The public mood in Egypt today is one of wary expectation of some hidden peril. It calls to mind very strongly the climate that preceded the 30 June 2013 Revolution when Egyptians turned out in their millions to protest against the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) which had risen to power in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. The massive revolution led to the toppling of the MB and the birth of a secular Egyptian State.
Yet a sense of collective fear had gripped Egyptians prior to 30 June 2013. The fear came from facing a mighty enemy, an enemy in a position of power, an enemy bent on wiping off Egypt and replacing it with an Islamic State. Egyptians drew on their faith and social cohesion for strength; they reached out to one another, famously through social network groups. Messages of encouragement, faith, and determination, in addition to the time-honoured humour Egyptians are famous for, inundated the social media. People drew on their inner power for strength to ward off the ominous peril. Finally, armed with that power, they took to the streets on 30 June; the army stood by the masses, and the Islamists were overthrown. Egyptians basked in relief.
Today, however, the ominous sense is back in full force, and Egyptians are again drawing on their collective moral and spiritual strength to confront an almighty enemy. Only this time, the peril is not as obvious as the MB plans for Egypt in 2013; it is cloaked in the veneer of international diplomacy, veiled in ambiguous non-definitive rhetoric. Yet the veil is too flimsy to conceal an all-too-obvious threat Egyptians feel.
It all started in the dawn hours of Saturday 31 October with the crash of Russian flight KGL9268 over Sinai Peninsula.The plane was an Airbus A321 operated as a charter jet by the Russian company Metrojet, and had taken off from Sharm al-Sheikh International Airport 23 minutes before it disappeared off air control radar screens. All 224 passengers and crew members who had been flying to St Petersburg lost their lives. Preliminary investigations pointed at technical failure as a probable cause of the crash; a terrorist attack by Islamist militants in Sinai was ruled out since the plane was flying at an altitude of some 30,000 feet when it crashed. No terrorist group claimed any responsibility for the crash.
When a couple of days later US President Obama announced a bomb may have caused the crash, the Sinai Province IS affiliate posted a flimsy video showing a plane exploding, and claimed they had downed the Russian plane. The video, however, was so flagrantly fake that it was dismissed by local and international media and officials.
When news surfaced that there might have been a slight crack in the tail of the plane, and that the co-pilot of the Airbus aircraft had complained to his wife that the technical condition of the plane left much to be desired, Metrojet hastened to deny that. Yet an EgyptAir official told the media that the plane had not been checked technically at Sharm al-Sheikh airport before departure because Metrojet had recently cancelled its contract with EgyptAir for ground maintenance.
The black boxes of the Russian plane were found, and an official investigation committee formed of representatives from Ireland, Russia, France, Germany and Egypt began working to reveal what actually took place before the plane met its fate. US investigators are expected to join.
Linked to terrorism?
The matter, however, did not lie at that. On 4 November, the eve of an official visit by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to London, the UK intervened despite playing no part in the crash’s official investigation committee. It suspended flights to Sharm al-Sheikh on the pretext that the Russian plane had been downed by a bomb planted in the luggage hold. Several western countries followed suit. The UK began deporting its nationals, some 5000 tourists, from the Egyptian resort.
An audio statement entitled “We Downed It, So Die in Your Rage”, issued on 4 November by Abu Osama al-Masri, an Egyptian cleric and frontman of Sinai Province, claimed responsibility for the Russian plane crash. But again, the manner and language of the statement was so uncharacteristic of IS and its affiliates, that it gained no credibility with the public. IS has been used to glorify its terrorist feats and provide detailed footage of its operations; this statement did neither, and was just too tame. Besides, it only emerged four days after the crash took place.
Both Egypt and Russia downplayed suggestions that the crash is linked to terrorism. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry criticised the UK’s suspension of flights as “premature and unwarranted”, and crippling to the Egyptian tourism industry. Tourism accounts for about 12 per cent of Egypt’s GDP, and contributes significantly to its foreign currency reserves.
But the real blow was yet to come. Twenty-four hours after Vladimir Putin criticised the UK for banning its flights to and from the resort, the Russian President suspended Russian air traffic to and from Egypt. Moscow imposed travel restrictions on returnees similar to those imposed by the UK, forcing them to leave their hold luggage behind. As many as 80,000 Russians were thought to be in Egypt, mainly in Sharm al-Sheikh.
Some satanic plot
It appeared that international media and officials were determined not to wait for the results of the investigation into the cause of the Russian plane crash, and rushed instead to propagate their own uncorroborated theory that the plane had been downed by a bomb. Voices championing a ‘bomb’ attack rose to a crescendo.
David Cameron said UK intelligence services had gathered information suggesting that a bomb “had more likely than not” been the cause of the explosion. French sources close to the crash investigation told Agence France-Presse that black box data “pointed to” a bomb having gone off on board the flight.
Prior to the explosion, US intelligence agencies also intercepted a message from the terrorists in Sinai that warned of “something big in the area”.
