How can Egypt prevent another pre-Christmas bombing?

Ishak Ibrahim

It’s delusional to believe announcing the names of the perpetrators of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church attack, or their sentencing, will prevent a repeat of this massacre.

It’s delusional to think sympathetic campaigns in the media, or an official funeral, will contain the anger that is rising in the hearts of Copts and many other Egyptians.

It’s delusional to count on the passing of time for people to forget such a tragedy and move on as if it never happened.

Such steps of course are not unimportant in beginning the process of dealing with extremism and fighting terrorism, but on their own they are insufficient. They must be accompanied by a series of measures that aim to deal with the imbalance that exists between and among citizens and their relationship to the state.

This massacre takes us back to the 1980s and 90s, when Coptic Christians and their property were the regular targets of Islamist groups, especially in Upper Egypt, where the collection of Jizya (taxes) and violence based on religious identity were widespread. There were dozens of attacks on Copts, including the invasion of churches and open fire on worshippers. The state only began to take action against such acts when terrorists targeted police and tourists, the most notorious example of which is the tourists’ massacre in Luxor, which was followed by the forced resignation of Minister of Interior Hassan al-Alfy.

Sectarian tension and violence continued in the years that followed, although the direct targeting of churches declined up until the massacre at All Saints Church at the beginning of 2011, in which 25 people died. In November 2013, assailants opened fire on a group of Copts in front of St. Mary Church in Waraq.

The nature of these attacks has become more frightening as the perpetrators have become more confident and daring. In most previous incidents, churches were targeted from the outside, but the perpetrator of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church attack breached security and blew himself up inside the church.

This raises questions about the role of security forces tasked with guarding Egypt’s churches: Are they present in a protective capacity or to monitor and harass worshippers? Are the personnel placed in front of the churches qualified or trained to deal with issues of access, or is this merely a show of force? Have there been any reviews of their performance, especially after previous attacks? Has anyone been held accountable for the breaches?

An attack on St. Marks Cathedral in Abbaseya in April 2013 took place amid the presence of security forces. President at the time Mohamed Morsi was accused of complacency over the manner in which he dealt with an attack on the main residence of the Pope, with all the symbolism that this holds. It was assumed that the incident was followed by the tightening of security on the Cathedral, especially after a wave of attacks and the burning of churches following Morsi’s ouster in August 2013. If this were the case, however, how is it possible for such an attack to have taken place on Sunday at a church right next to the Cathedral that is physically within its perimeter?

The seeming ease with which St. Peter and St. Paul Church, located in the center of Cairo, was targeted amid this security presence is also an indication of the capability of terrorists in Egypt today. This attack conveys the message to Coptic Christians that the state is incapable of protecting them, particularly after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The group has also targeted Copts in Arish and Sinai, including two Coptic Orthodox priests — one of whom was assassinated in 2013 and the other this year — but the shifting of attacks to the capital is a frightening development.

A number of Islamists and their supporters blamed Coptic Christians for Morsi’s ouster. This is a deception that was initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in power. The Brotherhood capitalized on existing religious polarization, stoking tension and conveying an image of itself as the exclusive representative of Islam in an attempt to garner popularity. Coptic Christians paid a high price for this after the dispersal of the Rabea and Nahda Square sit-ins, when dozens of churches and Coptic Christians’ properties were set on fire, while the state stood by and failed to protect citizens and their property.

There is also a serious lack of political will to resolve sectarian tension and discrimination today, amid increases in extremism, intolerance and violence.

Is it reasonable that six years after the All Saints Church bombing in Alexandria, we still don’t know who the perpetrators are?

After the bombing, former Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly announced, as President Hosni Mubarak attended Police Day celebrations, that a Palestinian terrorist organization was responsible. After the revolution, the families of the victims inquired about the state of the investigation, only to discover that the Interior Ministry hadn’t submitted any findings to the general prosecution, prompting the families to file a case against the ministry. In September 2016, a court ruled that the ministry should present the findings of its investigation to State Security Prosecution, citing abuse of authority and negligence.

This incident is one of a number of cases in which investigations have not been concluded. The message this sends citizens is that the state is not serious about revealing the truth about sectarian violence or holding perpetrators to account.

To be fair, the issue is not about the role of security alone. Political institutions also perpetuate sectarian tensions, by continuing to support customary reconciliation solutions in instances of violence, which violate both the constitution and the law. These institutions bow to the pressures of Islamists by not allowing Copts to pray together, or by forcibly displacing Coptic families with the pretext of not enflaming tensions.

At the same time, whether we admit this to ourselves or not, there is a considerable sector of the population that has adopted extreme religious attitudes, who believe that Coptic Christians are not equal citizens and do not deserve the same rights as the majority of the population. This influence is reinforced by the state and a religious discourse that rejects pluralism.

Extremist currents have gained new supporters amid the current economic and social crises and the limiting of public space. This means that, while it is important to find and convict those who planned and carried out the bombing of St. Peter and St. Paul Church, it is not enough to prevent further attacks in the future. The state should undertake quick measures to review church security plans and to amend discriminatory laws that give extremists the chance to propagate their ideas.

In the longer term there are also roles for educational, cultural and youth organizations to play in promoting principles of co-existence, pluralism and rights. Only then can we say that the state and society has fully comprehended the scale of this threat and the seriousness with which it should be addressed.

This article has been published via mada masr website in 13 Dec 2016