CAIRO – The deadly bombings of two churches have left Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi grappling with the question of how to defeat a tenacious Islamic State insurgency that three years of warfare have failed to crush.
He's also trying to repair a broken economy, carrying out tough austerity measures that have won praise from economists but have sent prices soaring.
El-Sissi must juggle these tasks while fending off criticism of human rights violations and growing authoritarianism — all with an eye to presidential elections due in 14 months.
One thing he has going for him — he hopes — is strong support from U.S. President Donald Trump.
El-Sissi received a warm welcome and praise from Trump in Washington last week after being shunned by the Obama administration. The Egyptian leader is believed to have brought a wish list for weapons and hardware for the fight against the militants, including drones and helicopter gunships.
But so far, it is hard to tell if el-Sissi has new answers on fighting the militants after the attacks, in which suicide bombers hit churches in Tanta and Alexandria during Palm Sunday services, killing 45 and wounding dozens. In Tanta, the bomber managed to inside the church before blowing himself up, despite promises of increased security after an IS church bombing in Cairo in December that killed dozens.
There was one new response: The security chief in the Nile Delta province where Tanta is located was fired, an unusually swift and rare show of accountability.
El-Sissi also declared a three-month state of emergency and created a new state council to fight terror and extremism. Army troops were ordered to help police protect vital installations.
But it is unclear how effective these will be. Northern Sinai, where the IS militants are centered, has already been under a state of emergency for several years. In the rest of Egypt, security forces already informally wield broad powers of arrest — the new status enshrines those powers and is likely to fuel human rights criticism.
The state council will be made up of Cabinet ministers, heads of state institutions, experts and public figures — a body that could bring new ideas to the fight or could prove an unwieldy talk shop that becomes irrelevant.
Visibly angry, El-Sissi said in televised comments that Egyptians must stay united. He also renewed familiar pleas: Religious discourse must be moderated and the media must safeguard the nation's interests.
AN ADAPTING INSURGENCY
The security forces have largely succeeded in keeping the insurgency contained in northern Sinai, away from the heavily populated Nile Valley. Thousands of troops backed by tanks, fighter jets and helicopter gunships have been deployed in the area bordering Israel and Gaza.
But the militants are adapting and finding new ways of hitting back, shattering frequent claims in the pro-government media that the insurgency is on its last legs.
Though the militants have been unable to control territory, they carry out sudden attacks in north Sinai towns to show they can operate with relative impunity. They have shifted from suicide car bombings against security forces and instead have grown more effective at planting roadside bombs.
The security forces meanwhile are left with little or no actionable intelligence from informers, a vital component of counterterrorism. That is in part because they are believed to have lost much of the goodwill of the local population because of tactics like collective punishment, indiscriminate shelling and random arrests.
Also, the militants have succeeded in instilling fear among residents, sending the message that any person, tribe or clan that works with the security forces faces death. In the main northern Sinai city of el-Arish, IS fighters have brought suspected informers into the streets and killed them. They have assassinated critical Muslim clerics.
ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS
IS has made clear Christians are now a target. A series of killings of Christians in north Sinai sent members of the minority community fleeing across the Suez Canal to the city of Ismailia for refuge.
The aim appears to be in part to embarrass el-Sissi by exposing holes in security. The church bombings show that IS has been able to plant small cells of fighters in Egypt's heartland, a scenario that could prove disastrous for the country's stability and economic prospects.
They also stoke political tensions. Christians have been strong backers of el-Sissi since, as army chief, he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. The attacks push the community more toward the president but also stoke anger among Christians that the government is not doing enough to protect them.
The bombings and the ensuing state of emergency only further undermine efforts to revive Egypt's tourism industry — an engine of economic growth that has been severely damaged by the turmoil of recent years.
El-Sissi has sought to dismantle a decades-old contract that allowed Egyptians to buy cheap food items, fuel and a range of services in return for their loyalty. He knew the serious risks, particularly the potential for popular unrest, but still went ahead — a show of courage that his predecessors always balked at.
Fuel subsidies have been partially lifted and charges were hiked on electricity and water. Late last year, he took the boldest step, launching harsh austerity measures in return for a vital $12 billion loan from the IMF. The Egyptian pound was floated, sending its value tumbling.
Prices skyrocketed, with inflation leaping to around 30 percent in February and March. Millions of Egyptians have seen their household budgets strained to the breaking point.
There was no street unrest, either out of fear of a brutal police response, public fatigue or a wish to give the still-popular president the benefit of the doubt. There have been improvements in some economic indicators, particularly a growth in vital foreign currency reserves.
But the benefits largely have not reached the public, and further austerity measures are expected, including reported hikes in electricity prices in the summer.