By Mohamed al-Rayes
Sunday’s deadly church bombings in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria were intended to "intimidate and embarrass" the ruling regime in advance of a planned visit to Egypt by Roman Catholic Pope Francis, according to Egyptian experts.
At least 45 people were killed -- and scores more injured -- by Sunday’s twin bombings, which targeted Coptic Christian worshippers celebrating the Christian Palm Sunday holiday.
Responsibility for the deadly blasts was swiftly claimed by the Daesh terrorist group.
According to Hussein Hammouda, a retired Egyptian police brigadier-general, the attacks were intended to "punish the [Coptic Orthodox] Church for its support for the ruling regime, confuse Egypt’s security apparatus, and respond to the army's ongoing [anti-militant] campaign in the Sinai Peninsula”.
“Ever since Egyptian security forces cleared Sinai’s northeastern Jabal al-Halal region of terrorists [in February], they have been able to focus their efforts on other parts of the volatile peninsula,” Hammouda said.
In a televised address delivered Sunday evening, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the attacks had come “as a response to our recent successes in Sinai”.
-Support for regime
According to Hammouda, however, the main reason behind the attacks is “the Coptic Church’s vocal support for the regime, which was manifested in the pro-Sisi marches staged [by Egyptian Coptic Christians] during al-Sisi’s recent visit to Washington”.
Daesh is also trying to impede Egyptian security efforts by staging multiple attacks in low-security areas of the country, Hammouda added.
"Sunday’s attacks were strategic,” he explained. “After targeting a security camp in Tanta earlier this month, the security apparatus lowered its guard, supposing the terrorists would not strike in the same province twice.”
“But they did,” he added, “and with a vengeance.”
Hammouda went on to note that Sunday’s bombings were also meant to send a message to Roman Catholic Pope Francis, who is slated to visit Cairo later this month.
A church source has confirmed that Tawadros II, the pope of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, had been inside the Alexandria church at the time of the bombing but had escaped unscathed.
“With this attack,” Hammouda said, “the terrorists delivered the message that even the head of Egypt’s church isn’t safe."
He went on to predict that the upcoming period in Egypt would witness “both stepped-up activity by the security services and escalations by terrorist elements”.
Kamal Habib, an Egyptian expert on so-called "jihadist" groups, for his part, said: “Daesh had earlier declared that Egyptian Copts would be the target of attacks; we had already seen similar bombings in Sinai and Cairo.”
“The terrorist group is under pressure in Sinai, where it remains the target of an ongoing army campaign,” he explained. “For that reason, Daesh appears to have shifted its focus to targeting Christians.”
Habib added: "That the bombings occurred one week before Easter and two weeks before Francis’s scheduled visit suggests they were planned by a criminal mind that wanted to highlight the group’s ability to defy the Egyptian state and send a message to the world.”
“The Alexandria bombing targeted the head of the [Coptic Orthodox] church himself,” he noted. “This means the attacks were well-planned and far from random -- and the Egyptian security agencies were helpless to thwart them."
-Trouble in Sinai
Gamal Asaad, an Egyptian Coptic intellectual, agreed with Habib and Hammouda, saying: "Daesh is in serious trouble given the security pressures it is facing in Sinai and its loss in February of the Jabal al-Halal region.”
“But this doesn’t absolve the regime of responsibility,” he added. “Sunday was a major Coptic holiday -- a security alert should have been issued.”
"Daesh had previously released statements explicitly threatening Copts for supporting what happened in 2013," Asaad said in reference to Egypt’s bloody military coup -- led by al-Sisi -- staged almost four years ago.
He went on to point out that it was not the first time for Daesh to target Coptic churches in Egypt. Last December, 25 Coptic worshippers were killed in a similar attack on central Cairo’s St. Peter’s Church.
"This shows the regime has no vision,” he said. “It is failing to bear its security responsibilities.”
He added: "The [terrorists’] second motive is to embarrass the regime on a global level by making it appear weak and unable to exert control over the country."
“And then there is a broader goal -- namely, the overthrow of the Egyptian state,” he added.
On Sunday, an explosion tore through the Church of St. George in Egypt’s Nile Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 28 worshippers and injuring scores of others.
Hours later, another 17 Coptic Christians were killed -- and dozens more injured -- when a bomber blew himself up outside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria.
In mid-2013, Egypt’s military -- led by al-Sisi, who then served as army chief -- ousted and imprisoned Mohamed Morsi after only one year in office.
The country’s first democratically president, Morsi -- who remains in jail until today -- is a leading member of Egypt’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
In the wake of the coup, Egypt’s army-led authorities waged a relentless crackdown on Morsi’s supporters and members of his Brotherhood group, killing hundreds and throwing tens of thousands behind bars.
Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, was -- and remains -- a vocal supporter of al-Sisi and the coup he spearheaded against Morsi.
Egyptian security forces, meanwhile, continue to wage a fierce campaign -- involving elements of both the police and army -- against what they describe as Sinai-based "terrorist groups".
Egypt’s army-backed authorities say they are battling the Welayat Sinai ("Province of Sinai") group, which is said to have links with the Daesh terrorist group.
Coptic Christians are estimated to account for between 8 and 10 percent of Egypt's overall population of some 90 million.