Despite mounting suspicions that a Russian plane crash in the Sinai was caused by a bomb, Egyptian authorities are playing down the terror attack thesis, fearing a blow to the vital tourism sector.
Over the past few days, Egyptian officials have been at pains to play down the likelihood that a terrorist attack may have caused the crash of Metrojet Airbus A321.
Since the aircraft crashed near Sharm el-Sheikh Saturday, killing all 224 people on board, the Egyptian government has not publicly discussed the terror attack theory. The official silence comes despite two claims by the Islamic State (IS) group in Sinai, which calls itself Sinai Province.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ahmed Abu Zeid, attempted to downplay the concerns. "So far, there’s only innuendo and speculation about the reasons for the crash,” he hedged. “We have to wait for the investigation."
Avoiding any incriminating statements
"The Egyptian position is prudent," said a French diplomat in Egypt who declined to be named, given the sensitivity of the case. "The matter is too serious to communicate without being sure. There are French investigators alongside Egyptian investigators [on the ground] and they are working with complete transparency.”
While the international community awaits the results of the investigation, the Egyptians have studiously avoided making any incriminating statements.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has taken to reframing the recent US position favouring the bomb-on-board scenario. "In a telephone conversation with [Egyptian Foreign Minister] Sameh Choukri, US Secretary of State John Kerry assured [his Egyptian counterpart] that media reports…on the cause of the crash did not in any way reflect the official position of the US administration,” said a ministry statement. However, on Thursday, US President Barack Obama said it was possible that a bomb exploded aboard the plane.
The US is not the only country to raise this hypothesis: the British government sparked the ire of Egyptian authorities when they announced the suspension of British flights to Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this week. Prime Minister David Cameron, who said it was "more than likely" that the crash was caused by a bomb, came under particular scrutiny.
Cameron’s comments came as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi happened to be visiting London. After his meeting with Cameron, the Egyptian strongman however expressed his government’s readiness to co-operate on security with the UK and to ensure the safety of all foreign tourists in Egypt.
A fragile tourism industry
The British are not the only ones to have expressed their fears. France and Belgium have advised their citizens not to travel to Sharm el-Sheikh for the moment.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the suspension of all passenger flights to Egypt until the cause of the crash was established. The Kremlin however noted that the decision did not mean the crash was caused by a terrorist attack. Until the cause was established, the Kremlin added, all theories, including the possibility of technical failure, should be examined by the official investigation.
The Egyptians have been making reassuring noises, but they know the situation is grave. Cairo has resisted any mention of terrorism, particularly because of the devastating long-term impact it would have on the tourism industry.
This crisis could not have come at a worse time for a country rich in archaeological treasures and pristine beaches. Over the weekend, the government launched a major tourism advertising campaign timed for the World Travel Market, which opened in London this week.
The number of tourists in Egypt fell from nearly 15 million in 2010 to 10 million in 2014. Sharm el-Sheikh, with its many Russian and British visitors, was critical in the government’s bid to drive up tourism figures. Despite the 2011 uprising, the clashes on Tahrir Square and the violent repression that followed the dismissal of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, tourists have continued to flow to the Red Sea resort. But not enough, according to industry analysts – some even regret the old days, when many international conferences were held in Sharm el-Sheikh, showcasing a welcoming and safe Egypt under former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak.
A recent tweet by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris reflected the concerns of the business community: "People of the world visit Egypt! Security at our airports is good and is being improved. We need your support!"
The failure of the ‘war’ against terrorism?
Confirmation that the plane was downed by a terrorist attack would also be a blow to Egypt’s image, since Sisi has made the "war" against terrorism a priority -- a message constantly repeated on state media.
Since the 2013 fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sisi’s rise to power, authorities have severely clamped down on Islamists as well as secular activists.
According to local and international NGOs, the country has tens of thousands of political prisoners, and repression is worse than under Mubarak era. But faced with the terrorist threat, many Egyptians are willing to accept less freedom in exchange for security and stability that the government promises them.
The fight against terrorism is concentrated in the northern Sinai, where jihadists have benefited from the security vacuum caused by the 2011 revolution. To conduct their "war" against the militants without attracting international attention, the authorities have blocked foreign journalists from accessing northern Sinai since 2013.
According to Mohannad Sabry, Egyptian journalist and author of a book on the Sinai, the government is trying to conceal massive human rights violations. According to Sabry, who visited the region two months ago, "Whole villages have been decimated, many civilians were killed. The regime wants to hide this."
Since the summer of 2013, attacks against security forces in the region occur almost daily. Every week, authorities announce the death of dozens of "terrorists" in northern Sinai, but this information is impossible to independently verify. "The war against terror in the Sinai is a total failure," concludes Sabry.
A jihadist recruitment ground
According to Sabry, members of Sinai Province, the Egyptian branch of the IS group, are well placed to attack a foreign airliner. "There is no proof. But are they capable? Yes, they are. They were successful in killing Egypt’s attorney general in Cairo (in June)," he recalls.
Sinai, an impoverished peninsular neglected by the central government for decades, is a dangerous tinderbox, with a combination of a disenfranchised local Bedouin population and a history of smuggling rackets. Residents find themselves caught in the battle between the police -- who sometimes confuse them with the terrorists -- and the jihadists.
All of this makes Sinai a fertile jihadist recruitment ground.
The disillusionment that followed Mubarak’s fall and the indiscriminate repression by the authorities is also swelling the ranks of jihadists in Egypt.
Egyptian security services themselves are not impervious to the appeal of these groups. Earlier this year, the country was shocked to learn that Ahmed al-Darawi -- a former policeman and a candidate for the 2011 parliamentary elections, who ran on an anti-corruption ticket -- had joined the IS group’s ranks. News of his defection hit the national headlines after the IS group announced that Darawi was “martyred” in a suicide attack in Iraq.
Sabry is not surprised by the official reserve displayed by Egyptian authorities on the Russian plane crash case: "Denial is very common in the government. Even when there’s plenty of evidence, they talk about conspiracies and manipulation.”
Now more than ever, no Egyptian journalist would dare contradict the official version since a law ratified in June stipulates a heavy fine for anyone contradicting official statements in the case of attacks.
Date created : 2015-11-06