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Egypt and the Destruction of Churches: Strategic Implications

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By George Friedman

Over the past few days, Christian churches have been attacked in at least two countries — Nigeria and Egypt — while small packages containing improvised explosive devices were placed on the doorsteps of Christian families in Iraq. Attacks against Christians are not uncommon in the Islamic world, driven by local issues and groups, and it is unclear whether these latest attacks were simply coincidental and do not raise the threat to a new level or whether they indicate the existence of a new, coordinated, international initiative. There is a strong case to be made for the idea that there is nothing new in all of this.

Yet I am struck by the close timing of events in three distant and dispersed countries. Certainly, Egyptian intelligence services are looking for any regional connections (e.g., whether Iraqi operatives recruited the Egyptian bomber). While there have been previous bombings in Egypt, they have focused on tourists, not churches. What is important is this: If the recent attacks are not coincidental, then a coordinated campaign is being conducted against Christian churches that spans at least these countries. And it is a network that has evaded detection by intelligence services.

Obviously, this is speculative. What is clear, however, is that the attack on a church in one country — Egypt — is far from common and was particularly destructive. Egypt has been relatively quiet in terms of terrorism, and there have been few recent attacks on the large Coptic population. The Egyptian government has been effective in ruthlessly suppressing Islamist extremists and has been active in sharing intelligence on terrorism with American, Israeli and other Muslim governments. Its intelligence apparatus has been one of the mainstays of global efforts to limit terrorism as well as keep Egypt's domestic opposition in check.

Therefore, the attack in Egypt is significant for no other reason than that it happened and represents a failure of Egyptian security. While such failures are inevitable, what made this failure significant was that it occurred in tight sequence with attacks on multiple Christian targets in Iraq and Nigeria and after a threat al Qaeda made last month against Egyptian Copts. This was a warning, which in my mind increases the possibility of coordinated action, but the Egyptians failed to block it.

Egypt's Historical Significance

Egypt is the largest Arab country, with a population of about 80 million. Cairo is the historic center of Arab culture and served as the engine shaping the Arab response to the collapse of the British and French empires. Under Gamal Abdul Nasser, the political founder of the Pan-Arab (as opposed to Pan-Islamic) movement, Egypt was a radical, militarized engine in the region. When Egypt allied with the Soviet Union in 1956, it redefined the geopolitics of the Mediterranean region. When it switched alliances in the 1970s, geopolitics changed as well. More than any other Arab country, Egypt matters. When it is assertive, it frames regional politics. When it withdraws into itself, the region becomes prey to outside forces, Islamic and otherwise.

That last major move made by Egypt was signing a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 that demilitarized the Sinai Peninsula and removed the strategic threat to Israel's south. This in turn freed Israel to focus its primary interests to the north and to develop its economy, leaving Syria isolated and dependent on Iran. The consequences of the treaty were enormous and have defined the geopolitics of the region for a generation.

The death of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the subsequent elevation of Hosni Mubarak to the position led to a period in which Egyptian national strategy was frozen into place. Egypt's core relationship was with the United States. It was secure on all external fronts. However, as Sadat's death showed, the treaty with Israel generated resistance inside Egypt. Whereas the Egyptian regime derived from a secular Arabist point of view, for which the peace with Israel posed ideological but not theological problems, the opposition, built around the Muslim Brotherhood, was Islamist and therefore opposed to the treaty on theological grounds.

The assassination of Sadat initiated a period of intense activity by Egyptian security forces to destroy the assassins' organization as well as Islamist forces in the country that opposed the regime and the treaty with Israel. A combination of ruthless intelligence and security services, disorganization among the Islamists and deep divisions in Egyptian society reduced the Islamist threat to the regime to a weak political force and terrorism to a fairly rare occurrence.

