Cairo, Istanbul attacks point to vulnerabilities across region

Egypt bombing seen as major blow to Sisi's rule.

December 12, 2016 04:53
4 minute read.
A NUN WEEPS inside Cairo’s St. Marks Coptic Cathedral yesterday, after terrorists killed at least 25

A NUN WEEPS inside Cairo’s St. Marks Coptic Cathedral yesterday, after terrorists killed at least 25 people and wounded 49 during Sunday mass. (photo credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)


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A weekend of carnage, heavy even by the standards of the Middle East, has left Turkey and Egypt grappling with the aftershocks of attacks in the hearts of their countries.

In Istanbul, a car bomb and a suicide bombing one after the other killed at least 38 and wounded 155 near a soccer stadium. Most of the slain were police. In Cairo, a bombing at the country’s main Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 and wounded 49, many of them women and children attending mass.

Both attacks point up the vulnerability of their societies, and in both cases further attacks are just a matter of time. Turkish officials blame Kurdish militants. If Egypt’s attack was the work of Islamic State, it means that in both cases we are again witnessing violence radiating outward from insurgency areas – in Egypt’s case Sinai and in Turkey’s the southeast – to major cities.

Analysts say a series of Kurdish attacks, including one in Ankara in March that killed 37 people, can be traced back to last year’s collapse of the peace process between Turkey and Kurdish militants. In place of negotiations there have been hard-hitting Turkish military operations in the southeast. “Since the collapse of the peace process, the fighting has moved more into the cities in southeast Turkey.

Some neighborhoods are completely back to rubble” as a result of Turkish Army tactics, said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Turkey specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

The Kurdish militants say that their attacks in cities, which target security forces but also kill civilians, are designed to avenge Turkish Army operations. “We have hundreds of members ready to conduct suicide attacks,” militants of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) boasted in March, according to Reuters. This means that as long as the fighting in the southeast goes on, the attacks in Turkish cities will likely continue.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey specialist at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, says the use of a car bomb is a tactic Kurdish militants have employed in the southeast.

“Their ability to organize a car bombing in Istanbul during a state of emergency is a problem for the government. Even though there are more searches and more arrests, they succeeded in doing this in the heart of Istanbul. The authorities will have to do their homework to find out where they failed.”

The state of emergency was declared after a failed coup attempt in August.

In many cases the attackers, who are Turkish citizens, live in or near the targeted cities, Yanarocak said. “They get the raw materials, load everything in the car and head out. It can be a distance like from Tel Aviv to Haifa.”

Lindenstrauss believes that renewal of the peace process would stop many of the attacks. “It would not completely eliminate terror, but the main leadership would uphold a cease-fire and that’s significant,” she said.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been heading in the opposite direction, allying with nationalist, anti-Kurdish elements as part of his bid to change Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one in which he would enjoy more power.

In recent months, he has cracked down on Kurdish political figures and detained leaders of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, whom authorities accuse of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey also faces attacks from Islamic State, which struck Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June, killing 45 people and wounding hundreds. The cumulative effect of all these attacks on tourism is significant. But the attacks are not imperiling Erdogan’s rule.

He continues to enjoy high approval ratings and Yanarocak says the latest attack is likely to enable Erdogan “to rally people around the flag in terms of having an enemy that you come together against and for which you need a strong Turkey.”

In Egypt, by contrast, the cathedral attack is seen as dealing a major blow to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

In the view of Mira Tzoreff, an Egypt specialist at the Dayan Center, there is a chance the attack was carried out by the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. But, she says, it bears the hallmarks of an Islamic State attack.

The attack comes as Sisi faces myriad challenges that include deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia, his regime’s main financial backer, confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the insurgency in Sinai and problems of Egypt’s youth, including soaring unemployment.

“He is more vulnerable than ever since he became president” in 2013, Tzoreff says. “I can’t predict whether this will be the one that destabilizes Egypt, but if you look at all the problems he faces, this is quite problematic for Sisi and his entire regime and government. He’s really in trouble and has to reassess his internal policies and external ones.

“He has to act immediately to reassure the Copts, he has to solve problems of young people and he has to find a solution to the crisis with the Saudis,” she said.

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