Egypt Special Analysis: The Lessons and Challenges Behind the Alexandria Bombing

Originally published in EA Worldview Sunday, January 2, 2011

Elizabeth Iskander analyses for EA:

According to the Egyptian Interior Ministry, the explosion outside the Al-Qiddissine church minutes after midnight on New Years Eve was a suicide attack.  This explanation supports the thesis that Egyptian Christians would become a target for terrorists after the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al-Qaeda-linked group that took approximately 100 hostages at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October, called for violent attacks to be carried out on Egypt’s churches. A group called Markaz al-Mujahedeen, thought to be associated with al-Qaeda, has now claimed responsibility.

While many Egyptians are visibly shocked and horrified at what happened, it appears that the attack was not without warning. The Egyptian website Masrawy reports that a Salafist forum called Sada al-Jihad posted an open call for attacks on churches, even posting the addresses of some of the largest congregations in the country. Al-Qiddissine was on that list.

Although communal tensions between Muslims and Christians in Egypt rose sharply in the latter half of 2010, this attack at the start of 2011 signifies a new development for several reasons. The causes of violence are often localised, usually taking place in the context of a very traditional and often semi-tribal social structure in rural Upper Egypt.  A dispute between individuals quickly becomes a dispute between the individuals’ families and sometimes their wider communities.  Where the two original individuals are of different religions, this can become a dispute between Muslims and Christians. This happened when an argument between a (Christian) trader and his (Muslim) customer led to widespread clashes between local Muslims and Christians in al-Kosheh in Upper Egypt in 2000.

In contrast, a car bomb in Alexandria does not appear to be linked to any specific local dispute, and the tactic of suicide bombing is not one Egypt is used to. There is a further complication: while the government has blamed foreigners for the planning and execution of the incident, initial findings issued by the interior ministry suggest that the bomb was made locally. And size matters:  while there have been previous attempts to carry out bomb attacks on religious targets, such as the car bomb attack on a the church of the Virgin Mary in the Zeitoun area of Cairo in May 2009 and a bomb thrown at a synagogue in February 2010, the weapons used then were primitive devices and caused little damage.

State television has reacted immediately by airing programmes promoting national unity, in the hope that this attack will not ignite further sectarian problems. This worked in the immediate aftermath of the ISI threats in October, as Egyptian religious leaders moved away from attacking each other in favour of statements emphasising the importance of national unity. Marches in Alexandria and Cairo have reiterated this call.

Yet, despite the pronouncements, the Egyptian street is clearly fragmented. The Al-Badeel newspaper reports that other Alexandria demonstrations have demanded a boycott of Coptic businesses, and flyers and posters have told Muslims to refrain from sending greetings to Christians for their Christmas on 7 January.

If you look away from national media and official statements and go to the Internet,t you will find streams that are not surprised or angry about what has happened. On the forum Muslm.net, there are a number of posts justifying the bombing. Some participatns see the attack as a justified response to the failure of the Copt to“release” the wives of two priests, whom it is claimed converted to Islam but were forced by the church to return to Christianity.

In the wake of the ISI and al-Qaeda threats against Egypt, this attack indicates that there are those who seek to exploit the protracted tensions between Muslims and Christians to destabilise one of the Middle East’s largest and most influential states. It is easy, and perhaps accurate in the case, to blame foreigners for inciting this act of terrorism. But the solution is not only in boosting national security. Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, will need to see a comprehensive investigation into this attack and to ask themselves honest questions about the existence of religious discrimination in Egyptian society. Real initiatives, not hollow gestures, are needed to address concerns about the safety of churches and the security of the place of non-Muslims in Egyptian society if Egypt is to be able to stand firm against terrorism, regardless of whether that terrorism is domestic or international.

Amidst all the confusion and competing information about what happened in Alexandria early on Sunday morning, this reality stands outs: it is the endemic religious discrimination and broad absence of acceptance of the other in Egyptian society that leaves the country so vulnerable.

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