Tempers flare in Egypt over plane crash conspiracies

Tempers flare in Egypt over plane crash conspiracies
Feature: The recent apparent bombing of a Russian airplane above the Sinai and the wide-ranging suspension of flights has fed a crop of new conspiracy theories in Egypt.
6 min read
10 November, 2015
Did Western countries really suspend flights to Egypt to prevent Sisi becoming too strong? [Getty]

Egyptian media reacted with fury as Britain and the US become increasingly vocal about the likelihood that a bomb was the cause of the October 31 Russian plane crash in Sinai.

Many outlets are hammering home the same message: Egypt is facing a Western conspiracy that seeks to scare off tourists and destroy the country's economy.

The warnings of a plot have been widely promoted by opinion-makers in print, online, and on TV, sometimes hinting - and sometimes declaring flat-out - that the West had restricted flights to Egypt, not purely out of safety concerns for its citizens, but because it wants to undermine the country or prevent President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi from making Egypt too strong.

And though they seem wild, these conspiracy theories have apparently tapped into the Egyptian mindset - so much so that when Russia last Friday grounded all flights to Egypt, some media speculated that Moscow had fallen victim to British pressure and manipulation.

President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff announced on Wednesday that the Russian flight ban would last "for several months, at a minimum".

The announcement did little to quieten Cairo's voices of criticism.

"The people defy the conspiracy - Egypt will not cave in to pressures," the state-owned al-Gomhuria newspaper proclaimed in a front-page headline this week. "Egypt stands up to 'the West's terrorism'," an independent daily, el-Watan, headlined.

A reluctance to engage with criticism

Government and independent media alike have constantly lionized Sisi and depicted him as Egypt's saviour

The rhetoric reflects in part the deep reluctance in the press to level serious criticism or suggestion of shortcomings by Sisi's government.

Government and "independent" media alike have constantly lionised Sisi and depicted him as Egypt's saviour, ever since - as head of the military - he led the army's 2013 ousting of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Since Sisi's election as president - with 96 percent of votes cast - the following year, most media have continued to laud him as working to bring stability.

"Denial on behalf of the state that there is a crisis and then trying to point to some kind of third party is very normal," said Hebatalla Taha, an Egypt-focused analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Conspiracy theories often run rampant in the Middle East for a variety of reasons - poor education, suspicion of others, a lack of government transparency, limitations on speech, and the historical fact that powers inside and outside the region do often work behind the scenes to sway events and conflicts.

Often, the theories are politically fuelled.

Taha said such rhetoric was a "standard fallback" position for the state. Private citizens, she said, likely wouldn't have come up with the conspiracy theories on their own, "but they're very likely to adopt what state media is saying".

Egypt's media often point to "foreign hands" amid crises.

During the 2011 uprising that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak, state papers accused foreigners of fomenting protests. Over the past two years, commentators have often accused the US of supporting the Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organisation, and trying to impose it on Egypt - in response to Western criticism of Morsi's ousting and the subsequent crackdown on Islamists.

They also complain that the West is not helping Egypt enough in its fight against terrorism, including the Islamic State group's branch in Sinai, which claimed to have downed the Russian plane.

But Taha said the reaction to the plane crash was also rooted in fear.

The 31 October crash of the Russian jet just after it took off from the Sharm el-Sheikh resort could wreck the slow revival of Egypt's vital tourism industry after five years of turmoil - particularly after Russia and Britain suspended tourism flights, demanding better airport security.

Egyptian authorities have said they are looking at all possible scenarios in the crash. They say speculation should stop until the conclusion of the investigation, which Sisi has said could take months.

They have bristled at what they call a rush to judgment by British and US officials, who say intelligence suggests the IS branch in Sinai planted a bomb on the Metrojet plane, causing it to break apart in the air, killing all 224 on board.

Since Morsi's ousting, the militants have waged a stepped-up insurgency in Sinai, and have carried out multiple bombings and killings of police and soldiers, including in Cairo. Egypt's military has been battling them in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.

In the Egyptian media, the flight suspensions and calls for better airport security were seen as unfair and malicious.

Even if the cause was a bomb, "it doesn't require an instant and large-scale punishment and criminal defamation against Egypt", wrote the editor-in-chief of the al-Maqal newspaper - remarks echoed by one of Egypt's most prominent TV commentators, Ibrahim Eissa.

Anger directed at foreigners

Private citizens wouldn't have come up with the conspiracy theories on their own, but are very likely to adopt what state media is saying

British Prime Minister David Cameron has borne the brunt of the criticism.

Some saw it as particularly insulting that the UK's suspension of flights last week came the same day Sisi began his first official trip to London, and that Cameron said at a press conference with Sisi that it was "more likely than not" that a bomb downed the plane.

UK tour company Thomson said on Thursday that all of its remaining flights in Sharm would return to Britain by Monday, November 16.

Some Egyptian commentators even hinted at some sort of collusion - or at least a mutual interest - between the UK and the Islamic State group (IS) extremists.

Hazem Moneim, a commentator with al-Watan, wrote that the West was "afraid" of Egypt.

"Why would Britain issue this statement coinciding with the beginning of Sisi's visit, as if they know the truth from its source?" he wrote on Saturday.

He compared it to a TV drama in which "the evil side contributes to committing the crime, then accuses the other side".

In the same paper, Lamis Gaber wrote that London "was very pleased" with the IS claim of responsibility. "As long as the English and [IS] are in political agreement and ideological and strategic harmony, then perhaps the information might be true," she wrote.

Moscow's decision to also suspend its flights threw some of the conspiracy theories into confusion, since Russian President Vladimir Putin is always depicted as a strong supporter of Sisi.

"Even you, Putin?" proclaimed al-Masry al-Youm's front page proclaimed.

In the largest state-owned newspaper, al-Ahram, Taha Abdel-Aleem wrote that British and US statements on the crash were part of pressure "aiming to empower the Brotherhood and humiliate Egypt, as well as turn public opinion in Russia against its war on terror in Syria" - referring to Moscow's air campaign there.

One well-known Egyptian actor even said on a TV talk show that the British prime minister - whom he identified as "John Brown", perhaps muddling the names of previous prime ministers John Major and Gordon Brown - "is in the Muslim Brotherhood".

Al-Ahram and other papers also accused the UK of forcing its nationals vacationing in Egypt to leave.

Al-Ahram ran a photo of a woman arguing with British Ambassador John Casson at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, with the caption: "We want to resume our trip and don't want to leave," as if she were saying that.

In video footage that has gone viral online, the tourist, Clara Dublin, was in fact telling the ambassador, "We want to go home," angry over the confusion in arranging flights out.