Suspected suicide bombers struck two Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday, killing more than 40 people in the deadliest assault on civilians since President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s election nearly three years ago.
Islamic State claimed the attacks on the St. George church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and St. Mark’s cathedral in Alexandria, according to the U.S.-based SITE Intel Group, which monitors jihadist channels on social media. At least 27 people were killed in the Tanta bombing, the day’s first blast, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Mogahed said. In Alexandria, at least 16 were killed in an attack on the seat of the Coptic Orthodox church there.
The violence demonstrates Islamic State’s intent to expand its presence in Egypt beyond the rugged confines of the Sinai Peninsula. That will likely add more pressure on El-Sisi to restore order as he seeks to attract foreign capital and placate a population increasingly frustrated with economic hardship.
The bombings come less than a week after El-Sisi met President Donald Trump at the White House, where he was praised for his efforts to fight terrorism. Targeting two major cities outside Sinai lets Islamic State show it’s “still able to operate — despite this growing pressure — and to embarrass the Egyptian government after Sisi’s visit to Washington” and before Pope Francis’s visit this month, said Michael Horowitz, director of intelligence at the political risk consultancy Prime Source.
Trump tweeted that he’s “sad to hear about the terrorist attack in Egypt” and has “great confidence that President Al Sisi will handle the situation properly.” The U.S. “will continue to support Egypt’s security and stability in its efforts to defeat terrorism,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. Al Sisi ordered the deployment of military units to help protect vital installations nationwide, the presidency said in a statement.
Egyptian shares dropped after the bombings, with the benchmark EGX 30 Index retreating 1.6 percent, the most since Feb. 27, at the close in Cairo.
The incidents bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State — multi-pronged attacks aimed at inflicting as much damage as possible while minimizing the group’s losses. In Alexandria, one of the casualties was a police officer who blocked the suspected suicide bomber from entering the church after he evaded a metal detector, security footage aired on television showed. In Tanta, the remains of a suspected suicide bomber were found in the church, the state-run Middle East News Agency said, citing an unidentified security official.
The bombings were “a mixed bag” for El-Sisi, said Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
“On the one hand it reinforces his narrative that Egypt is in war against terrorism, rallying the nation around the flag and so forth,” Tadros said. “At the same time the attacks send a message of incompetence of the security apparatus” in containing the militancy, he said.
If the jihadist group proves able to operate more extensively outside of Sinai, “that would be a very dangerous development,” he added.
El-Sisi declared that the attacks “will not undermine the resolve and true will of the Egyptian people to counter the forces of evil,” according to a statement from the presidency. But the violence against civilians dealt the president a new blow at a time when his support is already being tested by the hardships Egyptians are being forced to endure as part of his economic reform program.
A November decision to abandon currency controls helped to secure a $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan and attract foreign investors. Yet it has also caused the pound to lose half its value against the dollar, sending prices soaring and annual core inflation climbing to over 33 percent in February.
The militant threat exploded after the 2013 military-backed popular uprising against Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and the deadly crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group that followed. The expansion of the attacks outside the confines of Sinai and, according to Egyptian media, a new focus on targeting Christians have only proven the jihadists’ resilience. A deadly bombing at the Cairo cathedral in December, claimed by Islamic State’s local affiliate, killed at least 25 worshipers.
The latest bombing “won’t be the last terrorist attack because the state fights terrorism but doesn’t fight terrorism-inspiring ideas, which is the main cause of the problem,” billionaire Naguib Sawiris wrote on his official Twitter account.
Christians, who are widely estimated to make up around 10 percent of the nation’s 92 million residents, have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim majority nation. They were among El-Sisi’s strongest backers after Mursi was pushed from power, but that loyalty, too, is being strained by the government’s failure to contain the assaults on their community.
“This type of attack is the most dangerous, since it inflicts maximum amount of damage on human lives, disrupts tourism, and shakes the image of the state,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates. “It turns the conflict from a confrontation in the desert to a civil conflict in the heart of Egypt.”
“This attack is likely to embolden the government, and provide it with even more legitimacy in its crackdown on Islamists and on dissent,” he said.