Suspected militants of the ‘Welayet Sinai’ (Province of Sinai) organization, affiliated to IS are suspected to be behind the killing of two Coptic Christians over the past few weeks. Attacks specifically targeting Christians have been on the rise recently, with the latest incidents taking place in the coastal city of al-Arish. On Friday, February 24, suspected Islamic militants shot dead a Coptic Christian inside his home in Arish. The murder was witnessed by the victim’s wife and daughter. This is the sixth murder targeting minority Christians in a month occurring in Arish. The victim was a plumber. Two days earlier, militants killed a veterinarian, and in late January, a local vendor was killed by militants who raided his shop. Both were Coptic Christians. But the Copts are not the sole targets of militants. Earlier this month IS in Sinai claimed it executed five local men it accused of spying for and collaborating with the army.
With Northern Sinai being the epicenter of the deadly conflict pitting the Egyptian military with insurgency groups, the Christian population living in the northeast of Egypt remains particularly vulnerable, even more so then their fellow Copts in the rest of the country. But the risk for the 9 million Copts living in Egypt is not just confined to North Sinai. In December, 30 Egyptian Christians lost their lives following an attack on a church in the capital Cairo. The concentration of Copts in large urban centers also make the Christians a particularly easy prey to militants who do not forgive their alleged support of the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi.
Attacks against Copts grabbed public attention with the killing last year of priest Rafael Moussa, but attacks against police and the military have not subsided either. On February 17, at least three Egyptian soldiers were killed and four others were badly wounded when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb.
While the Egyptian government has long sought to confine the conflict to North Sinai, to spare the big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria from trouble, and remove any threats from the lucrative tourist destinations in South Sinai, the militants it is facing are threatening for more violence. On Sunday, February 19, 2017, a militant leader identified as Abuabdallah Masri, allegedly tied to Islamic State released a video threatening to launch new attacks on Egyptian Christians.
Military continues to degrade the militants’ base:
The security services have always been a preferred target of militant groups. Unidentified militants blew up the residence of a non-commissioned police officer in the suburb of Al-Obour in the North Sinai city of al-Arish on February 18. Also in al-Arish, a conscript soldier was injured by sniper bullets while he was stationed at a security checkpoint. The soldier survived the attack.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian military continues its own campaign to eliminate members of the militant groups that have been waging a war against it. Some of its tactics are said to be rather brutal. On February 18, the military alleged that it killed a “top member” of the Islamic State in Sinai in a sweeping operation that took place in Central Sinai. The army named Hamad Salim Suleiman as a roadside bomb specialist involved in numerous bomb attacks and armed assaults against the security services.
Tension not likely to subside:
As we look at where Egypt’s security stands today, it is difficult to see any improvements in the foreseeable future. As in previous years, we anticipate moments of ebb-and-flow, when tension goes up and down depending on what militant groups do in terms of strategy and tactics. While there is no doubt the Egyptian military has been consistent in its campaign to reduce the militant groups effectiveness, a complete elimination of the threat is unlikely in Egypt’s current political context. Indeed, both the worsening economic conditions affecting the population, and a sustained crackdown on civil society stakeholders will provide a source of new recruits as disgruntled youth find no way out of their precarious socio-economic situation. Even a crackdown on religious speech, aimed at reducing the role of out-of-control preachers that incite political militancy in their fiery Friday sermons could backfire on the government repression strategy.