by Rana Allam
On Friday, 28 Coptic Christians, including many children, were gunned down while on their way to a monastery near the Upper Egyptian city of Minya which is home to a significant number of Christians. The attack, which also injured 24, is yet another in a series of attacks targeting Egypt’s largest minority. In 2017 alone, 34 attacks targeted Coptic Christians in Egypt, leaving 90 dead. Six of these attacks occurred in Minya, where a mob last year stripped naked an elderly Christian woman and paraded her on the streets over rumors of an affair between her son and a Muslim woman. The most recent attack also occurred while Egypt is under a state of emergency announced in April after bombings at two churches left at least 44 dead.
For the Egyptian regime, the state of emergency seems to apply only to its opposition not to the violent extremists who are going about their business better than usual. In the past month, Egyptian security arrested tens of young activists and members of political parties across the country in a crackdown campaign. Charges varied from insulting the president to sharing critical posts of the regime on social media, especially Facebook. The authorities summoned Khaled Ali, a prominent rights lawyer and former presidential candidate, but later released him on bail. Ali was the lawyer who challenged the Egyptian government and won an appeal to cede the transfer of two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia. He is also a likely candidate for the 2018 presidential elections.
As a regular part of its crackdown, the Egyptian regime blocked 21 news websites, claiming that they supported terrorism and published “fake news.” Meanwhile, the military is indiscriminately killing North Sinai residents. Terrorists or not, people are caught in the crossfire. Homes demolished, towns destroyed, and civilians killed in the war on terror are all at a peak. A leaked video shows the Egyptian army killing unarmed men who were blindfolded and shot in their heads. The army released photos showing these same men and claimed that they were killed in a gun fight with the army.
Because terrorism has gone beyond North Sinai and reached several cities across Egypt’s mainland including Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has begun to speak of the success of his military counter-terrorism operations in Sinai, claiming that such success led terrorists to flee Sinai. But those who fled Sinai are in fact Christian. More than a hundred families fled North Sinai after the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) went on a killing spree of Christians. In February, the IS branch in Egypt released a video urging its followers to kill Christians across the country, and its followers have been doing just that. And there is no one to stop them because the Egyptian regime’s understanding of security is limited to its own security, detaining, torturing, forcibly disappearing, and extra-judicially killing democracy advocates and members of political parties.
But all human rights abuses and the crackdown on democracy advocates is overshadowed by the terror attacks. It’s exactly what Sisi wants: to lead a country suffering from terrorism and take much-needed measures even if they anger his own people. If anything, these attacks give Sisi the excuse to crack down even more on opposition, always under the guise of the endless fight against terrorism. The PR machine started right away. In his speech to Egyptians, offering his condolences, Sisi remembered to call on “His Excellency, President Trump” to support him in the fight against terror and announced “his utmost trust” in the US president. From his side, Trump issued a statement condemning the attack and announcing that “America stands with President Sisi.”
President Trump might believe that Sisi is “doing a fantastic job” and that Washington is supporting a crucial leader in a fight against terrorism. But Sisi is failing to do that. He is busy securing his presidency and avoiding another revolution or the emergence of a respected presidential candidate to run against him. The summit held in Riyadh is not only ominous because of the darkly fantastical “touching of the orb” scene, but because those who are tasked with fighting terrorism are causing its empowerment.
Sisi, with his brutal dictatorship, is creating a hatred and a void that extremist groups can easily manipulate to recruit more and more Egyptians. Saudi Arabia’s shameful record of human rights abuses, beheading of Shia leaders, killing of Yemenis, and funding of extremist religious institutions and groups, are known to all and cannot be mistaken for a country that would “fight radical Islam.” The Saudi leaders are the radical Muslims. And Trump, with his policies of exclusion and division, will only help the rise of extremist ideologies.
In the past, democracy advocates could call on the US to support their plight but now the US has become a major supporter of brutal, oppressive, and in the case of Sisi, failing leaders.