Egypt was rocked yesterday by suicide bombings in major cities which resulted in at least 45 dead and over 100 injured. In the second city Alexandria an attack was carried out at the entrance to St Mark’s Cathedral resulting in the death of 16 people. Two hours earlier in Tanta, a city in the Nile Delta, a bomb attack at a church killed 29. There are unconfirmed reports of further attacks on churches around the country.
The Islamic State has claimed the attacks, which coincided with the Palm Sunday celebrations of Coptic Christians in Egypt. They come after a suicide attack last December at St Peter and Paul’s Church in Cairo killed 29 people, and in the wake of a video released in February – by a group based in the Sinai province which considers itself affiliated to IS – that vowed to target Copts across Egypt.
President Sisi has declared a three-month state of emergency in Egypt and announced that there will be an increased army presence in the cities of Egypt to “secure state institutions”.
These barbaric acts of senseless terror committed against ordinary Egyptians enjoying a holiday celebration must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But we must also ask the question: Why did they happen? It is certainly the case that the bombings have occurred against a backdrop of escalating violence committed against Copts in Sinai by followers of IS. Coptic residents in el-Arish are being attacked in their homes, often tortured and killed, and refugees arriving in Ismailia report having to flee from death threats. But the stated aims and actions of monstrous fundamentalist reaction by no means give us a full picture of yesterday’s events, or of their relation to the current situation in Egypt as a whole.
It is often remarked by Egyptians that with a history of repressive regimes and sectarian violence they are desensitised to things such as yesterday’s bombings. Yet in the district of Alexandria where the cathedral attack took place, at the centre of the old city, a sombre mood has taken hold. Shops and businesses were closed yesterday, and those who continued about their day did so in silence. Residents were warned about heavy traffic and a heavy military presence around the city, but neither materialised. It seems that, unusually for the city, many people are seeking refuge indoors, to come to terms with a grave trauma. When asked about the attack, however, most point the finger squarely at the government.
What’s more, in contrast to the eerie quiet around most of the city, a spontaneous protest of 3,000 youths from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds erupted outside the cathedral in the aftermath of the attack. In the face of armoured police and a heavy military presence, demonstrators openly chanted “Against Sisi! Against the police!” and “Christians and Muslims are one hand” – echoing the ‘one hand’ slogan of the Egyptian Revolution.
The advanced conclusions many people draw against the Egyptian state in response to these terror attacks are borne out by the facts. The outright incompetence of the army and the police in dealing with these incidents, and their impotence in the face of guerrilla warfare with IS in Sinai, has generated widespread anger across the country. The one thing which gave Sisi credibility above all else in the early months of his regime was the state’s supposed ability to protect the people from Islamic reaction. Now the regime is consistently exposed as failing to keep its most basic promise.
In yesterday’s case the evidence is damning. There was a huge police presence guarding the Cathedral, which is the oldest seat of the Coptic Church and was hosting the Coptic Pope at the time. This presence was meant to be prepared for precisely the kind of attack which was carried out. However, CCTV footage shows the attack being allowed through one of the cathedral’s boundaries despite a body-scanner alarm going off, before detonating a suicide vest outside one of the entrances. The Tanta attack was carried out at the same church where police had had to carry out a controlled explosion on 29th March. Gladys Haddad, an eyewitness, described how the position of debris suggests whoever carried out the attack must have reached the front row of the church pews, and wondered how they had been allowed to penetrate the place so easily.
The weakness of the state is not limited to its inability to prevent these attacks, however. The force of the small demonstration outside the cathedral in Alexandria illustrates the true extent of its impotence. If there had been a significant armed presence before the attack, this presence multiplied after the demonstration began, to at least 50 armoured vehicles and hundreds of armed security officers. Four people were arrested and beaten up in front of demonstrators in an attempt to disperse the protest. But repression failed to intimidate the protesters, as the demonstration continued well into the night, police showed to be powerless to act on provocative chants against them.
There are those in Egypt who suggest that the role of the regime extends beyond mere incompetence and impotence, pointing to a conspiracy theory about the attacks. There is no need for such theories to demonstrate the pernicious role of the Egyptian state in aiding and abetting the proliferation of Islamist reaction as a tool with which to divide the masses along sectarian lines. It is plain for most people to see the totally inadequate response of the regime in combating this affliction on the Egyptian people. Sisi and his gang of thugs are more than ready to use the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood as a cover for throwing thousands of honest revolutionaries in jail, yet when it comes to the blackest of fundamentalist reaction they are powerless to prevent terror attacks. In fact, in their so called war on terror in Sinai, many ordinary people have been killed or their livelihoods destroyed while the ISIS organisation appears to have escaped relatively unscathed. Let us not forget, too, the role of Western imperialism in the creation of the Islamic state which inspired these attacks, with the bombing of Iraq and then the backing of Islamist militias in Syria in an attempt to further its own narrow interests. The scourge facing Egypt is the same scourge facing most countries in the world today as a result of these reactionary imperialist policy.
The Sisi regime is in a deep crisis. Many have foreseen its imminent demise, thus it is clear that this attack will be cynically used to temporarily stabilise it. Judging from the examples of Britain and France, the state of emergency declared by the Egyptian president yesterday will be used as a pretext to crack down on a threat to his regime far greater than a terror attack: the revolutionary youth and the working class. In this way it is clear that Islamic fundamentalism and the brutal regime - sworn enemies as they might appear - are trying to lean on each other.
This has been the method of Sisi all along. The region of Sinai has been under an ongoing state of emergency for several years, and Sisi’s government has already used this as an excuse to force through counter-revolutionary laws and shut down strikes and demonstrations in the rest of Egypt. No doubt Sisi will use this attack as an excuse to step the repression up another notch.
Given the government’s lack of credibility, the most advanced layers of Egyptian society, and many others beyond them, have already deduced that acts of reactionary violence are being committed because Egypt is ruled by a collapsing regime which needs to be replaced. We should add that the monster of this reactionary violence was produced by a global capitalist system, the basis for the present Egyptian regime, and so capitalism must be destroyed for any other government to be successful in dealing with this problem.
As demonstrated yesterday, Egyptian revolutionary youth are fearless in their desire to get rid of the regime. But, as one local activist noted, they have no programme to do so. He also contrasted their revolutionary zeal with the transitional demands being raised by hospital nurses he had seen protesting the previous week, and suggested that the disconnect between the two was a major barrier which the Egyptian Revolution would have to overcome to be successful in the future.
The lack of a revolutionary party with a clear plan to overthrow Egyptian capitalism was the main reason why, in spite of the revolutionary energy and power of the mass insurrections, the 2011 and 2013 revolutions merely took down one part of the ruling class to hand power over to another. Fundamentally, nothing changed. The same people remained in charge of the state and the economy. Seeing little to no change after many heroic efforts, the revolution is not in an ebb. The masses are tired and disoriented. It is in these conditions that the reactionary creatures such as the Sisi regime and the fundamentalists in Sinai can raise their ugly heads. The unfortunate truth is that the stalling of the Egyptian Revolution will give rise to horrors such as yesterday’s bombings. The only way to wash away the bloodstains of reactionary fundamentalism is by overthrowing the feeble regime which accommodates it and the rotten system which gives rise to it.
Of course the Egyptian revolution is not finished. The masses have temporarily retreated, but the ruling class is still very weak. It is incapable of solving the most basic problems of society. Poverty is steeply rising and dissatisfaction is sensed everywhere. At some point, the masses will re-enter the scene. But the only way to secure a full victory and a society capable of guaranteeing the safety and freedom of ordinary Egyptians will be to take the movement to its final conclusion, by putting an end to the system itself.