Yesterday, Egyptians marked the culmination of the traditional, forty-day period of mourning for the twenty Egyptians and one Ghanaian beheaded by the Islamic State (IS) branch in Tripoli, Libya. Even as religious figures, community leaders, and national politicians have expressed their condolences to the victims’ families in the province of Minya, the attacks prompted the Egyptian government to launch airstrikes against IS bases in Libya. Reactions to Egypt’s response have varied. Some consider the response appropriate, an effort to exact vengeance for those killed; others object, however, seeing the strikes as part of a push to involve Egypt in an outright confrontation with IS forces located along its western border. The steps taken by the Egyptian government in response to this horrific act merit further examination, as do the government’s justifications and the various reactions of the Egyptian people to the government’s response.
The crisis started when IS took seven Coptic Christian Egyptians hostage when they were driving back to Egypt. IS followed that by kidnapping 13 others (as well as the Ghanaian victim), taking them from their residence in the Libyan city of Sirte. The crisis culminated in IS beheading the victims and publishing a video of the act online. The executions and publication of the video triggered a qualitative shift in the Egyptian government’s response from a posture of apparent passivity and obfuscation to one of trumpeting its actions to confront the threat from IS.
The first phase of the response stretched from the time when the victims were taken hostage to the moment that they first appeared wearing the orange jumpsuits IS dresses its victims in before killing them, shown in photos in IS’ online magazine, Dabiq. During this phase, the response of the Egyptian government was inadequate, characterized by a plodding pace and consistent neglect toward the pleas of the families of those abducted to accelerate efforts to bring their sons home. In this phase, officials from Egypt’s Foreign Ministry twice met with representatives of the families of those abducted, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered the creation of a special committee to manage the crisis; however, neither the ministry nor the committee ever discussed their actions or the information they were able to find, if any. After the video of the beheading was published online, the Egyptian authorities’ handling of the situation picked up speed. Three primary steps were taken: an armed response, an extension of direct support to the victims’ families, and a broader social-political effort to show concern.
The Armed Response
Immediately after the video was made public, Egypt’s National Defense Council convened to discuss the nation’s response. That same night, Sisi made a televised address to the Egyptian people in which he vowed to avenge the victims, stating that Egypt “reserves the right of retaliation and with the methods and timing it sees fit for retribution for those murderers and criminals who are without the slightest humanity.” Before dawn, according to the statement later issued by the military’s spokesman, a number of Egyptian fighter aircraft had carried out attacks on IS training camps and weapons depots.
Whether or not one agrees with the retaliatory attack and the perception of its effect on IS’ capabilities, the message communicated is undeniable: The current Egyptian government is willing to respond to a mass attack on a group of Egyptian Christians in a very different fashion from past regimes. This reaction runs against a deeply-held idea among hardline Islamist groups in Egypt, such as the Salafists and others, who hold that the killing of Muslims in retaliation for the murder of Christians is not acceptable. It is worth keeping in mind that the last time the Egyptian Armed Forces openly intervened in Libya was during the short Egypt-Libya war in 1977, which came in response to actions taken by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as part of his opposition to the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. In that earlier incident, similar to the reaction to this most recent intervention, the response of the Armed Forces served to strengthen Egyptians’ sense of nationalism, especially among pro-regime factions.
Supporting the Victims’ Families
After the beheadings were made public, the Egyptian government announced that it would consider the victims as martyrs of the revolution, entitling them to the financial and social benefits extended to the martyrs of the January 25 Revolution. Financially, each family will receive 100,000 Egyptian pounds (about $13,000) as well as a monthly stipend of 1,500 pounds (about $200); this is in addition to independent donations from various businessmen and public figures. In terms of moral support, the prime minister, the interior minister, and a number of other officials visited the village of al-‘Our, home to 13 of the victims and the location of a group funeral mass, to offer their condolences directly to the families. They also approved the building of a local church at the state’s expense, named “The Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Country in al-‘Our.” It was also announced that several streets will be named after some of the victims.
Political and Media Response
As a first reaction, the Egyptian government declared seven days of official mourning for the victims, which was followed by President Sisi visiting the Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo to offer his condolences to Pope Tawadros II. In addition to the aforementioned ministerial delegation, numerous visits to al-‘Our and other church offices by political, social, and religious leaders as well as public figures followed, during which they offered their condolences and denounced the heinous act. Numerous delegations of public figures also visited the victims’ families to offer their condolences. Most prominent among these was a delegation from the Nour Party, a political arm of the Salafist movement, which is known for its hardline attitude toward Christians, including prohibiting congratulating them on their religious holidays.
As for the media—which had remained uninterested during the roughly 45-day period during which the victims were held hostage—a clear change in behavior occurred, with particular interest being shown in the crisis after the beheadings were made public. Despite all this attention, one facet of the story was clearly minimized: Little to no discussion could be found noting the victims’ religion as the main reason that they were taken hostage and then killed. In context, this may seem to call into question the numerous official visits made to church leaders as representatives of the Coptic community in many governorates—including Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Minya, Beni Suef, and others—to offer condolences directly to clergy.
