CAIRO – Egypt's response to the latest deadly attack against its sizable Christian minority — a wave of airstrikes against Islamic militant installations in eastern Libya — may be a sign of both despair and resolve.
The Arab world's most populous nation, Egypt has for years been fighting Islamic militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula. The government had so far succeeded in containing them in that remote and rugged northeast corner of the country and foiled repeated attempts by the militants to seize and keep territory.
But the violence has now spilled over onto the mainland, with an increasing number of high-profile attacks, including a total of four that targeted Christians since December. The string of attacks has highlighted an ongoing vulnerability and a worrying lack of reliable intelligence by Egypt's robust security forces.
Unlike the attacks in Sinai, which have mostly targeted soldiers, police and suspected collaborators, the attacks on Christians have attracted unwanted international attention and stymied Egypt's desperate efforts to revive its tourism industry, a traditional backbone of its now-ailing economy.
Egypt's general-turned president has, since taking office in 2014, declared uncompromising resolve to defeat the militants. He also seems willing to sideline and disenfranchise almost all Islamic groups with a political agenda, arguing that violent and peaceful Islamic groups feed off each other. He has backed up his vow to restore security to this nation of 93 million with massive arms deals that added French fighter-jets, helicopter carriers as well as German submarines to Egypt's already huge arsenal of Soviet-era weapons and U.S.-made F-16 warplanes, Apache gunships and Abrams tanks.
CAN THE ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS BE STOPPED?
The short answer is probably not, but the government can hope to reduce their frequency.
El-Sissi and his military say the attackers have come from eastern Libya, sneaking into Egypt across the porous desert border. He claims the security forces have over the past two years intercepted some 1,000 four-wheel drive vehicles that militants used to enter Egypt; 300 were caught in the last three months alone.
His military has cryptically said airstrikes in Libya were continuing "day and night" but without giving details. Egypt, in the meantime, has pushed for lifting the international arms embargo against Libya, hoping that such action would give its main ally in Libya, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a decisive advantage in his three-year campaign against Libya's various Islamic militant groups.
Ominously, security officials say airstrikes against suspected militant training bases in Sudan, Egypt's southern neighbor, could not be ruled out. El-Sissi said on Friday he would strike at militant bases wherever they might be if militants who trained there launch attacks inside Egypt.
Egypt's relations with Sudan are currently fraught with tension over a long-running border dispute, making it easier for Cairo to justify military action there. Already, according to the officials, the military is closely monitoring the remote desert triangle where the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan meet in Egypt's remote southwest corner.
At home, the officials said a host of measures were under consideration to better protect Christians — whose religious calendar is packed full of vulnerable pilgrimages to monasteries and ancient churches to celebrate saints or venerate sites where the Holy Family sojourned during their biblical stay in Egypt. One measure is to either suspend such pilgrimages or closely coordinate the movement of pilgrims with security forces, a tactic that was successfully used to protect foreign tourists traveling overland in southern Egypt during an earlier Islamic insurgency in the 1990s. Another option is to significantly step up security outside churches and roads leading to monasteries, which are mostly remote and deep in the desert.
WHAT IF THEY CONTINUE?
That's a nightmare scenario, with grim ramifications for the country going forward.
Egypt's Christians number about 10 percent of the country's population and they have historically been an integral part of its social fabric, not a minority that lives in seclusion.
The danger here is that if the attacks continue, the perception that authorities cannot protect the Christians would undermine Egypt's image as a stable and secure nation. Another equally grim scenario is, as the attacks continue, an alarmingly large number of Christians would flee the country to seek refuge in the West, joining an already large community of Coptic Christians in the diaspora.
Many Christians already are frustrated by what they see as the government's failure to protect them, churches or property. In the hours after Friday's attack, thousands of Christians protested on the streets in Minya, where the bloodshed took place, demanding retribution.
Symbolically, a significantly depleted Christian community as a result of migration would undermine the country's carefully constructed image as a nation of diversity and religious and ethnic tolerance in a Middle East torn by sectarian and ethnic strife.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?
Egypt has already been in the midst of a major crackdown against Islamists of all shades since 2013 — with thousands of them in jail and many of the freedoms won by a 2011 uprising rolled back while security forces operate with near impunity.
Last week, the government blocked nearly two dozen social media sites it said were sympathetic with or apologetic of militant groups. Public space has been significantly eroded and rights groups suppressed.
With the insurgency showing no sign of abating, authorities are unlikely to shy away from doing more.
Already, el-Sissi declared a three-month state of emergency in April following a pair of attacks targeting Christians north of Cairo. That will most likely be extended when the three months end in July. Rounding up more Islamists is also likely, with the practice of lengthy detention without charges to be expanded.
There have also been intensifying calls in the pro-government media that Islamists sentenced to death be swiftly executed after they exhaust their appeals. El-Sissi himself has in the past expressed his frustration over what he said was the slow pace of legal proceedings against Islamists charged with crimes.