Problems on hold
“It is so sad that we should be the targets of Islamist terrorism because of our Christian identity while security forces surround our town of al-Arish and guard it from outside but not from inside.” The words were said by one of Arish Copts just before their recent flight out of town in the wake of vicious threats against them and the killing of six Copts in three weeks. “The security vacuum inside Arish makes us easy prey for the terrorists when they fail to strike the police or military outside town,” he continued. “We live in constant fear wondering who will be killed next, and our women and children are panic-stricken and constantly crying.”
The dilemma of Arish Copts as targets of Islamist terrorism goes back to the rise of the Islamists in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt. Matters took a vicious turn to the worse, however, by the end of January 2017 and throughout the month of February. Copts were attacked in their homes and shops, and cold bloodedly shot to death in front of their wives and children, or they were shot dead in Arish streets in broad daylight.
The motivation behind such crimes is no secret. Copts constitute a double target: they are Christian which, in the eyes of Islamists, warrants a death penalty; and they are peaceful and unarmed thus an easy target compared to members of the police or military. It is true that all three groups—the police, military and Copts—are targeted by the terrorists, but Copts are up for grabs especially since killing them has the added value of sowing discord between Egypt’s Copts and Muslims and between the Copts and the State.
Egypt’s recent history proves it is near impossible to drive a wedge between Copts and Muslims. Egyptians have always stood as one in face of terrorism; their close unity saved the country from attempts to undermine the State, fragment the nation and bring Egypt to her knees. Egyptians know that their cohesion alone safeguards against such attempts.
Fallout between the Copts and the State, however, is not so impossible. If Arish does suffer from feeble State authority and a security vacuum that contrasts with the tight security on its borders, this would constitute an unforgivable, inexplicable and unacceptable error of apathy on the part of the State and its security apparatus. It is no secret that Egypt’s armed forces and police are fighting a relentless battle with Islamist terrorists barricaded in the mountainous cave-riddled terrain of Sinai, but this can be no excuse for relaxed security vigilance in towns where civilians need protection so they do not fall easy victims to terrorists. In case of Arish, a group of civilians had to flee town for lack of protection, a fact that poses questions as to the scale of State control over the territory, and shatters State prestige and dignity.
Inadequacy by State authorities and apparatuses in Arish and their failure to protect Copts forced them to flee town. Other Egyptian towns, such as Ismailiya, opened their arms to receive them. One day not so long ago, Egypt received Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees who fled conflict in their homelands. Today, Egyptian towns and cities offer safe haven for refugees fleeing the scourge of Islamist terrorism in Arish. We hear first-hand accounts of the tragedies the Copts had to live through and the horrendous crimes that claimed the lives of family members and friends. We try to support and help them start new lives in new places. The State spared no effort to provide them with adequate housing, job opportunities, health and social care, and places for their children in new schools or universities. But did the State carry out its duty in the first place by protecting them and preventing their exodus? With this in mind, a rift between Copts and the State may not be so far-fetched.
5 March 2017