ISIS has claimed responsibility for a pair of suicide bombings at Coptic churches in Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta during Palm Sunday services. As Egypt’s Al Ahram reports:
On Palm Sunday morning, a bomb exploded inside Mar Girgis Church in the Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 and injuring 78 others, according to health ministry figures.
A few hours later in Alexandria, 17 civilians and police officers were killed as another suicide bomber blew himself up outside St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, as the head of the church, Pope Tawadros II, lead the service inside.
“The pope is safe and was not harmed in the attack,” a short statement by Egypt’s interior ministry said later.
Responding in a short televised address on Sunday night, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said he will impose a state of emergency nationwide for a period of three months.
ISIS has redoubled its focus on attacking Copts in recent months. In December an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a chapel of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, the country’s largest Coptic church, killing 29. In February, ISIS released a video encouraging attacks against Copts which prompted an exodus of hundreds of Christians from the city of Arish in the Sinai Peninsula where ISIS maintains its greatest base of support in the country.
The Palm Sunday attacks raise questions about the progress of Egypt’s counterinsurgency campaign against ISIS, the government’s seriousness about protecting Copts, and about the stability of Egypt more generally.
The Egyptian army’s multi-year efforts against the largest and best organized ISIS affiliate in the country have so far failed to break the back of the insurgency in the Sinai. While attacks in 2016 reportedly declined, roadside bombings and ambushes of army patrols and outposts routinely cause mass casualties. The most generous interpretation of the Palm Sunday bombings is that as we’ve repeatedly seen in Iraq, Turkey, Europe and elsewhere and as outlined in some of ISIS’ key strategy documents, the group focuses its efforts on attacks against civilians when it’s losing strength within its own territories. Even so, the attacks demonstrate that the Egyptian government is far from having its domestic terror threat under control.
That’s especially true given the prominence of the targets, lack of security at the sites, and forewarning about ISIS plots. Video from the Alexandria attack showed that the bomber had a clear path for entering the cathedral (with Pope Tawadros inside), and didn’t only because he decided to detonate his suicide vest after being directed to a metal detector by a single unarmed guard and two apparently unarmed policewomen at the cathedral’s open gate. And this came to pass despite the three-hour gap in the attacks, during which security could and should have been raised for a mass attended by the leader of Egypt’s Christian community.
While Copts were broadly supportive of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013 and have been among the most dedicated supporters of the Sisi government, their cries for protection after the St. Mark’s bombing and amid a growing threat in Sinai seem to have gone unheeded by the government.
The bombings should also raise questions about the overall stability of Egypt and the Sisi government. Terror attacks like these are closely followed in the West by tourists in assessing whether or not it’s safe to travel. Shortly after the bombings, Israel announced that it was closing the land border at Taba, cutting off one of the last sources of visitors still willing to visit Sinai. Despite some recent signs of life in the tourist industry, these attacks will likely be a major setback for one of the largest sectors of Egypt’s deeply troubled economy. How long the Egyptian people can endure this state of affairs will likely decide the fate of Sisi’s government.