Sectarian Killings in Egypt: Will They Stop?

2019-02-07    |   

Sectarian Killings in Egypt: Will They Stop?

With ISIS becoming active in Egypt over the last two years, the country has witnessed instances of identity-based killings and forced displacements in Sinai targeting Christians. The incidents became more apparent when, on 2 November 2018, a bus carrying Copts visiting the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Minya Governorate, Upper Egypt, was attacked killing nine and wounding approximately 20 others. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.[1] In May of last year near the same area, Copts came under a similar ISIS attack that killed 29 and halted visits to the monastery for several months.[2]

According to a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) titled “A Death Foretold”, Christians of Sinai have suffered attacks including intimidation and kidnapping since the rule of former president Mohamed Morsi – attacks that evolved into killings and displacement after the military coup in July 2013.[3] These attacks prompted many Christians in the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid to desert them for the city of Arish. Christian families remained in Arish until the targeting of Copts escalated at the end of January 2017, which drove them to leave for the cities of the Suez Canal and Nile delta.

The recent killings can be described, whether by Egyptian legal and constitutional standards or by international standards not considered law, as murder based on religious identity carried out by armed groups against a religiously homogeneous group with a view to remove or terrorize its members. Such murder cannot be understated or considered a mere individual action or ordinary crime.

Killing based on identity and sectarian attacks are not an exceptional occurrence in the climate of sectarian tension prevailing in Egypt. Rather, they are a common practice that the state’s security and local bodies have often tolerated or even been complicit in by endorsing or overseeing the reconciliation meetings convened to settle most sectarian disputes.


Violating the Right to Life

The international human rights agreements place the right to life at the forefront of fundamental rights, deeming it the foundation underpinning the other rights. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that the law must protect this right and nobody may be deprived of their life arbitrarily. This protection is not limited to regular peacetime; rather, it extends to emergencies and armed conflicts. In fact, the responsibility of police and military forces to maintain security and safety for all citizens is compounded in such climates.

The Egyptian Constitution affirms this right in Article 59 and Article 60. These articles deem that, “Every person has the right to a secure life. The state shall provide security and reassurance for citizens, and all those residing within its territory” and that, “The human body is inviolable. Any assault, defilement or mutilation thereof is a crime punishable by law”.

There were 14 documented victims of violations of the right to life on the basis of religious identity in North Sinai from July 2013 to February 2017, according to the EIPR’s report. In the rest of Egypt, there were 125 such victims from the January 2011 Revolution to November 2018.[4] They were targeted either in their homes or in public places or transport, where they were fired upon by masked gunmen. These are crimes of premeditated murder according to the law.

Certainly, the state so far has no plan or strategy for confronting or addressing the escalating sectarian violence or protecting the Orthodox monasteries found throughout Egypt, particularly those located in remote desert regions. This is evident from the fact that until recently, the state insisted on denying that the violence or sectarian tension exists.


The State’s Approach: No Anticipation and No Intervention

The recent incidents in the cities of Arish and Minya cannot be read in isolation of the incidents of sectarian violence that Egypt is witnessing and the way that the governmental and community-based apparatuses have handled them. Recent years have seen a rise in the frequency of attacks on Christians in various regions. Even though the government and people in charge have changed several times since the January 25 Revolution, their methods of handling this issue have been similar, and they have paid little attention to remedying the root causes of sectarian violence or the crises arising from the violations of Christian citizens’ rights. Often, they have resorted to illegal mechanisms to reduce sectarian tension or to making superficial improvements to the legislative framework surrounding citizenship rights.


Imposing a State of Emergency

On 15 October 2018,[5] the Egyptian president decided to renew – for the sixth time and for an additional three months – the state of emergency declared more than a year and a half ago throughout the country. This state of emergency was originally declared after two explosions targeting churches in Tanta and Alexandria left 44 dead and more than 100 wounded.[6] In addition, a state of emergency has been imposed on North Sinai since October 2014 and extended to this day.[7]

Despite the state of emergency, security agencies have failed to protect citizens whose lives are under threat and to prevent them from being harmed. The failure to interpret the evolution of events and, by extension, to intervene to prevent them from deteriorating has been ongoing. Negative assessments have dominated the testimonies of Copts who survived the attacks, who accuse the security agencies of not taking action to protect them, ignoring the threats made against them, and not dealing seriously enough with efforts to kill them. One of the monks of the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor told Egyptian media outlet Mada Masr that the attack occurred at 2:00 PM on an unpaved road leading to the monastery – close to the site of the armed attack in May 2017 – but that security forces took approximately two hours to arrive.[8] Following the first incident in Minya, the assistant minister of interior told Egyptian newspaper Youm7 that the ministry was raiding places where those implicated in the incident were located, namely in the governorates of Minya, Beni Suef, Faiyum, Asyut, and Sohag. He also stressed that the plan to secure New Valley had made great progress via the spread of security emplacements and checkpoints. Mounted patrols to secure the desert roads had also been increased.[9] Yet the security agencies have failed to protect the Copts of North Sinai even though ISIS has threatened to kill and kidnap them via pamphlets distributed in front of their houses and stores.


Physical Liquidation is Not a Solution

Following the incident of 2 November 2018, the Ministry of Interior announced that “19 terrorists involved in carrying out hostile operations in the country, including the latest terrorist incident in Minya, have been killed”. Furthermore, after every incident, the Egyptian police issued official statements declaring that the attackers were physically liquidated “in a firefight with the victims”, whereas not once was it announced that an officer was wounded in the raids. The announcements mention no details about how the attackers were reached, nor any judicial procedures taken to pursue and arrest them to bring them to trial.

