Egypt – a paradise country in the terrorists’ crosshairs

22 December 2021 | Egypt

Egypt is often associated with beautiful, sunny weather, wonderful monuments as well as tourist resorts in Hurghada, Sharm el-Sheikh and Marsa Alam, all popular holiday destinations for the Poles. Not many are aware that the country is also a target of al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists.

Before I talk about tragic events that have taken place there over the last years, I would like to share with you some facts about Egypt.

Egypt is the third most populous country in Africa. According to the official data, more than a hundred million people live there. The capital city – always crowded and loud Cairo – has around 20 million residents and until 2013 it had been the most populous city in the continent (currently this title belongs to Lagos in Nigeria). However, it is quite safe to say that Cairo and Egypt as a whole have many more residents than estimated by the statistics.

Around 10-15% of the citizens of Egypt include the Copts, a community that belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Coptic Catholic Church. They are one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world as well as descendants of ancient Egyptians. The word ‘Copt’ means a person coming from Egypt (deriving its origin from the Arabic word ‘qibt’, a shorter version of the Greek word ‘aigyptos’). For centuries they have been persecuted by the Arabs. This persecution reached its peak in the 70s of the 20th century, but the Copts continue to be targeted by fundamentalists – these days mainly by ISIS terrorists.

Geographically, Egypt belongs to the Middle East region. In the 7th century BC, it even fell under Assyrian control. Throughout its long history, it was ruled by numerous imperia. Octavian Augustus incorporated it in the Roman Empire. Later on, the era of great Muslim imperia began and Egypt was continuously changing its rulers. In the 16th century, it became a part of the Ottoman Empire and it was ruled by the Porte until the British arrived.

The contemporary history of Egypt is equally tumultuous. In the 20s of the 20th century, Egypt became a monarchy that was abolished thirty years later. Subsequent coups and revolutions led to rapid changes and purges in the ranks of political rivals. In the 70s, Egypt was engaged in a war with Israel and a border conflict with Libya. The country’s economic problems and popular discontent gradually led to increased tensions and created a breeding ground for the emergence of terrorist organizations. Even though we associate Egypt mainly with a holiday paradise, in reality, it is an unpredictable and rather unsafe country.

The time of terror

Over the last two decades, the fundamentalists were attacking Coptic churches, but also mosques, holiday resorts, hotels, coach buses with pilgrims, and even an airplane. Their goal was the same as with similar attacks in Europe, namely to trigger fear and undermine the authority of the governments by showing their inability to protect their citizens. The list of attacks that have taken place since the beginning of the 20th century is long. They have had many economic consequences as well, seriously damaging the tourism industry – one of the main sources of income in Egypt.

The attacks took place in various regions of the country, among others in Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula (for which the responsibility was claimed by al-Qaeda), in the port city of Alexandria, and in Tanta and Minya (in these cases ISIS acknowledged responsibility). Apart from that, there have been countless acts of violence – a very common phenomenon that goes largely unreported by the media. The Copts say there is no rule and they expect attacks at any time and place.

The years 2015-2017 seem to be particularly tragic when it comes to the scale of attacks and the number of victims. The Egyptian offshoot of the Islamic State (ISIS) was responsible, among others, for the attack on the Metrojet airplane flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to Sankt Petersburg that killed 224 people on board (31.10.2015), on the Bir al-Abd mosque killing 311 people (24.11.2017), and for the massacres in Tanta and Alexandria that took place on Palm Sunday (9.04.2017) killing 49 people and injuring nearly 140.

That last event included two well-planned and coordinated attacks on two Coptic churches that took place simultaneously. They were carried out in a similar way. The suicide bombers entered the churches during the service. They were wearing belts filled with explosives and bearing balls that worked like shrapnel. In the church in Tanta you can still see the holes left by steel balls that spiked its stone columns. The attack caused a huge shock and the authorities announced a three-month state of emergency.

