CAIRO — Egypt imposed a three-month nationwide state of emergency Monday as President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sought to ease public anger and take a tougher stand against Islamic extremists after suicide bombings at two Coptic Christian churches killed 45 people.
A day after the Palm Sunday bloodshed, the Interior Ministry said it killed seven Islamic State militants in an exchange of gunfire during a security operation in the southern city of Assiut. The ministry alleged they were plotting attacks against Christians. It posted photos of corpses lying next to weapons and said IS publications were found with them.
A state of emergency already in place in the Sinai Peninsula has failed to halt near daily attacks against police and security forces by the Islamic State group in the volatile area.
Now the group is stepping up its attacks against Christians, who make up 10 per cent of the population, by moving its activities from the Sinai to other parts of Egypt. Its increasingly sophisticated tactics are likely to fuel sectarian tensions and embarrass el-Sissi.
The Palm Sunday bombings struck churches in the port city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, and the city of Tanta. The head of the Coptic church, Pope Tawadros II, had been inside St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria when the bomber struck there but was unhurt.
"We are seeing simultaneous attacks, based on strong information, targeting big churches across the country. This is a very dangerous development," said Mina Thabet, a rights researcher focusing on minorities.
"Christians are in a state of shock," he added. "Attacks are recurrent, victims are falling in bigger numbers, and people live in fear and these groups are growing in power, number, and resources."
There were scenes of grief and anguish Monday as mourners wailed during funerals at the sprawling St. Mina monastery on the outskirts of Alexandria. Some collapsed near the caskets, which bore the word "martyr."
Similar scenes took place a day earlier at a church in Tanta, where victims were laid to rest in a place of honour .
On Sunday, the Rev. Danial Maher buried his 23-year-old son, Beshoy. He recalled watching him singing at the service before the attack at St. George's Church in Tanta. "He was like an angel," he said.
Photos of the elder Maher, sitting helplessly in his blood-stained vestments after the bombing, were widely circulated online.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks and identified the two attackers with names suggesting they were Egyptians. The group, which carried out a bombing at a Cairo church in December that killed 30 people, threatened more such violence, saying the blood of Christians would flow "like rivers."
Coptic Christians have put their faith in el-Sissi, who championed himself as the bulwark against Islamists.
The former army chief met with U.S. President Donald Trump a week ago at the White House, seeking closer ties and discussing the fight against extremism. Trump spoke by phone Sunday with el-Sissi to express confidence that Egypt will do what it can "to protect Christians and all Egyptians."
The latest IS attacks were a blow to el-Sissi's image and left many Christians doubting whether he is capable of protecting them.
He sought to restore that confidence by imposing the state of emergency, declaring three days of mourning, deploying special forces to help police secure churches and other key installations, and ordering the formation of a new body called the "Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Fanaticism."
Parliament has seven days to approve the state of emergency — an action seen as a foregone conclusion since the legislature is packed with el-Sissi supporters. The Cabinet declared it had gone into effect at 1 p.m.
In theory, it allows for arrests without warrants, the swift prosecution of suspects and the establishment of special courts. But authorities already have been waging a heavy crackdown on dissent for years, so it was unclear what would change.
A limited state of emergency and nightly curfew in the northern Sinai since 2014 has done little to stem violence there.
"We won't see a change on the ground, as this decision wasn't taken to give more powers or tighten control," said political analyst Yasser Abdel-Aziz. "It's a purely political decision that is meant to have a psychological impact."
El-Sissi has clamped down on opponents since he led the military overthrow of an Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who was elected in 2013. Security forces violently dispersed demonstrations in the months that followed, killing hundreds of protesters. Thousands were jailed, mainly Morsi supporters but also secular and liberal activists.
"The powers that the security agencies have already don't need reinforcement by the state of emergency," Abdel-Aziz said. "The status quo of media and press freedoms is ideal for the security authorities to work without much noise."
Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch said el-Sissi "seems to think that more repression of all Egyptians is the simple answer to terrorist attacks."
What Egypt needs, he said, are "fair trials, not emergency courts with no appeal, which is mainly what the latest declaration of a state of emergency will give him."
Many believe the unraveling of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist group, is creating new recruits for extremists.
The liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party said the state of emergency could make things worse.
"Terrorism increased in the presence of the state of emergency," said party leader Mohammed Arafat. "The real battle against terrorism starts with the execution of law on all without discrimination."
The Palm Sunday attacks, the single deadliest day for Egypt's Christians in decades, prompted messages of support from abroad, including from Pope Francis, who is to visit Egypt on April 28-29.
"This whole thing is to cause sectarian strife," said Mona Makram, a former parliamentarian from a prominent Coptic family. "They want to show also that it is not only Sinai that will be targeted but the rest of the governorates."
Israel shut its Taba border crossing to Egypt after its anti-terrorism office warned of an "imminent" attack there. The closure came hours before the start of Passover.
Soon afterward, sirens blared in parts of southern Israel, alerting residents to a rocket attack. The military said a rocket fired from Sinai hit a greenhouse but caused no injuries. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Associated Press writer Brian Rohan contributed.
Maggie Michael, The Associated Press