CAIRO (IPS) -- Ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak portrayed himself as a paradigm of stability in a country he once described as a "powder keg" of sectarian unrest. Yet far from promoting stability, his regime may have actually been the source of much of the religious strife it claimed to suppress.
Analysts say there is growing evidence that Egyptian security forces planned attacks on Christian churches and clergy, or allowed them to happen. The apparent purpose of the attacks was to reinforce the idea to sympathetic Western governments that without Mubarak, radical Islamist groups would gain a foothold in Egypt and wage a holy war on its Christian community.
"Many people believe the sectarian incidents taking place in the country were the making of state security forces," says Moustafa Kamel El-Sayed, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "Some might be surprised if they were not."
Egypt has the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 82 million inhabitants, claim they have faced persecution and discrimination in the workforce.
While Muslims and Christians have cohabited Egypt for centuries, sectarian violence often flares up over land disputes between Christians and Muslims, attempts to build or renovate churches, or rumours of forced conversions. Most incidents are quickly diffused by a heavy security presence.
Last year was one of the bloodiest on record. The year began with a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Nag Hammadi that killed six Copts leaving a church service, and ended with an apparent suicide bombing at Al-Qiddisine church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria as worshippers emerged from a New Year's Eve mass. Some 24 people were killed and nearly 100 wounded in the attack.
The government accused a Gaza-based Islamist group with links to Al-Qaeda of carrying out the deadly bombing. However, leaked British intelligence documents purportedly suggest the attack was orchestrated by a senior official of the Mubarak regime.
The diplomatic papers, first cited by Al-Arabiya Arabic news channel, allege that former interior minister Habib El-Adly established a black ops unit in 2004 supervised by 22 security officers with drug dealers, Islamic militants and security personnel on its payroll. The unit's role: carry out false flag acts of provocation and sabotage around the country aimed at diverting people's attention away from the regime's corruption and unpopular political manoeuvres.
"El-Adly militias," as they were described, were also instructed to "wreak havoc in the country if the regime was threatened."
According to British diplomats cited in the documents, the clandestine security apparatus was behind a number of sectarian incidents in Egypt, including the Alexandria church bombing. The unit organised the deadly attack then pinned the blame on a foreign Islamist group in order to bolster western support for Mubarak's authoritarian regime, they said.
If true, the revelations in these documents would be "explosive," says Adel Ramadan, a lawyer who has represented victims in many sectarian cases.
The intelligence report is said to reveal how El-Adly's security officers used their informant network to contact Jundullah, an Islamic extremist group, offering to provide weapons for an operation aimed at "disciplining the Copts." Members of Jundullah were recruited to park a car wired with explosives in front of Al-Qiddisine church, then detonate it by remote control. But the operation's ministry handler detonated the parked vehicle before the recruit could get out, making the deadly bombing appear as a suicide attack.
El-Adly's operatives then snared Mohamed Abdel-Hadi, the leader of Jundullah, and transferred him to an interior ministry facility in Cairo. He was able to escape along with hundreds of other prisoners during Egypt's recent popular uprising, and sought asylum at the British embassy. It was there that he explained his involvement and the double cross to diplomats, according to the documents.
Egypt's public prosecutor has launched an investigation into reports of the former interior minister's involvement in the Alexandria church bombing. If proven, it would corroborate eyewitness reports that police officers normally stationed in front of Al-Qiddisine church abandoned their posts less than an hour before the attack.
"The allegation that police forces withdrew ahead of the attack was also heard in other incidents, including the Nag Hammadi shooting," says Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). If prosecutors can demonstrate government complicity, "we will consider (petitions to) reopen investigations into other church attacks."
Egypt's January 25 Revolution exposed the willingness of Mubarak's authoritarian regime to sabotage public order in order to protect itself, say analysts. For several days, the nation's entire police force disappeared from the streets, allowing looters and escaped convicts to terrorise citizens.
"It was a diabolical plan that by sowing disorder throughout the country people would have no choice but to stop protesting and ask for President Mubarak to come back to restore order," El-Sayed told IPS.
That there were no church attacks during this security vacuum reinforced people's suspicions that the sectarian incidents taking place in their country were largely the making of security forces.
"During the January 25 Revolution all the police abandoned their posts, yet not one single church in the country was attacked," El-Sayed points out. "Even the Jewish synagogues were left untouched after police vacated them."
By Cam McGrath