Egypt: Brutal attacks on Coptic minority

Copts praying in Tahrir Sq, during Egyptian revolution (Wikimedia Commons)

The horrific 26 May attack on a coach carrying Coptic Christians, including many children, is the latest in a series of bloody attacks on Egypt’s Copts. The coach, and accompanying vehicles with workers going to work, were ambushed and riddled with automatic weapons on the desert road to St. Samuel monastery in Minya province. Twenty nine people were killed and 13 injured.

Last December the St. Peter and St. Paul church in Cairo was hit by a suicide bomber, leaving 29 dead. Then on Palm Sunday suicide bombers struck St. George church in Tanta and St. Mark in Alexandria killing 48, again including children. In late January and February seven Christians were seized from their homes, tortured and killed in al-Arish, a city in Northern Sinai.

Sinai Province, ISIS’s Egyptian affiliate, claimed responsibility for all these attacks. In February they released a video naming Christians as “our first target and favourite prey.” Hundreds of Christians fled al-Arish to Ismailia, 200 kilometres away.

Sinai Province changing targets

There has been a turn in Sinai Province’s tactics over the past year. Previously, they mainly attacked military and police checkpoints, particularly in sparsely populated and poverty-stricken Northern Sinai. Hundreds of soldiers and security forces have been killed including some high-ranking officers. In 2015 they brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai desert as it flew from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224 with a catastrophic effect on Egypt’s vital tourism industry.
But in recent months Sinai Province has targeted the Coptic Christian minority, about 10 per cent of the population, as well as the security forces. In May two important Bedouin tribes in Sinai, Al Sawarka and Al-Tarabine, declared war on Sinai Province after some of their members had been killed. The church and Minya bus attacks, hundreds of miles from Sinai, may represent a move towards more vulnerable high profile targets.

After the Minya attack, the Egyptian Air Force bombed sites in Derna in eastern Libya, said to be terrorist camps. East Libyan forces led by Khalifa Haftar, a close ally of the Egyptian government, have been trying to gain control of the city. However, a source in Haftar’s Libyan National Army told Reuters that they had coordinated with Egyptian forces to hit ammunition stores belonging to the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an al-Qaida group that opposes ISIS.

Persecution and discrimination

The Copts have long been discriminated against and are among the poorest sections of the population. Former president Hosni Mubarak repeatedly threatened the Copts that if they did not support him, they would experience more persecution and discrimination under an Islamist government. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the latter years of his regime heightened this fear.

However, during the 2011 uprising that brought Mubarak’s downfall there were many inspiring examples of unity between Muslim and Christian demonstrators. The intertwined Muslim crescent and Christian cross became a common symbol on badges, T-shirts and street art.

In the absence of a mass independent workers’ party able to unite workers, youth and poor in action for a programme of socialism and democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidential election in 2012. Within a year massive opposition to President Mohammed Morsi’s rule led to his downfall. The armed forces under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi then stepped into the vacuum left by the absence of a mass workers’ party. In August 2013, after the army brutally cleared two Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins supporting the ex-president resulting in am estimated 1,000 deaths, 88 churches were attacked.

Unable to stir up Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Egypt in the way IS have done in Iraq and Syria, and experiencing military setbacks in those countries, IS /Sinai Province have attempted to instil fear among the Copts to boost their prestige.

Democratic and workers’ rights attacked

Their actions have provided Sisi’s government with an excuse for a vicious tightening of repression. Democratic rights, including the right to organise in independent trade unions, the right to strike, to protest and even to mildly criticise the regime have all been rolled back. More opponents of the regime have been arrested, imprisoned and tortured than in the dying days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Journalists have been gagged and some independent newspapers shut down.

Yet despite all these measures, protests and strikes have not been stamped out. Anger is growing as living standards fall, following currency devaluation, public spending cuts and imposition of Value Added Tax, last September. These were demanded by the International Monetary Fund in return for a $12billion loan, desperately needed for the failing Egyptian economy.

Protests break out

On March 6th and 7th at least 24 protests broke out in 17 districts, involving thousands of people angry at the cut in their subsidised bread rations. In Alexandria women protestors chanted, “They eat fino [higher quality] bread, and we can’t find our bread.” Roads, tramlines and at least one railway line were blocked, as demonstrators called for the overthrow of Sisi. Showing the weakness of the government’s position due to its lack of a social base, despite all its repressive forces, it quickly backed down and restored the bread ration in areas that had protested.

Workers taking industrial action have faced an alliance between their employers and the state machinery, including police, prison and courts. Seventy five security guards at Tourah Cement Company in Cairo held a sit-in after a fellow worker was killed following a fight with people thought to be stealing from company premises. The company claimed he was part-time and so refused to pay his family compensation or insurance. The workers had been on temporary contracts for up to 15 years.

Although the Appeals Court ruled the workers were entitled to the company’s profit-sharing scheme, healthcare and other employment rights, the company ignored the court ruling and called police to break up the sit-in. Thirty two were arrested at 2am on May 22nd. According to reports, four of them have been hospitalised while in police custody. On June 4th all 32 were sentenced to three years imprisonment. Families, friends and journalists were barred from the trial. Defence lawyers reported the judge condemned strikes as criminal, despite the fact that none of the charges related to striking.

The state’s treatment of workers shows that the Copts’ right to practise their religion and to live in security free from discrimination and poverty can never be achieved or guaranteed under this system. Egyptian capitalism can only survive with insecure jobs paying low wages, and inadequate housing, education and health services. Building a united movement around a socialist and democratic programme can overcome sectarian divisions that only benefit the capitalist class and ruling elite.

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June 2017