Analysis: Qaeda threat to Egypt may stir militants

By Sarah Mikhail and Marwa Awad

CAIRO (BestGrowthStock) – Militants may feel emboldened by an al Qaeda threat against Egypt’s Christians, even if the network itself might struggle to mount such an assault.

The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which launched an attack on a Baghdad church on Sunday that left 52 dead, has also threatened Egypt’s church.

While there are no signs of a re-emergence of a 1990s-style Islamist insurgency, Egypt remains alert to anything that could stir communal tension that sometimes boils up over issues such as cross-faith relationships and conversions.

Egypt crushed a militant uprising in the 1990s and that experience should help it counter any new threat, Christians and Muslims said.

Egyptian authorities were quick to condemn the al Qaeda threat and to boost security at churches in the country, where Christians make up 10 percent of the 78 million people, the biggest Christian population in the Middle East.

“This threat is not directed only at Christians but at the Egyptian state. Egypt’s security ended terrorism in the 1990s and it is capable today of eradicating these threats,” said Father Abdel Maseeh Baseet of the Coptic Orthodox church, the biggest Christian community in Egypt.

The Iraq attack was against a Catholic church. The Egypt threat was directed against the Orthodox community – al Qaeda accused it of detaining two women converts to Islam.

“I think those responsible for the (Iraq) massacre were looking for a justification for what they did by linking it to Egypt’s Church,” said Wasim Badia, an Orthodox church deacon.

Egyptian Islamist protesters said the two women identified by the Iraqi group, both wives of priests, had converted to Islam and were being detained by the church. A priest denied this and said they were in monasteries for their safety.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group that long ago renounced violence to bring political change, condemned the threat and said security forces could stop militants. Its own members are regularly rounded up by the authorities.

“Egypt’s security apparatus has three decades of experience in stemming jihadist activity and penetrating extremist groups. I doubt they would fail in handling such threats,” said senior Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh.

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But even if the Iraqi group has no allies or network in Egypt to carry out its threat, some said it could stir radical Islamists into action against the Christian community.

“That kind of call may find some receptive ears in Egypt but it won’t find the receptive ears of an existing organization capable of striking with the kind of sophistication that we see in Iraq,” said Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based political analyst.

Instead, he said it might be taken up by followers of the strict Salafi school of Islam, who have been vocal critics of the Coptic church in the conversion row.

Orthodox Bishop Morkos of Shubra al-Khaima in Cairo echoed the comments: “The (Iraqi) massacre will not lead to a rise in sectarian strife in Egypt but it could catalyze dangerous attempts by extremists.”

Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Coptic Orthodox community’s al-Watani newspaper, said militants were using different techniques than those used by Egyptian groups in the 1990s.

“Handling al-Qaeda threats and its new technology requires higher levels of security monitoring and scrutiny,” he said. “These groups see that they penetrated places like Iraq and think they can penetrate Egypt,” Sidhom added.

He pointed to last week’s interception of two parcel bombs on cargo planes in Britain and Dubai.

Though analysts say the militant threat in Egypt has eased, tensions between Muslims and Christians periodically emerge.

And frequent security sweeps against any Islamist activity reflect official concerns that, without vigilance, militants might regroup in Egypt, the home turf of many leading Islamist thinkers and also of al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Analysts point out that sporadic bomb attacks like the one that killed a single tourist in Cairo in 2009 are likely.

At least 1,200 people, including nearly 100 foreigners, died in the 1990s insurgency that targeted foreign tourists, banks, ministers and top officials, including a failed attempt against President Hosni Mubarak in 1994.

In the most brazen 1997 attack, Islamists with knives and automatic weapons killed 58 tourists, mainly Germans, Swiss and Japanese, at one of Egypt’s most popular pharaonic temples in Luxor.

After the Iraqi threat, security was stepped up at several churches in Cairo and elsewhere.

But some Christians, who often complain they get second-class treatment in Egypt, were dismissive of the state’s efforts to protect them.

“I didn’t hear about the Iraq massacre… But if you recall the one that happened in Nagaa Hamady, it’s enough proof of how ‘protected’ churches in Egypt are,” said a Christian woman who asked to be identified only by her surname, Girgis.

(Additional reporting and writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Janet McBride and Samia Nakhoul)

Analysis: Qaeda threat to Egypt may stir militants