CAIRO — As Egyptian authorities questioned suspects Sunday in connection with a deadly New Year's Day church bombing, thousands of demonstrators massed in two cities and accused the government of failing to protect the country's Christian minority.
The protests in Cairo, the capital, and the northern port of Alexandria raised questions about Egypt's stability and underscored growing disenchantment with an authoritarian government that receives more U.S. military aid than any other Arab nation but is widely seen as corrupt, undemocratic and ineffective.
Egyptian news services said that security services held 17 people for questioning a day after a suicide bomb exploded outside the Two Saints church in Alexandria, killing 21 people and wounding more than 80 during mass shortly after midnight. It was the worst attack in at least a decade on Egypt's Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of the country's 80 million people, but have long complained of discrimination and marginalization.
Suspicion immediately fell on Islamist militant groups linked to al Qaida, which have carried out a string of attacks recently against Christians in Iraq. A leading Egyptian daily, Al Masry Al Youm, reported Sunday that security services had identified an unknown number of foreign "infiltrators" who had entered Egypt, but said that the bomb appeared to have been manufactured locally.
Worshipers returned to the church for a ceremony to mourn the victims. For nearly two hours, sobs and wails filled the congregation hall, but when a priest briefly offered praise for President Hosni Mubarak's response to the attack, congregants said, "No, no," and shook their heads, said Nashaat Abu El Khair, editor of a Coptic newspaper in Alexandria.
A few hundred angry protesters then took to the street and shouted anti-government slogans, but they were quickly encircled by security forces and barred from marching further into the city.
The protests across Egypt began Saturday as condemnations of the bombing but have quickly taken on an anti-government tone. More and more Egyptians voice frustration with economic stagnation and Mubarak's unwillingness to step aside after three decades in power, especially after his ruling party claimed 97 percent of parliamentary seats in fall elections that were so fraudulent that opposition parties withdrew in protest.
"The bombing fits within the emerging narrative of Egypt as a failing state, so this is only likely to exacerbate general discontent toward the regime," said Shadi Hamid, an expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Experts even point to rot inside Egypt's much-feared security services, which have ruthlessly maintained a lid on dissent and downplayed the threat of domestic terrorism.
The United States provides Egypt's government with $1.3 billion annually in military aid _ only Israel receives more _ but the relationship has frayed due to Egyptian opposition to the Iraq war and U.S. criticism of Mubarak's human rights record.
Diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks also lay bare fears among U.S. officials that Egyptian forces are ill equipped to defend against current security threats. A Dec. 21, 2008, briefing prepared for Army Gen. David Petraeus by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said that "the tactical and operational readiness of the Egyptian Armed Forces has decayed" in recent years and that U.S. officials had urged Mubarak's regime to focus more on terrorism and border security.
"Egypt's aging leadership, however, has resisted our efforts and remains satisfied with continuing to do what they have done for years: train for force-on-force warfare with a premium on ground forces and armor," the cable said.
The cables still describe Egypt as "a steadfast ally" against terrorism. But whereas Mubarak's regime has often invoked the threat of terrorism to justify its broad powers, critics are now seizing on the church attack as a sign of his government's failings.
Christians have been the targets of sporadic acts of violence since the 1990s. Alexandria, a decaying Mediterranean port where Christianity has been practiced since the first century after Jesus Christ, has been the site of several attacks, including the stabbing of a nun and attacks on churches over plays deemed offensive to Islam.
Islamist militant groups issued threats against Christians in the Middle East after accusing Egypt's Coptic church of imprisoning two women who tried to convert to Islam. The church has denied the accusation.
Experts warned, however, that Egyptian authorities' immediate focus on militant Islam ignores the sectarian tensions bubbling in the country. Christians say that they struggle to obtain identity cards and permits to build churches, are severely underrepresented in the local and national government and are shut out of top posts in the military and security services.
"There are real domestic root causes, even if it was a foreign attack," said Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Alexandria was picked intentionally because if was the scene of previous sectarian tensions, but the government is not addressing the issue of discrimination, nor the economic and religious woes of the Coptic community.
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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