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El-Sisi Widens Crackdown on Egyptian Civil Society, Journalists After Palm Sunday Church Bombings

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Funerals have begun in Egypt for victims of two bomb attacks targeting Coptic Christian churches on Sunday. At least 49 people were killed, and over 100 people were injured. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted the St. George’s Coptic church in the northern city of Tanta and the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi responded by declaring a three-month state of emergency. The state of emergency gives el-Sisi’s government even further power to continue its crackdown against human rights activists and journalists. For more, we speak with Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and a Nation Institute fellow, in Cairo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Funerals have begun in Egypt for victims of two bomb attacks targeting Coptic Christian churches on Sunday. At least 49 people were killed, and over 100 were injured. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted the St. George’s Coptic church in the northern city of Tanta and the St. Mark’s Cathedral in the northern city of Alexandria, where Coptic Pope Tawadros was celebrating Palm Sunday mass. The pope was uninjured in the attack.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the Coptic parishioners who survived the attack in Tanta described what happened.

EMIL EDWARD SALIB: [translated] It was a little after 9:00 a.m. The prayers were being held, and everyone was sitting in their places, but the pews weren’t full yet. I was sitting in the front, and all of a sudden everything went dark. I passed out, and someone pushed me off my seat. A few seconds later, I got up, and I saw bodies all around me. I climbed onto the pews and got out using a side door. Then I heard screams. I heard people saying, "Get out!"

AMY GOODMAN: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi responded by declaring a three-month state of emergency.

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: [translated] Several steps are to be taken, the first of which will be the declaration of a state of emergency, after the necessary legal and constitutional procedures are complete, for three months in Egypt. We are announcing this state of emergency only to protect our country and secure it, and to prevent any interference with it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The state of emergency gives el-Sisi’s government even further power to continue its crackdown against human rights activists and journalists. It allows the government and its security forces to surveil all communications, confiscate property, arrest anyone suspected of violating the state of emergency laws and shut down media outlets. On Monday, Egyptian authorities blocked distribution of the newspaper Al Bawaba, because it included an article blaming the Interior Ministry for security lapses in the church bombings.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the situation, we go to Cairo, Egypt, to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who’s also a Nation Institute fellow.

Sharif, can you talk about what happened and then the state of emergency in response?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, this seems to be, as you mentioned, a security failure in Egypt. I mean, the Islamic State group, back in December, had signaled its intention to escalate attacks on the Christian minority in Egypt with a bombing in a church in Cairo. It issued a video in January saying it was going to attack Christians. Hundreds of Christians were forced to flee their homes in northern Sinai following a campaign of assassination and intimidation against them. And then, on this Palm Sunday, one of the most important religious celebrations for Coptic Christians, we have this coordinated wave of attacks.

And it really speaks to a failure of the government’s highly powerful intelligence agencies for not anticipating these kinds of attacks. Less than two weeks ago, there was a bomb found in the very same church in Tanta that was bombed on Palm Sunday. It was disarmed. But clearly, this church was a target. And despite that, the bomber managed to evade security measures, get by a metal detector, walk into the church and blow himself up right near the altar, where families—where families were celebrating Palm Sunday. So, this really sent shockwaves through Egypt, and it was the deadliest day of violence that Egyptian Christians have seen in many decades.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sharif, Egypt’s—of Egypt’s 90 million people, about 10 percent are Christians. Generally speaking, are the Coptic Christians seen as supportive of the el-Sisi regime or not?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, certainly, the Coptic leadership was. The pope sat next to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on July 3rd, 2013, when he ousted Mohamed Morsi. Coptic members of Parliament and prominent figures have all been very supportive of it. There was a real threat that the Coptic community saw from the Muslim Brotherhood, which, to its discredit, engaged in a lot of sectarian language to cater to its far-right elements in its constituency. And so they saw the military coming in as saving them from that.

