A bombing in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which lies adjacent to St. Mark’s Cathedral – the equivalent of the Vatican for the Coptic Orthodox Church – left 25 dead and scores injured during a liturgical service on December 11. The Islamic State has taken responsibility, claiming that it had sent the bomber, whom they identify as Abu Abdallah al-Masri, to the church. However, Egypt’s interior ministry has claimed that people in connection with the Muslim Brotherhood were behind the bombing. The ministry has said it has arrested four people who are believed to have collaborated with a 22-year-old suicide bomber, Mahmoud Mostafa – although no mention was made of his nom-de-guerre, which the Islamic State used to identify the bomber.
It is unclear whether the claims of the Egyptian interior ministry and the Islamic State point to the same individual being behind the bombing. Egypt has also said that one of those arrested is the brother of a 30-year-old man who is “closely associated” with the Muslim Brotherhood group in Qatar. They claim that this man is on the run and receiving logistical and financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood with the aim of “destabilizing” Egypt.
Regardless of who is behind the attack – which is being described as Egypt’s worst act of sectarian violence since another church bombing in 2011 – the tension and anger felt by many at a lack of security will have international repercussions.
What does this horrifying attack on the Middle East’s largest Christian community mean for American-Egyptian relations? Egyptian president Sisi was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on his presidential win. The two men share views on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist group in Egypt and has been described by Trump as “radical.” However, anger at Sisi’s regime by Copts, which has been intensely magnified since the bombing, strains America’s relations with Egypt.
With this church bombing against the Coptic community, the incoming Trump administration must now must navigate a fine line between standing with a strongman and being a champion for the Middle East’s Christians.
Donald Trump has consistently lamented the situation of Christians in the Middle East, claiming that “we have done nothing to help the Christians in the Middle East. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We left Christians subject to intense persecution and even genocide.” He has also made claims that resemble those of Sisi’s, while also attacking the current American administration by saying that Obama had “helped bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power” in Egypt.
This will be a fine line to walk, indeed, as Copts in Egypt now feel that Sisi has failed to address longstanding injustices and has failed to deliver on his promises of equality which he made three years ago when he ascended to power on the back of a popular uprising that swept the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. One of the main reasons of Coptic disillusionment is that those who attack Copts or their churches rarely receive punishment. Reconciliation sessions, which the government has used to resolve inter-faith disputes, usually result in the perpetrators walking free. The government itself has also taken part in violence against Copts – most notably, running over 28 Coptic protestors with tanks in the Maspero Massacre of October 2011 – for which nobody has been found guilty.
President Trump, then, will have some choices to make regarding Egyptian relations. Will he continue to use the real, and tragic, suffering of Copts and other Middle Eastern Christians to promote an agenda which includes a Muslim ban and registry; or will he continue to support a strongman who views Islamic terrorism as a serious threat, but is also climbing in unpopularity, as the Egyptian economy is experiencing a currency crisis and Copts continue to be targeted and left without any justice?
With growing discontent over the declining state of Egypt’s security and economy, many Copts and Muslims alike are showing frustration with Sisi, a man who Trump has publicly supported. At the same time, Trump’s apparent support of – and frankly – use of, Middle Eastern Christian minorities, such as the Copts, to promote an agenda which has fanned the flames of sectarian tensions, put him in a seemingly contradictory position as he takes on the presidency.