Egypt imposed a three-month nationwide state of emergency Monday as President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sought to ease public anger and take a tougher stand against Islamic extremists after suicide bombings at two Coptic Christian churches killed 45 people.
A day after the Palm Sunday bloodshed, the Interior Ministry said it killed seven Islamic State militants in an exchange of gunfire during a security operation in the southern city of Assiut. The ministry alleged they were plotting attacks against Christians. It posted photos of corpses lying next to weapons and said ISIS publications were found with them.
A state of emergency already in place in the Sinai Peninsula has failed to halt near daily attacks against police and security forces by ISIS in the volatile area.
Now the group is stepping up its attacks against Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population, by moving its activities from the Sinai to other parts of Egypt. Its increasingly sophisticated tactics are likely to fuel sectarian tensions and embarrass el-Sissi.
The Palm Sunday bombings struck churches in the port city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, and the city of Tanta. The head of the Coptic church, Pope Tawadros II, had been inside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria when the bomber struck there but was unhurt.
“We are seeing simultaneous attacks, based on strong information, targeting big churches across the country. This is a very dangerous development,” said Mina Thabet, a rights researcher focusing on minorities.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks and identified the two attackers with names suggesting they were Egyptians. The group, which carried out a bombing at a Cairo church in December that killed 30 people, threatened more such violence, saying the blood of Christians would flow “like rivers.”
Coptic Christians have put their faith in el-Sissi, who championed himself as the bulwark against Islamists.
The former army chief met with President Donald Trump a week ago at the White House, seeking closer ties and discussing the fight against extremism. Trump spoke by phone Sunday with el-Sissi to express confidence that Egypt will do what it can “to protect Christians and all Egyptians.”
The latest ISIS attacks were a blow to el-Sissi’s image and left many Christians doubting whether he is capable of protecting them.
He sought to restore that confidence by imposing the state of emergency, declaring three days of mourning, deploying special forces to help police secure churches and other key installations, and ordering the formation of a new body called the “Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Fanaticism.”
Parliament has seven days to approve the state of emergency – an action seen as a foregone conclusion since the legislature is packed with el-Sissi supporters. The Cabinet declared it had gone into effect at 1 p.m.
In theory, it allows for arrests without warrants, the swift prosecution of suspects and the establishment of special courts. But authorities already have been waging a heavy crackdown on dissent for years, so it was unclear what would change.