Nationalism rises in Egypt after ISIL execution of Christians
CAIRO // Nationalist songs from the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser are playing on state radio in Egypt, where already strong sentiments of patriotism have gained new momentum since the execution of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya.
“We chose him, and will follow him,” croons Abdel Halim Hafez, singing about the post-colonial leader, but the lyrics hold new meaning after president Abdel Fattah El Sisi announced on Monday that the military had struck ISIL targets in Libya.
“Ever since June 30 there’s a lot of 60s kind of patriotism that has been resurrected,” said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, referring to the 2013 protests that ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
“Its been there but definitely after the execution of the Egyptians in Libya and after the airstrikes the intensity has risen.”
At St Marks Cathedral in Cairo on Tuesday, a group of Christian women came to offer condolences over the executions to the Coptic Pope. They held roses and raised flags and photos of Mr El Sisi.
Zeinab Ahmed had a photo of her president hung around her neck as she waited to meet the Pope on the cathedral steps.
“We’re announcing our complete solidarity against Daesh and our support for the airstrikes against it, and I’m thankful for the strong reaction [from Egypt],” she said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
“The reaction of the Egyptian state was correct, but it’s a complicated situation and we need international cooperation,” Ms Ahmed said at the memorial.
Mr El Sisi has called for a UN mandate for an international coalition to intervene in Libya, where ISIL has gained a foothold amid the power vacuum created by two rival governments.
Egyptian media have been supportive of Cairo’s military action in Libya, and opinions on the street seem to reflect the same.
“I’m here to express solidarity with my children, the Copts, that were killed. There is nobody that can divide us. We’re one people,” said Salma Al Sheikh, a Egyptian Muslim woman at the cathedral.
Mr Akl said the airstrikes sent a message to the different actors interested in Libya, such as Nato, that are also capable of a similar intervention.
“It shows that the idea of intervention in Libya is becoming a lot closer to realisation,” he said. The airstrikes take the “whole intervention issue into a new formative phase,” Mr Akl added.
Another gathering in the northern Cairo neighbourhood of Shubra on Tuesday, where a large number of Christians live, was cancelled due to security threats.
Egypt’s Coptic minority have faced persecution over the past decades, and largely supported the overthrow of Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood. The former president’s supporters used sectarian rhetoric and in the aftermath of his removal from power, churches and Christians were attacked.
Despite the support for the military some have questioned whether more could have been done to save the Christians in Libya after they were kidnapped. They are also calling for action to be taken to help the thousands of Egyptian labourers that remain there.
“If the state has information [of the victims] or has information about military targets why we didn’t use this ability to get these kidnapped out?” said Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
Libya poses its own unique security challenges for Egypt, but many have been eager to tie them to domestic issues with extremists. Egypt’s most formidable militant group, Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, which is based in the Sinai Peninsula, pledged allegiance to ISIL in November.
“Its not a good thing to be in a war. Egypt has a security problem and it’s been a pain in Sinai,” Mr Thabet said. “But I think the execution, or the murder, is too much. In this way, in this video, it’s too much pressure on the administration. This [the airstrikes] was to eliminate some of this pressure.”
“I’m happy with the reaction,” said Ms Al Sheikh. “It was imperative to say that we’re people that shouldn’t be trifled with. When we are angered, we become vicious.”