The Egyptian army launched airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya hours after the release of a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts kidnapped by Libyan Islamists in December 2014 and January 2015. One may be tempted to say that President Sisi’s response to these murders is comparable to King Abdullah’s after a Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, was burned to death by ISIS. However, a closer examination of both leaders’ reactions shows a number of significant differences.
The Egyptian government’s reaction to the kidnappings was barely noticeable until last week. Official responses only became tangible after ISIS published the photos of the kidnapped Egyptians being paraded in jumpsuits. Indeed, it is hard not to be cynical in observing that it was only after these photos were heavily circulated in the media that the Egyptian government decided to show some support. Was this a strategic silence meant to protect the identities—hence the lives—of the abducted Egyptians, as claimed by some government officials? Hardly so, given that the names and photos of the kidnapped Egyptians emerged in the media shortly after their abduction. On the other hand, the Jordanian authorities frantically tried to secure the release of the Jordanian pilot since his capture by ISIS in December 2014. Until the video of his killing was released in February 3, the Jordanian government was engaged in a back-and-forth exercise of indirect talks with ISIS through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq to secure the release of al-Kasasbeh, offering to swap him for an Islamist jihadist imprisoned by Jordan.
In his article published in Mada Masr, Mohamed Mohie explains how the Egyptian government’s response (or lack thereof) since news of the kidnapping emerged is inappropriate. Relatives of the murdered Egyptians stated they have repeatedly tried to get in touch with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but to no avail. As for the thousands of Egyptian workers who are still in Libya, it was only on Thursday February 12 that President Sisi ordered their speedy evacuation. His announcement came weeks after reports emerged of Egyptian Christians in Libya being secretly smuggled back to Egypt in fear of being kidnapped by Islamists while their government, next door, watched silently.
The Egyptian government was not taken by surprise. It was actually quite the opposite given that Egyptian Christians have been systematically targeted in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi. Ishak Ibrahim gives a detailed account of the violence perpetrated against Egyptian Copts in Libya since 2012:
These incidents are not the first religious motivated attacks targeting Egyptian Christians in Libya since the beginning of the Libyan uprising and the overthrow of former president Muammar al-Qaddafi. Numerous attacks have had clear religious motives. Some of the most noteworthy attacks include: the bombing of Saint Mary Church in Misrata in December 2012, which killed two Copts and injured several others, and the explosion at Saint Markus Church in Benghazi in March 2013. In that same month, Libya’s Preventive Security Forces tortured to death an Egyptian Copt, Ezzat al-Hakim, for his missionary work. Additionally, in early March 2013, 55 Egyptians were captured and although 35 were returned to Egypt two weeks later, the rest remained in Libya. Four, who were accused of proselytizing, remain in capture. The Coptic priest Father Isaac Paul was also beaten, shaved, and humiliated before returning to Egypt.
In 2014, a total of 14 Egyptian Copts were killed in Libya. On February 23, 2014, after militants raided a building where Christians resided with a group of Egyptian Muslims in Benghazi, 7 Copts from Sohag governorate were kidnapped and gunned down near one of the city’s beaches. In March, two Egyptian Coptic vegetable sellers from Samalout—Salama Fawzi and Gad Abdeul al-Maseh—were shot and killed by gunmen in the town of Beni Ghazi and in the city of Benghazi, respectively.
On August 25, militants also kidnapped four Egyptians from Assiout on their way back to Egypt from Tripoli. The gunmen forcefully stopped the car transporting the victims, took them hostage and let the rest go. There is still no information on their whereabouts to this day. On September 18, militants in Benghazi gunned down another Egyptian Copt named Ishak Sha’aban, from the Minya governorate town of Samalout. Paul Samir, an Egyptian Copt from the village of Deir Gabal al-Tair in Minya governorate, was killed on his way back to Egypt from Benghazi where he worked.
Militants also stormed the house of Coptic physician Magdy Tawfiq on December 23, 2014 in the city of Sirte in Libya. Assailants killed the physician and his wife, and kidnapped their oldest daughter, whose body was found in a nearby area a few days later.
Emblematic and symbolic images weigh heavily on the national psych. While King Abdullah went in person to the village of pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh to offer his condolences to the devastated family, President Sisi deemed it satisfactory to visit St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo and to offer his condolences to Pope Tawadros II instead of reaching out directly to the grieving families. One may indeed question the purpose of such a visit given that none of the victims were actually from Cairo but from the governorate of Minya, some 140 miles south of Cairo. The equivalent from the Jordanian side would be if King Abdullah had visited the biggest Mosque in Amman in the absence of Moaz’s family instead of going to the pilot’s village and offering his condolences in person to Moaz’s family.
Finally, many Coptic activists are also wondering why is it that the government is concerned about Egyptian Copts killed in Libya when it does not seem to worry much about those killed in Egypt. Some are sarcastically expressing their discontent with the government’s reaction, saying that the seven days of national mourning merely means the projection of a small black ribbon on the corner of television screens.