It was this focus on internal security that froze Egyptian foreign policy into place. First, the internal situation towered in significance over foreign policy. Second, conducting a vigorous foreign policy in the face of internal terrorism was dangerous, if not impossible. Third, the fight against Islamic radicalism was an intelligence war, and Egypt needed the intelligence cooperation of other countries, particularly the United States and Israel. The internal threat not only froze Egypt's foreign policy but also contributed to social and economic inequality.

As a result, Egypt appeared — from the outside at least — to have disappeared from history. News from Cairo galvanized the world from the 1950s to the 1970s, but by the 1980s, Egypt had ceased to be a player in the region. Even after 2001, when all American allies were mobilized in the war against militant Islam, Egypt's role was to control its own terrorist movement. It achieved that, which was an enormous benefit to the United States. Had Egypt radicalized, it would have been a profound strategic challenge to the United States. Far from radicalizing, Egypt became the country neither the United States nor the Israelis had to worry about.

Egypt's Current Climate

Mubarak is old and, by some accounts, suffering from cancer. He had hoped to have his son Gamal replace him, but this has run into resistance from the political and military apparatus that supports him and that derives from the regime Nasser founded. The regime has the support of some of the population, particularly government workers who make their living from it. At the same time, there are secularists who want to see a more liberal, business-oriented regime. The argument against them has been the threat of the Islamist radicals, who had been seen as a spent force.

That's one reason the attack on a church in Egypt is important. The argument that the Islamist threat has been dealt with is challenged by the attack, and with it the argument that the continued focus on a security state is archaic. Should there be follow-on attacks, Mubarak's policies become re-legitimized, and can be passed on to whoever follows him as Egypt's leader.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. It is unclear what is stirring beneath the surface of Egypt. Whatever it might be is by necessity cautious. But radical Islamism has caught the imagination of people in other Muslim and Arab countries, and it is unreasonable to assume that it has passed Egypt by. Indeed, it was very much there until Mubarak suppressed it, and it is unlikely to have gone away.

The most vulnerable time in Egypt is the period before Mubarak leaves the scene. No firm new government will be in place, no dynamic leadership will be provided. If the radical Islamists assert themselves now, they could well draw down the wrath of the security services. In that case, they would be no worse off than they were before. But if the impending succession crisis divides an already sclerotic state, it might open the door to a resurgence of radical Islamism.

Egypt's Political Future

This, in turn, would introduce two possibilities. In one, Egypt enters a period of internal strife and instability and the regime fails to suppress the Islamists but the Islamists fail to take power. In the other, a massive Islamist movement repudiates the Nasserite heritage and establishes an Islamic republic in Egypt. There are many countervailing forces to the second scenario, but it is not an impossible scenario in the long run, even if instability is probably the most Islamists can hope for. And there is, of course, a third scenario — an orderly succession.

Let's consider for a moment what an Islamist Egypt would mean. The Mediterranean, which has been a strategically quiet region, would come to life. The United States would have to reshape its strategy, and Israel would have to refocus its strategic policy. Turkey's renaissance would have to take seriously a new Islamic power in the Mediterranean. Most important, an Islamist Egypt would give dramatic impetus to radical Islam throughout the Arab world. One of the linchpins of American and European policy in the region would be gone in a crucial part of the world. The transformation of Egypt into an Islamist country would be the single most significant event we could imagine in the Islamic world, beyond an Iranian bomb.

If this were happening in most other countries, it would be a matter of relative unimportance. But Egypt used to be the dominant Arab power, and the last 20 years have been, in my view, an abnormal period. Egyptian inwardness has been driven by an effective effort to repress radical Islamists. It has taken all of the regime's energy. But the internal dynamic in Egypt is certainly changing as the succession approaches, and the recent church attack was a rare failure of Egyptian security. If such failures were to continue, it would be difficult to predict the outcome.

For a country as important as Egypt, it is a matter to be taken seriously. It is certainly not clear how significant the attack on the church was, whether it is the beginning of something bigger. At this point, however, anything out of the ordinary in Egypt must be taken seriously, if for no other reason than because this is Egypt, Egypt matters more than most countries, and Egypt is changing.

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