I think it’s also very important to note that there is widespread and everyday discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt, both legal and social. So, for example, when there’s religious clashes or when Coptic homes are burned down in upper Egypt, authorities will hold a traditional gathering instead of taking the perpetrators to court, to shield them from prosecution. When churches have been attacked for years under the pretext that they’re built or renovated illegally, then we have years of debate, and, finally, Parliament passed a law last year to—passed a law about renovating churches that still is far more restrictive than the regulations allowing mosques to be built. So, and there’s also a failure to even acknowledge this kind of discrimination. Officials usually say it’s exaggerated or even nonexistent. And this creates fertile ground for those who seek to incite violence against Christians, like the Islamic State.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sharif, I wanted to ask you also, have there been any efforts by the—or any successful attempts by the secular pro-democracy movement in Egypt, which is obviously now under intense attack by the el-Sisi government, as well as the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to attempt to build some kind of alliance, to—because, really, el-Sisi is consolidating further and further his dictatorship, and I’m wondering what the popular efforts to build a united front against him, if there’s any real effort occurring?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, so many groups are under such fierce attack right now, there really is—organizing and movement building is very difficult at the moment. So many people have been imprisoned. So many people have gone into exile because of the repression in Egypt. Civil society is under an unprecedented attack. So it’s very hard for people to get together. It’s also very dangerous to try and organize in a real way. So, I think we’re seeing—although you do see pockets of resistance that rise up. There was a case about two islands that Egypt gave to Saudi Arabia sovereignty over, and there was a massive protest about that, and a favorable court ruling that was recently overturned. Doctors came out in full force after some members of their syndicate were attacked by police. And that had an effect in the court, as well. So you do see these moments of uprising. But in terms of cohesive movement building, I think we’re still a long way off.

AMY GOODMAN: Following Sunday’s attack, President Trump took to Twitter to express his faith in Sisi, tweeting, quote, "So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great confidence that President Al Sisi will handle situation properly." Sharif, can you talk about the special relationship between Sisi—he was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate Donald Trump. He just was received by Donald Trump at the White House. And also the history of the security crackdown, emergency rule under Mubarak—what? It was—it lasted for over three decades.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. I mean, Egypt lived under a state of emergency for all 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. The lifting of the state of emergency was one of the main demands of the 2011 uprising. It was finally lifted in 2012, reinstated briefly for a month following the massacre in Rabaa in 2013. But what the state of emergency that Sisi ordered on Sunday does, it grants him exceptional powers, for example, to use state security emergency courts to try suspects. These are courts where the verdicts cannot be appealed by any other court, where the president can appoint army officers to sit on the judicial panel. It also gives him the right to impose curfews, to—greater rights to impose censorship. It gives broader authority to the army to have jurisdiction that is usually reserved for law enforcement, so they can arrest people on the street. And he also announced the establishment of a new—powerful new body called the Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism, that will regulate the media and religious discourse and so on. We have yet to see what its remit will really be.

Having said all that, it’s difficult to know what exactly will change on the ground. We have to remember, security forces in Egypt act with complete impunity and with really no restrictions governed by the law. Forced disappearances are rampant. Arbitrary detention is rampant. People are held in detention, under what’s called preventative detention or provisional detention, for weeks or month or years without ever going to trial. So it’s hard to know how much more—how much worse it can get, although it can always get worse. And finally, the state of emergency—there has been a state of emergency in northern Sinai on a near continuous basis for the past three years. And despite that, there is an insurgency that’s raging, with daily combat between militants and the security forces. So, I doubt that these measures will really have an effect on this increasing militant violence that we’re seeing in Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Special relationship?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, Trump and Sisi have fomented a very close relationship, you know, devoid of any kind of criticism of each other. You know, but this—in one way, it could be dangerous that it further emboldens Sisi to crack down even further, without even the kind of muted criticism that we heard from previous administrations. But we have to also remember that U.S. policy has changed very little for the past four decades, which is a complete support for successive Egyptian regimes, complete military funding and backing and diplomatic support for the government, that continued from Reagan through Bush through Obama. And it’s continuing under Trump, although the rhetoric is very different. And there’s—you know, he went almost beyond diplomatic protocol yesterday, calling—not only voicing concern or condolences for the victims, but re-expressing how Sisi—he has all confidence that Sisi will win this war on terror.

And we have to remember that Sisi, his central promise of coming to power was to crush terrorism and to restore security. And so these attacks really undermine his credibility. And we already saw—during his speech where he announced the state of emergency, he criticized local media for their coverage of the attacks. And we saw, right after the speech finished, all footage of the victims of the attacks was disappeared from local TV channels. And as you mentioned, we also saw him—authorities pull from the printing presses a newspaper, that is run by a staunch pro-Sisi supporter, that pointed to security failure as the reason behind the attacks. So, they’re very much concerned that his image as being strong on national security will be damaged by these attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we want to thank you for being with us. And be safe. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!'s correspondent in Cairo and Nation Institute fellow. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We'll be back in a minute.

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