October 31 marks the second anniversary of the tragic loss of life resulting from the crash of a Russian passenger plane shortly after its take off from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm Al Shaikh.
To date the cause remains inconclusive although the general consensus suggests the Metrojet was downed due to an explosion in spite of the fact that no explosive residue were discovered on the wreckage.
Then UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced a ban on all flights to Sharm Al Shaikh on the very day the Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi was visiting Downing Street citing information gleaned from “terrorist chatter”, intelligence that was not shared with Egyptian authorities. Russia followed suit shortly afterwards.
For the residents of Sharm Al Shaikh those decisions translated to a kiss of death. Hotels, restaurants and shops laid-off tens of thousands of staff and struggled to pay utility bills. Many were forced to close. The city that was once buzzing with life began to resemble a ghost town.
Two years on, flights from the UK to Sharm Al Shaikh, a town that has been deemed safe by Britain’s Foreign Office, have still not been resumed in spite of numerous appeals from the Egyptian government, airlines and tour companies. No explanation has been provided apart from “security reasons”. Promises of ‘very soon’ made by the British Ambassador to Cairo John Casson ring hollow.
Apparently the Foreign Office and the various UK government departments that have been liaising with relevant Egyptian authorities on airport security have recommended flights be resumed but it seems Prime Minister Theresa May, who long ago gave the all-clear for flights to Tunisia where British tourists were killed in June 2015, has turned a deaf ear.
Earlier this month, cash-strapped Monarch Airlines announced bankruptcy leaving stranded passengers having to be repatriated while rendering 30,000 employees jobless. Among the reasons given for the doomed airline’s collapse was the government’s ban on what was formerly one of its most popular destinations Sharm Al Shaikh.
In an effort to preempt other airlines sharing Monarch’s fate, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt has urged the prime minister to remove the travel ban stressing that Egypt has gone “to considerable lengths” to secure the resort’s airport. “If we do not want to hear of further similar stories it is vital that the flight ban be lifted as soon as possible,” was the Group’s conclusion. No thanks to Number 10 Sharm Al Shaikh that has succeeded in attracting visitors from a range of different countries, both Arab and European, attracted not only by southern Sinai’s year-long sunshine, pristine beaches and spectacular hotels but also by knock-down prices and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against all major currencies.
Sharm Al Shaikh is beginning to bloom again but many British expatriate longtime residents I’ve spoken with are angry that their own government is being so intransigent particularly when there is nowhere on the planet that can be guaranteed 100 per cent nowadays. Malaysia lost three flights over a short period. Malaysia Airlines 370 is still missing but unlike Sharm Al Shaikh, the country was the recipient of global assistance and sympathy.
Indeed, the UK itself has suffered serial terrorist attacks this year while admitting that there are 3,500 terrorist suspects in-country being monitored. In essence, Sharm Al Shaikh is a far safer place in terms of crime statistics and terrorist threats than Britain’s capital city.
The lack of any explanation from the UK government has given rise to accusations that the ban has little to do with safety concerns but is rather political in nature. Labour MP Stephen Timms revealed that the Theresa May has ordered the continuation of the ban which numerous politicians claim is wholly unjustified.
The truth remains elusive but without any clear cut arguments as to why massively overhauled Sharm Al Shaikh Airport is off limits to UK carriers, that possibility cannot be discounted. Egypt is being treated differently to other countries. The question being asked is why?
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.