Yet none of the intelligence on the crash was shared with Egypt. Mr Shoukry criticised the failure to share intelligence, especially given that this intelligence had supposedly triggered the international travel restrictions against Egypt. “We expected that any technical information should have been shared with us as is the norm,” he said.
This was when Egyptians could not help feeling some scheme was being hatched against them. The feeling was voiced on social media outlets. “At first I thought the West was out to starve us by wiping out our tourist industry,” one blogger said. “Even if painful, this was not surprising, given that Egypt is the only Middle East country which defied the US’s New Middle East project by overthrowing the Islamists. Just look at Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and you’ll understand what Egypt did. We knew we’d pay a price for that. But now I see something much more ominous. Are western countries ‘evacuating’ their people from Sharm because they’re planning, maybe through the Islamist US-trained groups in Syria, some satanic plot?”
You too, Russia?
It did not help that figures whom Egyptians have come to dub the “fifth column” suddenly began to emerge on the social media after long silence. These figures had been prominent during the Arab Spring uprising, but disappeared from Egypt once the uprising brought the MB to power—an act Egyptians understood as ‘mission accomplished’. Once the Islamists were toppled in June/July 2013, these “fifth column” figures took to attacking Egypt from where they resided abroad, sometimes to the point of calling for international action against Egypt and President Sisi. Prominent among these figures is Mohammed ElBaradie, Wael Ghoneim, Ayman Nour, Bassem Youssef, as well as Islamist figures such as Gamal Hishmat and Assem Abdel-Maged. Now they were unfeelingly sarcastic, gloating over the plane crash disaster and its aftereffects, attacking President Sisi and propagating talk that he has failed to bring any good to Egypt.
As to the Russian decision to suspend air traffic with Egypt, political researcher Taha Abdel-Halim sees it as almost inexplicable, “a form of friendly fire that has worked a lot of damage”. If Putin has given in to internal or external pressure,” Dr Abdel-Halim says, “it is a short-sighted move very unlike the Russian President.”
“The Islamist militants in Sinai do not have, on their own, the capacity to blow up the Russian plane,” former Jihadi leader who quit the Jihadi movement, Nabil Naim, told Watani. “This does not rule out, however, that they could have recruited someone who works at the airport to do the task. But such a job takes extensive planning and would normally be backed by some strong intelligence apparatus; the jihadi groups would be only the executors of the operation.”
Hussam Kheirallah, former head of Egypt’s intelligence apparatus, strongly criticised the UK for the manner it handled what it claimed was the plane crash intelligence it possessed. “It is the internationally adopted norm that any secret information on terrorist attacks is shared in order to help investigations. It is not at all done that such information should be splashed across the media, especially when uncorroborated, but withheld from investigative authorities. If the UK had this intelligence before the plane crashed then it is complicit in the crime that killed 224 civilians; if after the crash then it is hampering the investigations and can be tantamount to giving the terrorists a prize.”
On 10 November, the BBC said that Egypt launched its own intelligence investigation into how a bomb could have been placed onboard the airliner. “A senior Egyptian official who asked not to be named told the BBC that every lead was being followed up, even though the official crash investigation has yet to conclude. He said Egyptian intelligence service was looking into every possibility of how someone could have placed a bomb inside the luggage compartment of the doomed plane. This included going through CCTV footage from the airport’s baggage area, which had not yet revealed anything suspicious, and questioning employees. Western counter-terrorism experts suspect that jihadists in the Sinai were able to penetrate airport security, which was widely criticised in the media as being too lax, to target the Russian plane and there is a belief that IS’s affiliate in Sinai may have been able to bribe an airport employee. But the senior Egyptian official said that foreign airliners at Sharm al-Sheikh airport were never boarded by Egyptian personnel unless requested by the airline.”
“We’ll always come”
Also on 10 November, the Egyptian daily independent Al-Masry al-Youm came out with a front page story attributed to an Egyptian source on the investigation team who said that the team had visited the site of the plane wreckage and inspected it carefully. “No trace of explosive material was found anywhere on the body of the plane, which will be now moved to Cairo for further investigations,” he said. The paper also reported that some 18,000 tourists had arrived at the Red Sea resorts of Sharm al-Sheikh and Hurghada airports during the two previous days. Hotels at Sharm have seen some 5 per cent cancellations; they expected cancellations to rise to 12 per cent by the end of this month. But it is the Christmas and New Year season, the height of the tourist season, that is expected to suffer most.
The tourists who came appear unfazed by the official warnings of the UK and Russia. They hail from Italy, Germany, the Ukraine, Hungary, Australia, Georgia, Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On Euronews, several described the official warnings as “exaggerated”.
An Italian visitor said: “We have been coming to Sharm al-Sheikh for more than 20 years. We’ll keep on coming. We Italians will always come here.”
Egyptians, for their part, also see the whole crisis as entirely blown out of all proportion. They cannot help recalling plane crashes owing to terrorist actions in other places in the world, and cannot think of any instance when international reaction matched the current one at the Russian plane crash. Hence the ominous collective feeling of peril lurking around the corner. Yet Egyptians are resilient. And resolute. They are intently rallying their inner strength and will not be broken.
11 November 2015