OPN 190722 EGYPT-BRITISH-AIRWAYS1-1563798308293
Image Credit: Reuters

On Saturday, Britain’s flagship carrier British Airways disappointed holidaymakers with boarding cards heading to Egypt with letters announcing cancellation of flights to Cairo for a week to allow for security assessments. No alternative flights were offered.

When asked to explain the reasons, a spokesman replied, “We never discuss matters of security”. The Egyptian government was similarly surprised; it was shamefully left in the dark. Lemming-like, Lufthansa spontaneously followed suit.

Egypt was not informed of these flight suspensions in advance or the reasons behind them. The British Embassy in Cairo told Egyptian authorities that the decision was not one taken by the Foreign Office or other UK ministries. However that doesn’t wash when the Foreign Office updated its travel advisory on the same day with, “There is a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation. Additional security measures are in place for flights departing from Egypt to the UK.”

The idea that a national carrier would unilaterally take such a drastic step without liaising with authorities — or taking permission — is ludicrous. Moreover, the UK’s failure to liaise with Cairo is certainly not the behaviour expected of a supposed ally.

Coming at the height of the tourist season, the move is a blow to the country’s tourism industry which has taken years to recover following two back-to-back revolutions. This year has witnessed a boom in tourism and at the World Tourism Forum held in Switzerland Egypt was cited as a model for overcoming crises in tourism. In fact, the country’s economy is witnessing unprecedented growth as confirmed by the IMF, the World Bank and ratings agencies.

Our tourism has recovered greatly, and this is not the first move of British airlines against Egypt. The reputation of countries is not a game. There must be a strong dialogue with Britain.

- Amr Adeeb, popular talk show host

Egypt’s success in this field was no thanks to Britain which barred all flights to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El Sheikh following the crash of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, despite an international team of investigators finding no conclusive evidence that terrorism was the cause.

British visitors were once the town’s mainstay. The decision taken by former British PM David Cameron, who rudely announced the flight ban in the presence of the Egyptian president during a state visit to London, rendered Sharm a virtual ghost town for a while. Hotels were closed. Businesses went bankrupt. Jobs were lost.

In spite of appeals by Cairo, numerous British ministers as well as a petition signed by Britons who love Sharm, almost four years on, that flight ban mysteriously remains in place on orders from Number 10.

I can safely say that the UK has treated no other nation that has been the victim of airline crashes or disappearances in this disgraceful fashion.

In 2014, Malaysia lost two passenger planes; one disappeared off the radar, the other was shot down over Ukraine. An Indonesian Airbus crashed into the sea off Borneo killing all passengers and crew. During subsequent years, Turkey, Indonesia and Ethiopia were among others whose carriers suffered fatal losses. Yet, Britain did not cease flying to those countries and British Airways flies to all these destinations today.

Needless to say Egyptians and expats posting on social media are furious at the UK’s selective treatment. There are calls to boycott British Airways. The overwhelming view was that the airline’s action has a political dimension. Conspiracy theories abound.

British residents were quick to confirm that the country is safe. Many say they feel more secure in Egypt than they do in their homeland where London plagued with an epidemic of knife crime has been branded “a murder capital”. Ironically, on the day of the flight suspensions, passengers on the Underground were attacked by a gang using noxious gas.

Popular talk show host Amr Adeeb was scathing. “Our tourism has recovered greatly, and this is not the first move of British airlines against Egypt,” he said, adding, “The reputation of countries is not a game. There must be a strong dialogue with Britain.”

It took until Sunday evening for Egypt to receive clarifications. By that time, the global media had had run with the story painting the capital’s airport as unsafe from an aviation perspective, wrongly as it turns out.

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The British Ambassador to Cairo Jeffrey Adams apologised to Egypt’s minister of aviation for failing to inform the Egyptian authorities prior to the decision being taken while stressing that it had nothing to do with the security measures of Egypt’s airports.

The news magazine Egypt Today reported that BA’s Regional Customer Service Manager Sherif Barsoum confirmed to the press that the “security measures at Cairo International Airport are 100 per cent excellent”.

So what was behind this chaotic and very damaging situation? According to Barsoum, his company needed seven days in order to review its own security systems. In other words, the carrier’s refusal to come clean from the get-go placed Cairo’s airport security, which received a UK Department of Transport bill of health in June, under a cloud. In that case, the Foreign Office’s aviation security update is doubly mysterious.

Regardless of Britain’s slur on Egypt’s reputation, unwittingly or otherwise, the country can be proud that its hosting of AFCON 2019 was without any untoward incident and has been acclaimed by all participating teams and the many thousands of fans who attended the matches. Kudos to the government that’s rebuilding the nation’s international standing.

The truth is still somewhat opaque but the good news is that the world’s airlines with the exception of Lufthansa had the good sense not to spontaneously follow BA’s lead.

Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.