Cairo pursues a different tactic with EgyptAir crash

Sunday 05/06/2016
An Egyptian journalist lights candles during a candlelight vigil for the victims of EgyptAir flight 804 in front of the Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo, on May 24th.

Washington - Egypt’s official response to the disappearance of EgyptAir flight 804 over the Mediterranean was that terrorism was the likely cause, a sharp change from the way Egyptian officials responded to the crash of the Rus­sian Metrojet in the Sinai last Octo­ber. The reasons for this change are multifaceted.

When the Russian Metrojet went down October 31st in the Sinai shortly after take-off from Sharm el- Sheikh, Egyptian officials entered a state of denial about the cause, de­spite the Islamic State (ISIS) claim­ing responsibility for downing the plane and terrorism experts from Russia, Britain and elsewhere say­ing ISIS was the likely culprit.

It took the Egyptian government months to acknowledge the ISIS link to the attack. Egypt stuck to its denial campaign in hopes that for­eign tourists who spend millions of dollars in Egypt every year, particu­larly in the southern Sinai beach resorts, would not be scared away. Egypt did not want to acknowledge that there was a security breach at its airport.

Egyptian officials eventually came to reason that denying the obvious was foolhardy and did not prevent tourism cancellations.

By contrast, shortly after the May 19th crash of EgyptAir 804 from Paris to Cairo, Egyptian Minister of Aviation Sherif Fathy declared that terrorism was the likely cause even before any hard evidence was found.

Why the change in attitude?

First, because the plane took off from Paris and not from an Egyp­tian airport, Egypt could point to possible security breaches at one of the Europe’s most security-mind­ed transit hubs. In other words, if something was amiss, it was not the fault of Egypt.

Second, if a terrorist connec­tion occurred at the Paris airport, it shows that Egypt is not alone in the fight against terrorism. Egypt can point to terrorism as a global problem and one that needs to be handled by the entire international community.

Egypt was also quick in asking for help from France and other coun­tries in scouring the eastern Medi­terranean for the plane and the debris. This request for assistance was not only an acknowledgement that other countries have more so­phisticated search equipment and submarines but it helped with the narrative that terrorism is an inter­national problem.

Third, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been criticised at home and abroad for his round-ups of protesters, journalists and other critics of his regime. This criticism has even come from Egypt’s friends in the United States and Europe.

By pointing to terrorism as the culprit for the downing of EgyptAir 804, Cairo hopes to deflect atten­tion from human rights allegations. Also, the Egyptian government can better make the argument to its own citizens that it must remain tough against domestic critics because the country faces a deadly terrorism problem. Thus, national unity — not swipes against the government — is what is called for now, in the mes­sage of the Egyptian government.

The rush to judgment about ter­rorism as the cause of the crash has downsides, too. If the target was indeed EgyptAir, it makes the Egyp­tian national carrier vulnerable to more terrorist attacks.

By calling terrorism the most likely reason for the downing of the aircraft, it demonstrates that ter­rorists continue to target Egypt and its tourism industry, which has not recovered from the downing of the Russian plane.

Tourism accounts for about 11% of Egypt’s gross domestic product and it is estimated that one out of every ten Egyptians is dependent on the tourism industry, either directly or indirectly, for his or her livelihood.

Perhaps this is why the vice-chairman of EgyptAir stated on May 24th, after body parts and debris were recovered from the Mediter­ranean, that it was premature to de­clare that an explosion caused the crash. He added: “Any high-velocity impact leads to defragmentations and this is not indicative of what caused the accident. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”

The Egyptian government has also become more circumspect about the incident, perhaps hoping that the aircraft’s black box will be recovered and reveal the true cause and perhaps because it now has sec­ond thoughts about its strategy of quickly blaming terrorism for the crash.

No matter what the reason, the downing of the EgyptAir plane has contributed to keeping Egypt’s tourism industry in the doldrums. This is most unfortunate in that the other sectors of Egypt’s economy are not doing very well, either. The International Monetary Fund fore­cast that Egypt’s economy will only grow by 3.3% in 2016, down from 4.2% in 2015.