Analysis: Egypt church attack to fuel sectarian tension (REUTERS) By Edmund Blair and Sherine El Madany CAIRO, EGYPT 01/04/11 6:09am EST)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - The New Year´s Day bombing of a church suggests al Qaeda-
inspired militants have a toe-hold in Egypt, but probably does not
indicate a return to the kind of Islamic insurgency Egyptian forces
crushed in the 1990s.
No clear official account has emerged of how the January 1 attack,
which killed 21 people, was carried out, but analysts point to a
small cell, not a bigger militant group like those which challenged
the government more than a decade ago.
Whoever was behind it, the attack seemed designed to upset Muslim-
majority Egypt´s fragile sectarian balance. It was the biggest attack
in at least a decade aimed at Coptic Orthodox Christians, who form 10
percent of Egypt´s 79 million people.
The reaction was swift. Within moments of the blast, Christians took
to Alexandria´s streets in protest. Some Muslims and Christians
hurled stones at each other. A day later police fired teargas in
Cairo to disperse angry crowds.
"I do not expect a spread of terrorism in Egypt and a return of
terror attacks that took place in the 1980s and 1990s," said Amr
Elchoubaki, an expert in Islamic movements at the Al-Ahram Center for
Political and Strategic Studies.
"But I am more concerned about the internal climate and the impact of
any attack, even if limited, on relationships between Muslims and
Christians," he said.
The government was quick to call for national unity, blamed foreign
hands and pledged to track down the perpetrators.
Whether it involved Egyptians or foreigners, analysts said the scale,
planning and timing suggested al Qaeda-inspired militants may have
been behind it. It followed Islamist calls, made on the Web, for
attacks on Coptic churches at this time.
"The first and most likely possibility is that a sleeper cell of an
al Qaeda group carried out this operation and this would mean that al
Qaeda has penetrated the Islamic political movement in Egypt," said
analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah.
The state crushed groups such as al-Gama´a al-Islamiya and Islamic
Jihad, which targeted tourists, Christians, government ministers and
other officials in a 1990s campaign for a purist Islamic state, and
has kept a tight lid on such groups since.
"An attack like this would have taken probably about a dozen
operatives. We cannot rule out the possibility of local elements,"
said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East professor at the London School of
Safwat Zayaat, a military expert in Cairo, said the latest attack on
Christians was the kind of operation "that does not require much
networking but needs to identify a point of weakness. One act will
echo globally and inspire many others."
By contrast, in the 1990s, Egypt had been dealing with "groups that
may have been inspired by a global ideology but had a local focus to
oust (President Hosni) Mubarak´s government."
Egypt has suffered sporadic attacks in the last decade, such as
deadly bombings of tourist resorts between 2004 and 2006, but has
avoided any return to the sustained violence of the 1990s.
Lawyer Montaser al-Zayat, who has defended militants over many years,
questioned whether the perpetrators were inspired by al Qaeda, saying
Egyptian militants may have become more radicalized simply because of
rising sectarian strife.
However, the attack was unusual for Egypt -- officials have blamed a
suicide bomber -- and it followed a series of militant threats
against the church, starting with one in November issued by an Iraq-
based group linked to al Qaeda.
Two weeks before the bombing, a statement on an Islamist website
urged Muslims to target churches in Egypt and elsewhere, including
the one hit in Alexandria. Another website after the attack said it
was the "first drop of heavy rain."
An Egyptian security source said an effort was under way to list
people who had arrived in Egypt recently from countries "where al
Qaeda is known to recruit and train operatives."
Some say Iraq has become a training ground for Arab and other
militants, just as Afghanistan was in the 1980s.
SECTARIAN WEAK SPOT
By attacking a church, militants have highlighted Egypt´s growing
sectarian divide, as well as what some analysts see as the
government´s reluctance to stir up Islamists by tackling long-
standing Coptic grievances about unfair treatment.
The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which renounced violence as a
means to effect change in Egypt decades ago, said the attack showed
the state´s failure to protect its citizens.
"The government should have increased security measures (for
churches), especially after the Iraqi threats," said Mohamed el-
Katatni, a senior Brotherhood member.
The bombing was on a much bigger scale than the spontaneous scuffles
or killings more typical of Egypt´s brand of sectarian violence,
often sparked by disputes over church-building or taboo relationships
between men and women of different faiths.
In the worst such incident in the past year, six Christians were shot
dead, along with a Muslim policeman, outside a church in southern
Egypt on January 6, the eve of Coptic Christmas.
Hisham Kassem, a human rights campaigner and publisher, said many
Christians would perceive the New Year´s Day bombing through a
sectarian prism because they feel marginalized.
"Right now Copts feel Muslims (as a whole) struck at them, rather
than seeing it as a terrorist attack by a Muslim, and it is due to
this ... feeling of discrimination," he said.
Rights activist Hossam Bahgat, whose group reported in April on
rising sectarian violence, said Egypt had boasted to other
governments about its success in quashing militants but was not doing
enough to address Christian grievances.
He said the bombing should encourage swifter action. "It will
hopefully bring home the idea that this is extremely fragile and the
situation could deteriorate very quickly."
(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad in Cairo, Bill
Maclean in London, Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad; editing by Alistair
Lyon/Janet McBride) (© Reuters 2011 01/04/11)
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