SECURITY and order have always been the priority for Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president and self-proclaimed protector. Since toppling a democratically elected but unpopular Islamist government in 2013, Mr Sisi, a former general, has attempted to stabilise the country with draconian laws and a crackdown on dissent. Without his firm hand, Egypt would look like its blood-soaked neighbours, say his supporters.
One problem with this argument is that Egypt itself looks increasingly volatile. On December 9th a bomb targeting a police vehicle in the city of Kafr al-Sheikh killed a civilian and injured three policemen. On the same day another bomb killed six policemen on the road to the pyramids in Cairo, breaking months of relative calm in the capital. Two days later, yet another tore through Cairo’s Coptic cathedral during Sunday mass, killing at least 25 worshippers, mostly women and children.
Disgruntled Islamists have been blamed for the violence—and have taken some credit for it. A shadowy group called the Hasm (decisiveness) movement claimed responsibility for the bomb near the pyramids. It has staged several attacks in revenge for Mr Sisi’s bloody suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that led the ousted government (and which claims to be peaceful). Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the cathedral attack. But the interior ministry says exiled Brotherhood leaders directed it, sending the bomber to train with jihadists linked to IS in the northern part of the Sinai peninsula.
It is not clear how much co-ordination there is between the Sinai-based militants, mostly drawn from among the local Bedouins, and groups like the Hasm movement, which are active in Egypt proper. For several years the army has tried to beat back an insurgency in Sinai, adopting scorched-earth tactics. But this has not deterred the rebels, who have carried out several hundred attacks in the area since 2012. Last month they killed eight soldiers with a car bomb; in October they claimed the assassination of an Egyptian general. The most active insurgents have pledged their loyalty to IS and declared their region to be a “province” of the so-called caliphate.
In claiming the Coptic bombing, IS vowed to continue its “war against apostates”. Egypt’s Christian Copts, who make up about 10% of the country’s population, are a common target. They have long faced persecution by the Muslim majority. Many have supported Mr Sisi, believing he would protect them—even when Islamists attacked dozens of Coptic churches and homes after his coup. But his gestures, such as briefly attending Christmas mass, have done little to ease the tension. And there are signs that Coptic support for the president is fading. “The people demand the downfall of the regime,” shouted those gathered outside the cathedral after the bombing. Television presenters seen as supportive of the president were pushed away by the crowd.
These are difficult times for Mr Sisi, who is also dealing with a moribund economy. Egypt has struggled to lure back investors and tourists who fled after the revolution of 2011. The plummeting value of the Egyptian pound and inflation, which is at an eight-year high, have caused the public much pain. After years of delaying, the government has finally begun to implement some economic reforms, thereby securing a $12bn loan from the IMF. But these reforms, which include floating the currency and cutting subsidies, are likely to compound Egyptians’ pain in the short term.
The risk is that Mr Sisi will respond to the pressure in all the wrong ways—for example, by cracking down harder on dissent and delaying or rescinding economic reforms. The parliament, which supports the president, has already called for changes to the penal code that would curtail civil liberties. The foreign ministry has used the violence as an excuse to attack NGOs. The government seems intent on storing up yet more trouble for the future.