An early start to the day took us to Alexandria, which is on the Mediterranean. A moving day. We began by heading due west on the coast to El Alamein, where we stopped at the Commonwealth Cemetery. It is just off the coast (now heavily built up with resort properties), quiet, tranquil, and very well maintained. Some 7000 gravestones, many marked with no names “known to God”. We walked through quietly, all young men borne away in a terrible yet decisive battle. Churchill said of this October 1942 battle, “Before El Alamein we had no victories, and after we had no defeats”. Rommel was beaten back from his expected attack on Alexandria and Cairo, and soon after a quarter million German and Italian soldiers were captured. But the human cost of this victory was high.
From there we went to the Biblioteca, a brand new and extraordinary building right on the Mediterranean. It is part library, part conference centre, part museum. Wonderful old books and manuscripts. We left realising there was much more to see.
Our next stop was the most difficult. Last week’s terrorist bombing on the road just outside El Kaseveen Coptic Church killed 21 people and maimed and injured countless more. With the help of local Coptic community leaders we were able to meet with the local priest Father Matteus, and hear first hand from him and others what happened. It appears it was a suicide bomber, and not a car bomb. If the bomber had made it into the Church, or if the explosion had come a few minutes later, the damage would have been far worse.
The concerns of the community are many, the most immediate being financial help to get the injured the medical care they need. That might involve getting them to specialized care outside the country. The second was their profound dissatisfaction with the treatment of the Coptic church members at the hands of the public authorities. The final point is about immigration – making sure cases are given priority.
I heard two words more than any others “peace and love”. This terrorism is about hatred, refusing to live in peace and love with “the other”, attempting to force a deep and repressive uniformity on a diverse country and people.
Right across the street from the church there is a mosque, whose walls were also shaken and splattered by the impact of the bomb on the crowd. The terrorists’ target is as much liberal and moderate Islam as it is the West, Christianity, Israel and Judaism, and whatever other enemies hatred can find.
It’s a very different battle from El Alamein. It is less about artillery and firepower and more about winning hearts and minds. But it has a hard edge as well. It means stepped up security and a far more explicit and effective strategy from governments like Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon to protect all their citizens. It means vigilance in eradicating the networks that feed the hatred, that fund it, and that nurture it.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.