After Bombing, Egypt Faces Its Sectarian Divide

A deadly suicide bomb attack outside a Christian church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve has forced the government and religious leaders here to acknowledge that Egypt is increasingly plagued by a sectarian divide that could undermine the stability that has been a hallmark of President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three decades in power.

As Egypt’s Christians headed to church under heavy security Thursday night to observe Coptic Christmas Eve, the nation was struggling to come to terms with a blast that killed at least 21 people, highlighted a long list of public grievances with the government and prompted concerns that national cohesion was being threatened by the spread of religious extremism among Muslims and Christians.

“I have heard this a lot, that this type of incident might be the first in a series, turning Egypt into another Iraq — that is the fear now,” said Ibrahim Negm, the chief spokesman for Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the nation’s highest religious official. “There is a paradigm shift here that says we have to do something about the sectarian issue.”

The bombing, which the authorities said bore the characteristics of an operation by Al Qaeda, has increased the likelihood that Mr. Mubarak, who is 82 years old and has had health problems, will seek a sixth six-year term this year, in order to preserve the status quo. Yet, it is precisely that stability — or, some say, stagnation — that many Egyptians now cite as perhaps the nation’s greatest underlying problem.

“The regime fooled us for many years with the illusion of ‘stability,’ ” wrote Magdy el-Gallad, in the independent daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. “We neither progressed nor has our situation remained stable.”

After the bombing and the ensuing riots, political experts, politicians, commentators, opposition leaders and average citizens said that the very steps taken by the president in the name of stability — including preservation of an