Last week’s attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Tanta and Alexandria, Egypt were the deadliest acts of violence against the Coptic community in the country’s modern history. ISIS in the Sinai claimed responsibility for the incidents.
The emergence of extremist groups, operating away from Egypt’s urban centers, certainly plays a substantial role in the targeting of Coptic Christians today. Nevertheless, the Egyptian state, including both the intelligence and security services, have played and continue to play a significant role in this state of affairs.
To put this into context, the recent church bombings came just weeks after groups of Coptic Christians from the northern Sinai town of Arish were forced to leave their homes by militants claiming to be affiliated with ISIS. Among the 118 displaced families, many claimed Egyptian security forces did not offer adequate protection against impending threats.
Early last December, during one of the first masses marking the start of Christmas festivities, a suicide bomber entered the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo and detonated himself, killing twenty-nine parishioners. There were no policemen or security guards preventing the man from entering the church, nor did Egyptian intelligence appear to detect him as a threat beforehand.
What happened last week is, in short, part of a continuing trend of state incompetence, at best, and complicity, at worst, in attacks on Egyptian Copts. The incredible lack of security at high profile Coptic events is particularly reflective of this.
Right before the bombing of the St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria, Pope Tawadros II was leading mass; luckily, he left minutes before the bomber attempted to enter the church. Video footage taken immediately before the bombing showed only a few police officers standing by a metal detector, not nearly enough security to protect the most important figure in Coptic Christianity.
When the Al Qidiseen Church was bombed in Alexandria in early 2011 (mere weeks before the January 25 uprising), the security was similarly lacking. There were no security guards monitoring the surroundings of the church. In a matter of days, the Interior Ministry concluded that the car bomb, which killed over twenty people, was planted by the Palestinian group, Hamas, offered no explanation for why Hamas would conduct an attack inside Egypt, and closed the case. Families of the victims continue to insist that the government’s investigation into the incident was improper.
Since the Egyptian state has no interest in protecting the Coptic community, it plays an integral role in facilitating violence against them. Indeed, it has, at times, very directly committed acts of violence against Egyptian Copts itself. In October 2011, for example, the military did not hesitate to run over peaceful, mostly Coptic demonstrators in front of the state television building, in clashes that resulted in the death of twenty-eight protesters.
Aware of these trends, the Coptic community has become increasingly resentful towards the Egyptian government. For members of this population, it is increasingly clear the state is more concerned with fortifying its authoritarian power than genuinely protecting its Coptic citizens from the threat of growing and far-reaching extremist groups.