Egypt set for emergency rule after church attacks

Tony Gamal-Gabriel
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An Egyptian woman raises braided palm leaves, originally intended for Palm Sunday celebrations, during a gathering outside the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria after a bomb blast struck outside while worshippers attended Palm Sunday mass on April 9, 2017

Egypt prepared to impose a state of emergency Monday after jihadist bombings killed dozens at two churches in the deadliest attacks in recent memory on the country's Coptic Christian minority.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the three-month period, which will vastly increase the powers of Egypt's security forces, after the Islamic State group claimed the twin bombings that struck worshippers as they celebrated Palm Sunday mass.

In a defiant speech, he warned the war against jihadists "will be long and painful" after he had ordered the army to protect "vital infrastructure" and increase security along Egypt's borders.

The first Sunday bombing at the Mar Girgis church in Tanta city north of Cairo killed 27 people, the health ministry said.

The second struck outside Saint Mark's church in Alexandria, killing 17 people after a suicide bomber was prevented from entering the building.

Scores more were wounded in the latest in a string of jihadist-linked attacks on Egypt's Coptic community.

At the scene of the Alexandria blast on Monday investigators combed through the wreckage, taking pictures of the debris.

A handful of women, dressed in black, showed their identification papers to guards before entering the church.

"I'm so sad, I cannot speak," said one mourner, a woman in her 40s.

Lawmakers said the state of emergency -- Egypt's first since widespread unrest in 2013 -- would help the country face down a menacing jihadist insurgency.

It will allow police to detain for 45 days suspects "known to the security services but for whom there is not enough evidence to go to trial," said parliament member Yehia Kedwani.

- Copts under attack -

The state of emergency still technically needs the approval of parliament -- a formality given the number of pro-Sisi delegates.

IS has been waging a deadly insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and has claimed scores of attacks on security forces there.

But it has been unable to seize population centres, unlike its early gains in Iraq and Syria, and it has also lost top militants to Egyptian military strikes in recent months.

Analysts say Sunday's bombings suggest the group is lashing out as it finds itself under increasing pressure in other countries.

"It was not until December 2016 when the Islamic State began a systematic campaign to target Coptic Christians in Egypt," said Jantzen Garnett, an expert on the jihadists with the Navanti Group analytics company.

"As the Islamic State is squeezed in Iraq and Syria it often conducts spectacular attacks elsewhere in an attempt to regain the narrative, boost morale and win recruits," he said.

Copts, who make up about one tenth of Egypt's population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Easter next weekend, have been targeted by several attacks in recent months.

Jihadists like IS, and Islamists, accuse Copts of supporting the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, which ushered in a deadly crackdown on his supporters.

In December, a suicide bombing claimed by IS killed 29 worshippers in a Cairo church.

The group later released a video threatening Egypt's Christians.

Attacks in the Sinai, including the murder of a Copt in the city of El Arish whose house was also burned to the ground, led some Coptic families to flee.

Sunday's Alexandria bombing was especially concerning for the Coptic community, as Pope Tawadros II had led a Palm Sunday service at Saint Mark's but left before the explosion.

Sisi has defended the performance of his security forces and accused jihadists of attempting to divide Egyptian society by attacking vulnerable minorities.

But rights groups accuse the former army chief of crushing even peaceful opposition to his rule.

Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University, voiced worry over the powers afforded to security forces under the state of emergency.

"Under Sisi we've seen that arrests and sentences also concern those who have no link with terrorist acts," he said.