have represented an affront on many levels: It indicated that non-Muslims do not know their place – that is, subservience to the Muslim ruler; that Muslims had allied themselves with non-Muslims, the infidels; and that a war of infidels against Islam was underway.

This was followed by a string of attacks against Christians across the country, which also hit Sinai. However, as Bakr has pointed out, this period also saw an increasing synchronization among militant cells whose members later joined organisations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda.

“Leave or die”

On 6 July 2013, a Coptic priest was murdered in al-Arish, Sinai. Three years later, another parish priest was also killed in the same town, in July 2016.

Attacks have continued, culminating in the exodus of more than 300 families – comprising roughly 1200 people – between mid-February and mid-March 2017, following the murder of four Copts, and a warning from ISIS telling all others to leave or die.

Copts who have left Sinai. Copts who have left Sinai. PA Images. All rights reserved.

By the time many decided to flee Sinai, the situation on the ground had become impossible: Islamist militants had terrorised communities, warning Muslims of the consequences of helping Copts.

Increasing restrictions on the freedom of the press in Egypt added to the crisis by making it difficult for journalists to access these communities. There is a widely inhibitive environment for reporting in the country and this has had its toll on those who report on Coptic rights issues as well. The government has also clamped down on social movements and the space that existed following the 2011 revolution, to mobilise and protest to hold the government, has all but closed.

In the aftermath of the April 2017 bombings at Coptic churches, information has trickled in on the identity of the suicide bombers. So far, what’s emerged confirms that while sectarian violence has deep historical roots in Egypt, attacks on Copts have entered a new phase.

Attacks on Copts have entered a new phase.

Whereas jihadi militant groups from Sinai previously focused their activity in that area, they are now establishing cells across the country. The April suicide bombers operated in a highly decentralized manner across Asiut and Qena, governorates in Upper Egypt.

In the New Yorker at the beginning of 2017, one writer argued: “In Egypt, people who might be ISIS recruits elsewhere—the educated and sophisticated—tend to believe that ISIS was created by the United States as a way of destabilizing the region. That’s how ineffective the terrorists’ slick videos have been: in the eyes of many Egyptians, ISIS represents America, not Islam.”

But the April suicide bombers had also pledged allegiance to ISIS and this is likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the group’s ability to attract new recruits in Egypt. As such, it challenges assumptions that it would be jihadis returning from an ISIS retreat in Iraq and Syria that would be the executors of attacks.

Beyond political pawns

Why ISIS would appeal to local populations in Egypt is a highly complex question. Copts are an easy target, perfect political pawns for militants to lash out against. But it is clearly unhelpful to over-simplify the issue and explain such developments solely as a response to government repression.

The governance of sectarian conflict in Egypt under authoritarian regimes has exacerbated tensions and indeed in some cases was complicit in catalysing it. It has also undermined the application of rule of law. Restrictions on freedoms such as those of expression and association have limited citizens’ ability to hold their government to account.

Following the 9 April bombings, there are concerns that the el-Sisi government is also using Copts – and their vulnerability to assault – as political pawns in a bid to increase its security hold on the country. Many are concerned about moves to restrict civil liberties – including through new emergency laws introduced this month.

Holding authoritarian states to account is an important end in itself, but the struggle to build inclusive communities will require more than that.

It is reductionist to represent the terrorist targeting of Copts as a simple story about non-state resistance to authoritarianism. Explaining the current crisis in these terms ignores the ideological and other political motivations of non-state actors who have waged war on the Copts. In doing so, it inadvertently contributes to a politics of denial.

About the author

Professor Mariz Tadros is the power and popular politics cluster co-leader at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University. She is the author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy redefined or confined?; Copts at the crossroads: the challenge of building an inclusive democracy in contemporary Egypt, and Resistance, Revolt and Gender Justice published by Syracuse University Press, 2016.


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