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Egypt's regime under pressure as al-Qaeda link stirs tensions

Egypt's regime begins to feel the pressure as suspicions that an al-Qaeda-affiliated group was behind the the New Year's Day bomb attack on a church in Alexandria continue to grow and increase religious tensions.

A blood-spattered poster of Jesus Christ is seen inside the the Coptic Christian Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria

Experts believe al-Qaeda wants to exploit religious tensions

As fears continue to rise over the possibility of further sectarian unrest in Egypt in the wake of the Alexandria attack, concerns also begin to mount over the possibility of al-Qaeda involvement in the bombing and the prospect of a terror campaign aimed at destabilizing Egypt and unseating its regime.

The attack at the Coptic church of al-Qiddissin on January 1 which killed 21 people and wounded a further 79 has increased tensions within Egypt between Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 79 million people, and the country's Muslim-majority.

As thousands of Egypt's Copts took to the streets of Alexandria over the weekend calling for the blood of the slain to be avenged, state and independent newspapers warned that "civil war" could break out in the country unless Muslims and the minority Christians showed a united front against what President Hosni Mubarak called the "foreign elements" which were threatening Egypt's security.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack on Saturday but the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which issued a threat against churches in Egypt in November, heads the list of suspects. A statement thought to have been issued by the group called on Muslims in Egypt to "bomb churches during the Christmas holiday when churches are crowded." The Alexandria church was listed in the statement as a prospective target.

The fear is that the Islamic State of Iraq, which attacked a church in Baghdad two months ago as a protest against the alleged mistreatment of Muslim converts by Egyptian Copts, has sleeper cells positioned in Egypt with the objective of destabilizing the nation.

Fear of al-Qaeda infiltration in Egypt's Islamist movement

A burnt-out car after the Alexandria bomb went off.

An al-Qaeda cell could have carried out the bomb attack

"The fact that the Alexandria attack was unforeseen strongly indicates that external al-Qaeda-affiliated cells have managed to infiltrate the Islamic political movement in Egypt," Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle. "This could become the harbinger for a new deadly cycle of violence at a time when the succession issue and local discontent with the Mubarak regime are also rising to the fore."

"The Egyptian regime has long been quite high on al-Qaeda's list of enemies," Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institute's Doha Center, told Deutsche Welle. "Anything that causes problems for the Mubarak regime, for them, is a good thing."

The early signs of unrest in the immediate wake of the New Year's Day attack show the potential Egypt has for a slide into chaos with the long-running undercurrent of tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country ready to spill over into widespread violence. Protests involving Copts have already escalated into running battles with police and the stoning of vehicles carrying government officials and Muslim imams.

Should the suspicions that an al-Qaeda-affiliated group is targeting Egypt be proved correct, the unravelling events suggest that the Islamist terrorists have done their homework and that the tinderbox climate in Egypt is ripe for exploitation.

Unloved Mubarak regime under pressure as unrest grows

Supporters of of President Hosni Mubarak

These are unsettling times for Hosni Mubarak's regime

"We're already seeing a destabilizing effect, undermining confidence in the Mubarak government," Hamid said. "The bombing fits within the emerging narrative of Egypt as a failing state. Protests that were initially about condemning the attacks quickly took on an anti-government tone. This is pretty much how it works now. Any protest about nearly anything in Egypt soon turns into an expression of disgust toward the regime."

Ulrichsen added that the tensions could cast doubt on Mubarak's claim that he alone can preserve stability in Egypt. "The flare-up may well increase domestic dissatisfaction with the Mubarak regime. "With a transition of power likely in coming years, and the possibility that this may be contested politically, the real challenge to stability and structures of power in Egypt will come if the contestation assumes extra-political and violent dimensions."

The prospect of Egypt being destabilized by Islamists is understandably causing concern across the Middle East and beyond.

Egypt's allies face a difficult balancing act in relations

"Egypt is a bellwether for the region and, despite its declining influence, is still a leader in the region and of course the most populous Arab country," Hamid said. "What happens in Egypt matters, and others in the region and international community are watching closely."

Hamid believes that rather than attracting additional support from its influential allies in the West, such as the United States, an al-Qaeda threat in Egypt may contribute to strained relations.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, greets US President Barack Obama

Relations between the US and Egypt have become strained

"As the WikiLeaks documents suggest, a source of tension between the US and Egypt has been the latter's insistence on using US military assistance for conventional weaponry rather than adopting a lighter footprint focused on counter-terrorism," he said. "A growing al-Qaeda threat within Egypt may further exacerbate such tensions."

Kristian Ulrichsen believes the difficulty for the US and for Mubarak is that domestic dissatisfaction with the current government may translate into heightened anger against the US if it is perceived as propping up another ageing regime at the expense of the political and human rights of its citizenry.

"Were the US to enhance its political, military and security assistance to the Mubarak government in the absence of any general improvement in governance and the equality of its social and political structures, there is a danger that this would provide extremist organisations with a powerful counter-narrative."

"That could increase the perception that the government is out of touch and reliant on external security to remain in power at the expense of its own population," he said.

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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