Rights institutions have criticized this approach by the security agencies and described it as a systematic policy of “extrajudicial killing”, especially as 2017 witnessed 169 killings by police forces, disregarding the killings in Sinai.[10] While those killed were described as terrorists physically liquidated during engagements, it was later discovered that many were forcibly disappeared and opponents of the Egyptian regime.[11][12] The Public Prosecution performed no investigations into their families’ claims that they had been forcibly disappeared before the announcement that they were killed (as terrorists) by the security forces outside the judicial process. The Ministry of Interior sticks to its story and rejects the claims that the forcibly disappeared are being killed without trial.[13] Human Rights Monitor has stated that it is filing complaints to the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.[14]


Religious Hate Speech

Article 4 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief stipulates:

1. All States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life.

2. All States shall make all efforts to enact or rescind legislation where necessary to prohibit any such discrimination, and to take all appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or belief in this matter.[15]

The state and security agencies’ approach to the recurring incidents in Minya, the killing and displacement in Arish, and the other sectarian attacks and instances of incitement to hatred has been superficial. It is based on attempting to stop the attacks without addressing the roots of these problems or enacting the legislations needed to confront religious hate speech.

In the latest incidents in Arish, the security agencies did not deal seriously with the repeated distribution of pamphlets containing religious incitement and threatening Christians with death should they not leave. Such messages were placed in front of their homes and workplaces or sent to their personal phones, according to the aforementioned EIPR report.

Even though the Constitution stipulates that parliament must establish a commission to prevent discrimination and determine the punishments for those responsible and those involved in any acts of discrimination among citizens, it has not yet issued the legislation to do so nor opened any discussion about the commission’s composition.



Sectarian violence, which has afflicted Egyptian society since the al-Khanka incident in 1972, is one of the gravest problems a society could face because it strikes society at its roots and thoughts, and pushes it toward fragmentation.[16] Hence, dealing with sectarian violence demands a conscious political will, comprehension of the issue’s gravity, serious and diligent work to confront it, solidarity and cooperation from all state authorities, and effective participation from civil society organizations to establish short, medium, and long-term plans to curtail and then end the problem.

A number of executive and security officials and parliamentarians are playing down the sectarian violence, and this is the first issue the state must solve. Meanwhile, others think that it is a security problem that must be addressed by continually declaring a state of emergency, which I consider short-sightedness on the part of the executive branch and a lack of awareness of the scope of the problem. Additionally, the temporary solutions that the state pursues, such as reconciliation meetings, have so far not succeeded in curbing the sectarian incidents.


Keywords: Egypt, Sinai, Sectarianism, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.



[1] “Hadith Dayr al-Anba Samu’il: Hujum Musallah ‘ala Hafilat Aqbat fi al-Minya bi-Sa’id Misr”, BBC Arabic website, 2 November 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mawt Mu’lan: Taqrir Tahliliyy ‘an Waqa’i’ al-Qatl wa-l-Tahjir al-Qasriyy bi-Haqq Aqbat al-‘Arish, report issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

[4] “Tasallsul Zamaniyy li-Abraz Ahdath al-‘Unf didda al-Masihiyyin fi Misr”, BBC Arabic website, 11 August 2018.

[5] “Tamdid Halat al-Tawari’ fi Misr 3 Ashur”, Sky News Arabia, 16 October 2018.

[6] “I’lan Halat al-Tawari’ fi Misr ‘aqiba Tafjir Kanisatayn fi Tanta wa-l-Iskandariyya”, BBC Arabic website, 10 April 2017.

[7] Fathia Eldakhakhny, “Hazr al-Tajawwul wa-I’lan Halat al-Tawari’ fi Shimal Sina’ 3 Ashur”, Al-Masry Al-Youm, 24 October 2014.

[8] “What we know about the militant attack that left at least 7 Coptic Christians dead in Minya”, Mada Masr, 2 November 2018.

[9] Gamal Aboelfadl, “al-Dakhiliyya Tulahiqu al-Mutwarritin bi-Hadith al-Minya al-Irhabiyy.. Musa’idu al-Wazir li-Qita’ al-Sa’id: Ma’muriyyat min al-Amn al-Wataniyy wa-l-‘Amaliyyat al-Khassa wa-l-Amn al-‘Amm li-Mudhamat Awkar al-Irhabiyyin.. wa-Hamla Mukaththafa bi-l-Manatiq al-Jabaliyya li-Dabt al-Juna”, Youm7, 28 May 2017.

[10] Huquq Da’i'a, report issued by Adaleh Center for Human Rights Studies.

[11] “Munazzama Huquqiyya: Maqtal 79 Madaniyy Kharij al-Qanun bi-Misr fi Aghustus”, AlkhaleejOnline, 9 May 2015. “al-Tasfiyat al-Jasadiyya fi Misr.. Mufaraqa wa-Shukuk wa-Tasa’ulat”, Al Jazeera, 4 November 2018.

[12] Amnesty International report on Egypt for 2017-2018.

[13] “al-Qatl Karij al-Qanun bi-Misr.. Ada li-l-Intiqam”, report published on Al Jazeera, 10 June 2016.

[14] “Halat al-Qatl Kharij Itar al-Qanun wa-l-Ikhtifa’ al-Qasriyy fi Aghustus”, report by Human Rights Monitor, September 2018.

[15] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, proclaimed by UN General Assembly Resolution 36/55 of 25 November 1981.

[16] Some historians of the Coptic issue consider the al-Khanka incidents in 1972 the beginning of sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians. They are also considered the beginning of the political tension between President Anwar Sadat and Pope Shenouda III, the previous religious leader of the Orthodox Copts.

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