The suicide bombings of Palm Sunday services in two Coptic churches in Egypt, which killed at least 45 people and wounded scores more, are another terrible reminder of the persistent terrorist violence in Egypt. Tweeting his condemnation of the attacks, President Trump expressed “great confidence that President al-Sisi will handle situation properly.”
President Trump’s confidence is sadly misplaced. In response to these attacks President Sisi imposed a three-month State of Emergency, doubling down on the policies of repression and denial of basic freedoms that have proved counterproductive in Egypt’s struggle against violent extremism.
President Trump could have used the opportunity of President Sisi’s recent visit to the White House to raise concerns about the worrying rise in terrorist incidents in Egypt. There are effective, comprehensive strategies for combatting the threat of terrorism available. These strategies go beyond a narrow reliance on law-enforcement or forceful state responses and recognize that repression and human rights violations can enflame the grievances that violent extremists exploit. They emphasize the importance of protecting the rights of non-violent dissent and criticism of government policy, and stress the vital role of independent civil society organizations. Yet President Sisi has systematically destroyed these essential safeguards.
Egypt’s problems with terrorist attacks directed against the Christian community have some additional specific causes. First, ISIS has identified Egypt’s vulnerability to sectarian dissension and has embarked on a strategy of targeting Christians in Egypt to exacerbate sectarian tensions there. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS has benefited from deliberately intensifying sectarian strife and is trying similar methods in Egypt.
Second, Egypt is vulnerable to these kinds of attacks because for decades it has allowed institutional, state backed discrimination against Christians—such as the restrictions on the construction and repair of churches and other religious buildings, impunity for perpetrators of anti-Christian violence, and the enforcement of blasphemy laws that have a discriminatory, negative impact on Christians and other religious minorities.
If the Sisi government was serious about protecting Egypt’s Christians, and if it wanted to live up to its own rhetoric about national unity, then it should end these discriminatory practices.
Egyptian public discourse has become increasingly sectarian over recent years. Extremist preachers, some Egyptian, others broadcasting from Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states, propagate hate speech against Christians and other minorities. This fosters an atmosphere where violent extremism can take root.
The Egyptian government could play a much more vigorous role in pushing back against this kind of incitement and hate-speech. President Sisi, as well as the state backed television and mass circulation media, could publicly push back against inflammatory provocation, which paves the way for violent attacks such as those that occurred last Sunday.
It’s unlikely that President Trump raised any of these issues during his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart. He certainly did not do so publicly. Instead, he heaped undeserved praise on President Sisi, assuring him that he was doing “a fantastic job.” These words ring even more hollowly now.
In conducting its foreign policy the United States is obliged to have relations with many different types of rulers and governments. Some of them, like President Sisi, are notorious human rights violators. Such rulers damage their own countries and create problems for their neighbors and the rest of the world, which is why the United States should always seek to use its influence to persuade them to pursue more constructive policies that will help deal with global problems like the fight against terrorism.
By condoning, and even praising, the anti-human rights policies of problematic allies like Egypt, President Trump sends a message of weakness to autocrats around the world, who believe that they can continue to oppress their people with impunity. He therefore undermines prospects for effective global cooperation in the fight against terrorism, corruption, and other trans-national challenges.
By Neil Hicks
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