Egypt's President doing damage control after church bombing

CAIRO • President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has made efforts to reassure Egypt's Coptic Christians - a pillar of his government's support - as they buried victims of a cathedral bombing which has stirred fears of resurgent Islamist violence.

Standing alongside Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church on Monday, Mr el-Sissi identified 22-year-old Mahmoud Shafik Mohamed Mostafa as the man who detonated a suicide vest during mass in a chapel on the grounds of St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of Egypt's Orthodox Christian Church.

At least 25 people, most of them women, died in the Sunday attack in Cairo, the deadliest in years against Egyptian Christians.

Mr el-Sissi said that the authorities had arrested four of the bomber's accomplices and were looking for two others.

The speed of the official response reflected a broader sense of alarm in Egypt, after three bombings in three days shattered a months-long period of calm outside the Sinai Peninsula, where a violent insurgency has long flared.

An explosion at a security checkpoint in Cairo last Friday killed six police officers. Later that day, a smaller blast in the northern town of Kafr el-Sheikh, aimed at police, killed a passing motorcyclist.

Besides battling insurgents, Mr el-Sissi has been scrambling to shore up his support.

His popularity has been battered this year by a gnawing economic crisis that has caused widespread discontent, with soaring inflation and shortages of staples such as sugar.

However, street protests - which have been threatened - have not materialised.

Under Pope Tawadros, the Coptic Church has been among Mr el-Sissi's staunchest supporters. The Church calculates that Mr el-Sissi, a general who formerly led Egypt's armed forces, can protect Christians from Islamist militants.

A bomb attack on a church in Alexandria during a New Year's service in 2011 killed 23 people and wounded almost 100.

The compact has come under strain this year as Mr el-Sissi has struggled to contain attacks on Copts in Upper Egypt.

After the bombing on Sunday, angry protesters gathered at the cathedral gates. Calling for the resignation of the interior minister, they shouted insults at Mr el-Sissi's government and pushed away several pro-Sissi television journalists.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but on Monday the interior ministry accused fugitive Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who have fled to Qatar, of training and financing the perpetrators.

The outlawed Brotherhood - whose leader Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the military in 2013 - has denied any involvement.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Egypt's President doing damage control after church bombing'. Print Edition | Subscribe