The bus attacks against Egyptian Copts near the city of Minya on Friday were the latest deliberate attack on this historic Christian community. Daesh proudly claimed the attack, just as it did when executing a similar slaughter against Copts at an almost identical location near the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in May 2017. Daesh also killed more than 40 people in twin church bombings in Cairo and Alexandria in April 2017. Since December 2016, militant attacks in Egypt have left more than 100 Christians dead. Will the Copts ever feel safe?
When deciphering news concerning the Copts, one collides headlong into multiple conflicting narratives decorated with outright falsehoods, naked sectarianism and hate speech. Some push the false flag theory, that it is the Egyptian deep state that perpetrated the attack to justify ever-increasing levels of authoritarianism — yet more conspiracy theories where evidence is just an occasional, optional extra. Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated websites propagate these almost as a routine whenever Copts are killed.
A coterie of Islamist media outlets deluges the online world with overtly sectarian statements. Copts are depicted as non-native immigrants. Some argue that Daesh launching attacks in Minya shows it is weakened in the Sinai but, yet again, proof is not furnished. Others scurrilously blame the Copts for ousting Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and putting President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in power.
All of these twisted agendas make it a headache to determine precisely the exact course of events, who is responsible and why, let alone how, to resolve the underlying issues.
Trust of the official account is limited. Many Egyptians I contacted questioned whether the Egyptian armed forces had killed the 19 extremists responsible for the attack in a gun battle. The sense was that it could be true, but who and what does one trust? All of this raises the question, how should this be dealt with?
Firstly, repeated attacks against Copts highlight a systemic failure to protect them. Copts rightly question just how extremists can attack them with such ease in precisely the same way at the same location. Will there ever be a commission of inquiry to assess why and how? What lessons could be learnt? Will there be a transparent process that demonstrates the Egyptian state in all its guises is resolute in protecting its citizens? Such an approach might restore some faith, rather than an opaque security-driven response that will not reassure the victims at all.
Copts in Egypt remain hugely vulnerable to the menace of extremist Islamist groups and the failings of the security services to protect them.
The targeting of Copts and the sectarianism that underpins it must be tackled, but without abusing the tragedy as an excuse for escalating the authoritarian tendencies of the state. The lack of transparency, accountability and rule of law undermines security for all, not just the Copts.
Secondly, many question why the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai has persisted and remains so potent? Islamist groups in Egypt have flourished in this peninsula. Only a year ago, a Daesh attack slaughtered 300 in a mosque associated with Sufis in northern Sinai. The Egyptian authorities have adopted a brutal zero-tolerance approach but have not allied this with a coherent strategy for the Sinai beyond aggression — a criticism also made of the US, amongst others. Where are the development plans for the Sinai beyond the tourist resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and the Red Sea? Daesh-style groups have prospered in the Sinai because they feed off the strong sentiment that the state is not providing for the local population and that the peninsula remains deliberately marginalized. This largely conservative tribal society does not see the state as its ally, nor did it during the Mubarak or Morsi eras.
Thirdly, determined efforts must be made to knock back the sectarian discourse that excuses or foments such attacks. The Copts are Egyptians, part and parcel of the country’s society. They are just as devoted to their homeland and country as any other Egyptian. Moreover, Copts are diverse, with differing views and trends.
Fourthly, none of this means though that discrimination against Copts in Egypt is not a factor. Discrimination exists and must be addressed.
In a similar vein, certain expatriate Christian figures should desist from stirring up anti-Islamic rhetoric. That is wrong in itself, but it also foments anger that sadly jeopardizes Christian communities in the Middle East. A clear example of this was the revolting YouTube film “The Innocence of Muslims,” produced by an American Copt that portrayed Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in simply revolting terms. The Coptic Church in Egypt slammed it, but damage was done. Likewise, why do any Middle East Christians ally themselves in any way with white supremacist hate figures such as Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer?
Copts in Egypt remain hugely vulnerable to the menace of extremist Islamist groups and the failings of the security services to protect them. The great tragedy of the Minya massacre is that it all too easily could happen over and over again. In fact, it almost certainly will.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech