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Middle East

Christians in Egypt doubt el-Sissi regime after cathedral attack

The attack on a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo on Sunday is a painful setback for the Christian community in Egypt. Many now wonder if President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's government can still keep them safe.

The attack occurred this past Sunday morning near the Petrine ministry of Saint Mark's Cathedral in the Abbasid district of Cairo. More than two dozen Egyptian Christians, mostly women, were killed in the bombing during their Sunday mass. Observers also view the attack as a setback for el-Sissi's military government.

The goal of the attack, according to Professor of political science at Cairo University Viktor Salama, was to punish Coptic Egyptians for their support of the el-Sissi government.

"Islamists say that they want the Copts to pay the price for their support for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013," explained Salama to news agency AFP. "This blast is like a slap in the face to the government."

El-Sissi ousted Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi three years ago in a military coup.

"The church is of course a gathering place for Christians, but at the same time it's an Egyptian institution that just got blown up quite easily by 12 kilos of explosives," Salama said.

The church bombing also revealed weaknesses in the Egyptian police force. Salama believes that such attacks could end the close relationship between el-Sissi and the Copts, if the Egyptian president failed to provide security.

Bishop Anba Damian of the Coptic Church in Germany denounced the attack in an interview with DW Arabic. He believes that what is being done by the government is still not enough. "I do not want to hear words of condolence and consolation. I want the government to arrest criminals and to see them before the courts," he said.

"I say to President El-Sissi that if we were really part of Egyptian society, then he should protect our rights by going after those responsible for acts like this," Damian added.

Ägypten Explosion in koptischer Kirche in Kairo (Getty Images/C. McGrath)

Egyptians gather outside the church of St. Peter and Paul in the Coptic Cathedral Complex

The Copts and El-Sissi

A state funeral was held Monday afternoon in front of the Memorial of the Unknown Soldier in eastern Cairo. President el-Sissi gave a speech during the funeral identifying the perpetrator of the attack as a suicide bomber who "blew himself up with an explosive belt" and also announced that four people were arrested for suspected involvement in the attack. One of the suspects arrested was a woman. 

Egyptian writer and political analyst Kamal Zakher told DW that the response from the current Egyptian government is quite different from those of previous administrations. Zakher said that this is the first time in a while that a very large number of state officials and ministers attended a funeral like this. El-Sissi and his administration see it as a very important matter to attend to.

Anba Damian (Anba Damian)

Anba Damian, Germany's Coptic Bishop

Bishop Damian noted that el-Sissi is very popular among Copts in Egypt. The majority of Copts see el-Sissi as having saved them from extremism and as having brought the country to safety. Zakher said that the Egyptian president is in an awkward position - he knows that the Copts' support might run out. The el-Sissi government has invested a lot to gain the support of the Coptic community.

Christians have placed a lot of hope in the current government in the face of various Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. But the community's apathy toward the el-Sissi administration continues to grow as authorities are increasingly seen as failing to bring perpetrators to justice following events like the cathedral bombing.

Controversy over arrest announcement

El-Sissi's comments on Monday during the state funeral in Cairo that there were four arrested in connection with the attack stirred up controversy.

The Egyptian president said that the perpetrator of the attack by suicide belt in the cathedral was a 22-year old man by the name of Mahmoud Shafik Mohammed Mustafa. He claimed that Egyptian security forces were able to find his identity from his remains within the cathedral.         

Pro-government media celebrated the news as a victory for el-Sissi. They viewed it as evidence that Egyptian security forces were superior in collecting information.

Ägypten Präsident Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (picture-alliance/dpa)

El-Sissi enjoys a lot of support from Egypt's Coptic Christian community.

Others questioned these statements, especially since the name of the young man was disclosed so quickly and unexpectedly. It raised concerns that a name was released only to stifle anger and resentment among the Egyptian population. The perpetrator of the attack was arrested once before in 2014 by the Egyptian security forces, and a report at the time said that he was only 16 years old.

Doubts on social media

On Twitter, Arab social media users, many with Coptic names, raised doubts about the validity of el-Sissi's claims. 

A user by the name of Sandra Youssef tweeted: "How can it be a 'him' that blew himself up in the church, when mostly women were present!"

"He blew himself up and they found his identity by his card. What nonsense!" tweeted user Hawa Rhim. Egyptians carry identity cards, and Hawa Rhim doubts that his card could still be intact after the blast.

A user by the name of Saleem on his private account tweeted: "We know the full name of the perpetrator and his life history, yet there are Egyptian soldiers killed in the Sinai whose names are still unknown!"

Egyptian political analyst Imad Khalil spoke to DW Arabic about the effectiveness of the Egyptian security apparatus. He explained that security was neglected from the beginning and there were no effective measures in place to prevent the blast. 

Khalil added that Copts in Egypt are still waiting on the full details of the perpetrators. He stressed that despite the feelings of fear among people, the large participation in the funeral shows solidarity with the Coptic community in Egypt. Khalil noted that el-Sissi knows the Egyptian people are looking to him to lead and the president is taking security measures to calm their anxiety.

"Yet, it's still unknown whether these security measures will be effective in the future," he said.  

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