EGYPT: Who will save the Copts?

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The latest string of attacks in northern Sinai’s El Arish against Coptic Christians were indirect attempts by armed groups to undermine the government, according to Egyptian experts and analysts, quoted by Al Jazeera.

Hundreds of Copts fled their homes last week after seven Copts were killed over a span of 21 days, in deadly shooting and arson attacks. An estimated 150 families – more than 400 people – began arriving at the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, the closest to El Arish, seeking refuge in the Evangelical church.

The recent incidents have shed light and raised questions about the lack of security for residents, particularly minorities, in the peninsula. Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a local non-governmental organisation, described the incident as an “exodus”.

“People have no sense of safety whatsoever, they’ve been struck with panic and are still processing the events that have been taking place,” Thabet told Al Jazeera, adding that more families were expected to flee in the coming days.

Although there has been no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, fighters affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIL, also known as ISIS)  based in the Sinai province released a video on February 19, vowing to increase attacks against the Coptic Christian minority, inciting fear among the community.

The Sinai Peninsula, a volatile desert region split into two governorates, north and south, has been a hotbed for various armed groups. Thabet said that public outrage at the attacks emphasised the need for a national strategy to help fight “terrorism” in the country, in steps that should be prompted by civil society groups.

The vast majority of the Egyptian population is not impacted by the activity in Sinai, so it is easy for the central government to ignore – either because they aren’t able to address the growing violence there or because they don’t want to.

In 2014, following a deadly suicide bombing that left 31 soldiers killed, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared a state of emergency in the peninsula describing it as a “nesting ground for terrorism and terrorists”. But for the 150 displaced families, the state’s vow to fight “terrorism” and end the frequent attacks has proved unsuccessful.

The fleeing families’ testimonies, said Thabet, indicate that they have been feeling unsafe ever since Sisi ousted former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood back in 2013.

While Coptic Christians have been supporters of Sisi, according to testimonies made to local media, families are now wondering why the government remains silent, and why it is unable, or unwilling, to protect them.

Copts feel abandoned by the security services of the Sisi government, who appear unable - or unwilling - to safeguard their security

Copts feel abandoned by the security services of the Sisi government, who appear unable – or unwilling – to safeguard their security

This is not the first time Coptic Christians have fled Sinai in fear of persecution. Waves of displacement have taken place in recent years, especially since a church in Rafah, near El Arish, was robbed and attacked several times in 2012. There has long been an “undeniable” environment of discrimination against the minority.

But Sinai, following the Egyptian uprising in 2011, has witnessed widespread violence targeting not only Copts, but also police and military personnel. In July 2015, ISIL affiliates were able to simultaneously attack multiple security and military targets, killing at least 35 people in posts located in various parts of Sinai, including El Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. Earlier this year, a truck bomb attack and a shooting killed at least 13 people.

The constant violence on the peninsula has led to the displacement of 30,000 families, who fled Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, and El Arish over the past two years, parliamentarian Ibrahim Abu Sahrarah of northern Sinai said in a recent televised appearance.

Through the attacks ISIL affiliates are sending a message to the state, telling them that they were successful in “changing the demographic makeup” of Sinai, which brings them a step closer to their objective of controlling territory in Egypt.

“They want to hurt the security apparatus, and one way of doing so is to have people say we are no longer provided with safety from our government”, he went on.

Similarly,  told Al Jazeera that Copts were “softer targets” for armed groups in Sinai. Prior to the latest wave of attacks, said Shehata, the state’s military and security personnel were the “preferred choice” for such groups.

“The primary target of the attacks is the Egyptian state and its ability to provide security for its citizens,” noted Samer Shehata, a specialist in Egyptian politics, adding it was difficult to know whether the attacks were politically or religiously motivated.

Shehata characterised Sinai as an area that lacks the full control of the state, “particularly around the Gaza Strip [bordering Rafah], but most likely also other remote spaces in the interior”.

The recent wave of attacks, says one analyst, indicate that Copts are being targeted based on their religious affiliation. Sarah Yerkes, non-resident Brookings Fellow and MENA expert, told Al Jazeera that ISIL affiliates commonly target non-Muslims, and perceive Egypt’s Copts as strong allies and supporters of Sisi. “The Sinai peninsula is notoriously hard to govern and has been overrun by various armed groups,” she said, adding that Sinai is home to armed groups due to the size of its territory, and also because it is “physically removed from Cairo”. “What happens in Sinai tends to stay in Sinai,” she observed.

“The vast majority of the Egyptian population is not impacted by the activity in Sinai, so it is easy for the central government to ignore – either because they aren’t able to address the growing violence there or because they don’t want to.”

This article, by Farah Najjar, was originally published by Al Jazeera English.

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