A month and a half after the events in Tanta and Alexandria, terrorists fired at coach buses carrying pilgrims to the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in the Al-Minja province. The driver of one of the buses managed to escape a trap saving his own life and the lives of his passengers. The other bus was stopped by the terrorists who pulled all the men out and demanded they convert to Islam. When they refused, they were all shot dead on the spot. Two children were also killed and several were injured.

Pushed to the foot of a mountain

The Copts, who in recent years have been targeted by terrorists, often live in extremely bad conditions. They have been pushed to the margins of society, even though more than ten million of them live in Egypt. Although mosques can also become terrorists’ targets (such as the already mentioned Bir al-Abd mosque that was a Sufi place of worship), it is beyond doubt that the Copts are the main target of the fundamentalists. For centuries persecuted with the tacit approval of the authorities, today they are treated as second-class citizens. The official narrative is different, but it is enough to see where they live and what they do for a living to immediately notice this inequality.

In Cairo, a large part of the Coptic community lives in the Zabbaleen district located at the foot of Mokattam Hill. It is the so-called ‘Garbage City’ whose residents’ main occupation is the segregation of rubbish collected from the entire Cairo metropolis. For most of them, it is the only way to earn a living and support their families. They are not proud of what they do and they react very nervously to the presence of strangers or the sight of the camera. Living among rubbish is not a source of pride for them.

The most important life goal for many of them is to send their children to school so that they could find a good job in the future and leave this place. The sight of rubbish piled up on the streets and the smell of rotting waste are difficult to describe. The size of this place is shocking as well. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people live at the foot of Mokattam Hill. There are shops, cafeterias and stalls with vegetables and fruit where the residents do their everyday shopping.

Curiously, the residents of the ‘Rubbish City’ have often been acknowledged as the most efficient rubbish segregation and recycling system in the world. They say they can recycle up to 90% of the rubbish collected in Cairo. It is way more than in any other of the largest metropolises in the world.

Searching for the victims of terrorists

I’d like to end by summing up and explaining why an article about Egypt is published here. Our mission is to help the victims of terrorism. We are trying to reach places where such victims in need can be found. Although we haven’t been talking about it much (mainly during in-person meetings), since 2019 we have been also helping in Egypt. The scale of our activities is not large and it is mainly a very focused aid, so we were unable to write about it in detail. Now this has changed, as I visited Egypt for the first time in November. I managed to speak to several out of a dozen of families that we have supported so far. They mainly include widows of pilgrims murdered in the above-mentioned attack on a coach bus in Minya, as well as families that suffered in the attacks in Cairo. They live in different parts of Egypt, including the ‘Rubbish City’.

How do we assist them? Usually, we buy livestock for such families, we support the education of their children and help them to open small businesses. We visit places of those attacks trying to find the victims and offer them our assistance. Some of them received it from other sources, so we focus on those that either didn’t get any help or it was insufficient. In each case, our approach is very individualized.

In this article, I will briefly describe one of such cases. I will try not to give too many details because, as I have mentioned, attacks can be expected at any time and place. We do not want to make people we help a target of the fundamentalists’ retaliation. They aim to make their atrocities widely known and cause widespread fear in society.

In fact, my description will deal with not one but two cases as it refers to the assistance we provided to sisters Lea and Sofia (their names have been changed). Their husbands were killed in the Minya attack. On that tragic day, they also lost their brother and cousins. Lea is a single mother of two sons who were injured in the attack as well. We helped her to open a small stall with cosmetics at a bazaar in one of the districts of Cairo where she currently lives. Her situation at the moment is stable. Although nothing will bring her husband’s life back, the woman is well and it looks like she has a chance for a normal life.

We have helped her sister Sofia to open a small business as well. It is a tiny shop in a local church. It doesn’t have a large stock, but it allows her to pay the bills and provide for the family. Sofia has two children, but after the attack she decided to take under her wing five orphans that lost their parents in the massacre. Both women receive small government support, but taking into account the tragedy that befell them as well as their needs, additional assistance was essential.

In the nearest future, we would like to reach more families that suffered in recent attacks. Our activities in Egypt will continue to be on an individual basis, but that’s how our mission looks like in general. We help the victims of terrorism.

Author: Dawid Czyż

Support terrorists' victims

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