CreditAmr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
CAIRO — Grief and rage flowed through Egypt’s Christian community on Monday as tear-streaked mourners buried the victims of the coordinated Palm Sunday church bombings that killed 45 people in two cities. The cabinet declared that a state of emergency was in effect. A newspaper was pulled off newsstands after it criticized the government.
It was just the reaction the Islamic State wanted.
Routed from its stronghold on the coast of Libya, besieged in Iraq and wilting under intense pressure in Syria, the militant extremist group urgently needs to find a new battleground where it can start to proclaim victory again. The devastating suicide attacks on Sunday in the heart of the Middle East’s largest Christian community suggested it has found a solution: the cities of mainland Egypt.
Since December, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has signaled its intent to wage a sectarian war in Egypt by slaughtering Christians in their homes, businesses and places of worship. Several factors lie behind the vicious campaign, experts say: a desire to weaken Egypt’s authoritarian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; a need to gain a foothold in Egypt beyond the remote Sinai deserts where jihadists have been battling the army for years; and a desire to foment a vicious sectarian conflict that would tear at Egypt’s delicate social fabric and destabilize the state.
“There’s a significant propaganda factor to this,” said Mokhtar Awad, a militancy expert at George Washington University. “ISIS wants to show that it can attack one of the Arab world’s most populous countries.”
Few believe it can succeed. The sheer demographics of Egypt mitigate any Iraq-type success, in which the Islamic State fed off deep tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. Christians make up just 10 percent of Egypt’s people, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, and despite deep-rooted prejudices, there is no popular support for a bloody pogrom.
Yet for now, unless the Egyptian government can bridge its wide security gaps, Egypt’s Christians seem likely to bear the brunt of the Islamic State’s ambitions — and the fight could have broader consequences for civil liberties and political freedoms in a country where both are already in short supply.
A line of wooden coffins borne by Boy Scouts, and marked with the word “martyr,” filed through the doors of an ancient monastery on the outskirts of Alexandria on Monday. A mournful drumbeat accompanied the procession. The coffins held the remains of some of the 17 people killed on Sunday in a blast at the gates of St. Mark’s Cathedral, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt. It was perhaps the most ambitious of the two attacks because the Coptic patriarch, Tawadros II, had been inside the church at the time.
The scene also stepped up pressure on Mr. Sisi, who counts Christian leaders among his staunchest allies.
His response, the imposition of a three-month state of emergency, was met with a national shrug. Egyptians have lived under a state of emergency for 44 of the past 50 years, and Mr. Sisi already has vast powers that have led to the imprisonment of his rivals, mass trials and unfettered surveillance of enemies.
This state of emergency, due to be approved by the rubber-stamp Parliament on Tuesday, will probably entrench his autocratic tendencies. Under the emergency law, suspected terrorists will be channeled through special courts with a low evidence threshold and no appeals process, and which operate entirely under Mr. Sisi’s control.
Additionally, the president will have the power to censor newspapers and intercept electronic communication, a provision that his supporters have suggested could be used to crack down on critics on social media, one of the last arenas of relatively unrestricted speech in Egypt.
“We’re likely to see people who tweet or use Facebook for political purposes, or to call for protests, being tried in these courts,” said Mai El-Sadany, a nonresident fellow for legal and judicial analysis at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Apparently foreshadowing such a crackdown, the government on Monday blocked distribution of Al Bawaba, a normally pro-state newspaper that blamed the Interior Ministry for security lapses in the church bombings in Alexandria and Tanta, a city in the Nile Delta. Parliament approved a law tightening the criminal code, while the speaker, Ali Abdel Aal, told lawmakers that the emergency laws would be applied to media outlets and social media.
The harsh reaction is an affirmation of sorts for the Islamic State, which until recently struggled to have any impact in Egypt outside of North Sinai. There, the fight is between the army and a local, tribal-rooted militant groupthat affiliated with the Islamic State in 2014. But it seems that the latest violence is being orchestrated through a separate network inside Egypt — one with direct links to the main Islamic State hubs in Syria and Iraq.
Mr. Awad, the militancy expert, said he had found evidence that Egyptian militants in the upper echelons of the central Islamic State leadership had established the network of cells in Egypt’s main cities. “We have seen an infrastructure of cells with connections” to the Islamic State’s strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, he said.
Some cells are based in Cairo, he said, but many others have fled to the relative safety of the Nile Delta, where they can more easily hide and store weapons in Egypt’s sprawling, lush agricultural heartland.
The violent campaign against Christians, Mr. Awad said, was prompted by the Islamic State’s losses elsewhere — most notably their ouster from the Libyan city of Surt last year, and the continuing American-backed operation in Mosul. The first salvo was a suicide bombing of a Coptic church in Cairo in December that killed 28 people, and which was supported by slick propaganda videos distributed on the internet. Then the Islamic State’s Egyptian channels started buzzing with calls to execute Christians.
“I think it was a calculated escalation,” Mr. Awad said.
The Christian minority has long suffered from casual bigotry that, its members say, hinders their access to jobs and universities and has frequently erupted into mob violence in some rural areas. But concerted violence of the kind perpetrated by the Islamic State on Sunday was unknown.
Mr. Sisi has tried to reassure jittery Christians with the new emergency laws and by stepping up security at churches across the country. In a rare move, soldiers have been deployed to help the police, and armored vehicles lined the streets of Alexandria on Monday.
He also needs to move fast to prop up a modest upswing in Egypt’s battered tourist industry this year and to reassure Catholics before a planned visit by Pope Francis on April 28. On Monday, Israel closed a border crossing with Egypt, warning of an “imminent” attack by militants based in Sinai.
Yet experts say that Mr. Sisi’s greatest problem may lie in reforming his own security agencies, which have ruthlessly stifled Egypt’s political opposition in recent years yet had limited success in penetrating the new Islamist cells that threaten Egypt’s cities — or, at least, in stopping them from carrying out coordinated attacks on churches. In Tanta, the scene of one of the two attacks on Sunday, worshipers said a bomb had been found and disabled only a week earlier.
Mr. Sisi, a former general, knows how tough such work can be: One of his last jobs before coming to power in 2013 was as the country’s military intelligence chief.