The recent spate of terrorist attacks on Copts in Sinai did not come as a surprise to those who have followed terrorist activities there during the last two years and who perceive the roots of the extremist groups that operate there.
These attacks can be understood in light of the following observations:
First, with the deterioration in the security climate in Sinai at the time, the Salafist Jihadist current began to rise in Al-Arish and in a number of Sinai villages and cities.
This current displayed its weight and presence in unprecedented manifestations that no state institutions were equipped to handle. One example was a military demonstration organised by cells associated with terrorist groups, including the “Excommunication and Emigration” group and other offshoots in the streets of Al-Arish in 2012.
That demonstration included more than 200 vehicles, some of which bore black banners, carrying 1,000 men. The demonstration ended with an attack on a police station, as other armed groups laid siege to the Nuweiba Port to press for the release of prisoners arrested for attempting to smuggle narcotics.
In the same vein we saw a Salafist group’s founder say he had formed groups comprising 6,000 armed men who would “impose security,” while others expressed an intention to set upSharia tribunals to replace the tribal councils.
Second, extremist Salafist elements and takfiri groups (those who accuse other Muslims of apostasy) began to coordinate with other groups inside Gaza, sending supplies under the pretext of breaking the Israeli siege. This revealed their involvement in smuggling operations through tunnels along the Gaza-Sinai border.
Militias and armed groups formed in this period. Carrying out such smuggling operations — both arms and human — they gave those operations a kind of legitimacy.
Third, Sinai became an incubating environment for these forces to establish a parallel authority to that of the state under a tribal cover, in an abuse of the great tribal leaders of the region’s patriotic history.
Thus a suitable ground for producing extremist and terrorist cadres, opposed to social order was created. Opening the borders and the traffic through the tunnels permitted the fusion of the takfiri organisations in Sinai with terrorist outfits inside the Gaza sector, especially those linked to Jihadist Salafism.
There was a convergence of interests between those groups and arms-smuggling organisations, which ultimately allowed a terrorist hotspot to crystalise in Sinai.
The situation worsened after ex-president Mohamed Morsi’s pardoning of wanted terrorist leaders, and the decision not to pursue others, which allowed some cadres to return from the Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan to take up operations in Sinai.
Most of these cells and groups were linked to Al-Qaeda, especially the organisations of Ansar Al-Jihad (Followers of Jihad) and Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad Organization).
This activity culminated in the growth of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) which merged many groups under one banner that established relations with terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Fourth, many of the Salafist leaders’ stances are responsible for the climate of enmity and represent a cover for the takfiri elements to confront and attack Egyptian Copts.
These leaders’ extremist perspectives are not confined to takfiri elements in Egypt; they are part of a broader takfiri philosophy which can be found in the thinking of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. These same perspectives were used to justify attacks on Christian and non-Muslim citizens in both Iraq and Syria.
The documents and books of the so-calledSharia theorists in those organisations reveal a deeply entrenched intolerance towards Christians.
In my estimation, the timing of what happened to the Egyptian Christian citizens in Al-Arish aimed to achieve a number of objectives upon which the terrorist organisations and many regional and international powers converged.
For one, these groups are refusing what Egypt has achieved on the path to realising stability and development. This can be seen in the terrorists’ attempts in Sinai to assert their existence and strength inside Al-Arish and Gaza after the Egyptian security forces’ success in eradicating many of their roots. This has driven them to focus on innocent citizens as a weak link that will generate an influential media echo.
Another objective is to disrupt President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s visit to the US, upon the invitation of the American President in appreciation of what the Egyptian state has done to confront terrorism inside its borders.
A third objective is an attempt to reinsert the Copts as a topic for discussion during the visit, as this was a constant dossier for long years in any meeting between Egyptian and American officials.
A fourth objective is to undermine the enormous achievements of the Armed Forces and security bodies in confronting terrorism and to conceal their success in weakening the foothold of those groups, especially by cleansing the Al-Halal Mountain area, which represented a fulcrum for terrorist elements.
Fifth, it is an attempt to weaken what El-Sisi and the Egyptian state have done to improve relations with Christian citizens who backed 2013’s 30 June Revolution and torpedo the noticeable and positively developing concord between the state and the Egyptian Church.
There is also the attempt to negatively affect the view of EU countries towards Egypt and hinder the return of tourism.
The situation now needs frankness and clarity, for the Egyptian state is responsible for returning these citizens to their residences and work.
The state must assert its ability to protect its citizens and thwart the plots against the country’s stability and security. It must make clear that these are Egyptian citizens who should not be considered refugees or guests.
It is also time to open a society-wide dialogue with different tribal, political and social forces in Sinai to reach an understanding that resurrects the declining role of tribal chieftains loyal to the state. Dialogue is also necessary to root out elements and groups that create this incubating environment for terrorism.
Perhaps it is also necessary to confront media platforms that try to exploit events to torpedo stability and agitate strife, in an objective and logical way.
In sum, all state institutions and Egyptians should work in solidarity to assert that to terrorize Egyptian Christians is to terrorize the entire homeland and considered an attack on Egyptian national security.