So, why did the Egyptian government respond to the IS video in the way that it did?
The beheading of the Christians in Libya by IS came as Egypt faced an increased security threat from within and without. Egyptian officials have been warning that weapons, which had long been smuggled across the Libyan border, are arriving in “unprecedented” numbers. Egypt’s urban terror continued to escalate even as the biggest insurgent group in Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to the Islamic State. After IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted Libya as a province, local IS chapters emerged across the country, notably in Sirte and Derna. With IS ascendant in Libya and in Sinai, the Egyptian government wanted to send the message to IS that Egypt is able to respond to any attacks by reaching into the heart of their territory. The message, regardless of its effect, was the main point. Had there not been an instant Egyptian response, this would have encouraged IS to carry out similar attacks not just against Copts, but against Muslim Egyptians as well. This, along with the horrific nature of the executions, pushed Egyptian authorities toward a forceful retaliation.
Second, there was clear concern surrounding the potential of increased disquiet among Christians in Egypt. Had the regime stood silent in the face of this attack on Copts, it would have inevitably invited a direct comparison with the inaction of previous regimes. The result would have shown Sisi dealing with attacks on Copts in the same way that Mubarak and Morsi had done: making empty speeches linked to no substantial action, as was the case with the attack on the Church of Saint Mark and Saint Peter in Alexandria shortly before the January 25, 2011, uprising that toppled Mubarak, and the 2013 attack on the Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo that brought heavy criticism against Morsi.
In that light, the absence of an immediate, strong response would have turned a substantial subset of Sisi’s supporters into adversaries (at worst) or disheartened former supporters (at best). This would have created a substantial split in Sisi’s Christian support base, which otherwise is virtually guaranteed to support him due to inherent opposition to the discriminatory and inciting rhetoric and policies of groups aligned with Islamic political currents in Egypt.
The Coptic Reaction
As for the Copts themselves, especially the families of the victims, sorrow and disillusionment with the government first turned to acceptance and submission to the status quo then to outright pride and increased religious faith. This can be attributed to two factors. The first, as mentioned above, was the government’s multi-pronged response, including the immediate retaliatory strike against IS, the financial support given, and the media attention offered to their cause.
Through the ordeal, the victims held on to their faith and paid for that resilience with their lives. The video footage of their beheading showed 21 men standing their ground for their faith even as they knelt to be beheaded, some of them audibly murmuring prayers or looking up to the heavens. Martyrdom has been a price paid by Coptic Christians in Egypt throughout their history, whether in the face of other faiths, such as those of the ancient Romans or early Muslim rulers, or in the face of other Christian groups, including the Western churches. To this day, Coptic mass includes a daily reading of the stories of hundreds of saints and martyrs, which include recitations of the dismemberment, burning, and beheading of Christians who held on to their faith. The gruesome video thus joined a historic litany of martyrdom and became a source of pride in the community, especially in a time when there were fears after their abduction that the victims would be forced to convert to Islam, which would have led to sectarian conflicts in their hometowns.
The Mainstream Egyptian Reaction
Harder to gauge is the general reaction of Muslims to the government’s reaction, especially the military side of it. However, there are a few general indicators. Taking a different direction from the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, the official religious establishment expressed its support of the operation. For its part, the Salafist Nour Party did not expressly support the operation, though it nonetheless condemned the beheading and declared its general support of the Armed Forces in its war against terror. As for the representatives of civil political parties, most expressed their direct support of the military operation.
Looking at everyday citizens, some supported the military action as members of the growing tide of nationalism in Egypt; this was especially so after the airing of pro-government propaganda in the media. Others were shocked into supporting the military action by the unprecedented violence of the recorded executions. Some objected to the retaliation for religious or political reasons, as shown above, without saying so publicly. The Baseera Center for Public Opinion Research published the results of a poll showing people’s reaction to the strikes. According to the poll, 85% of Egyptians approved of the strikes against IS (65% strongly approved), 8% did not approve (5% strongly disapproved), and 7% didn’t know. It is important to note that these poll results may not be representative, and are probably biased in favor of approval, in light of the fact that Egyptians are hesitant to express disapproval of army action in public.
At the end of this very bloody episode, the Egyptian regime was able to circumvent the potential fallout stemming from the video of Coptic Egyptians being beheaded by IS, thus increasing its popularity among Egyptians generally and among members of the Coptic minority in particular. However, this boost in popularity can be misleading: It does not mean that people think the regime has a clear and specific vision for dealing with political and social crises or even that it has effective solutions to offer that will affect the real reasons pushing hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to leave the country in order to make a living. Such problems are not approachable in the same dramatic, camera-ready fashion as the government’s responses to these killings, though they demand responses every bit as energetic.