Whatever it was that took the lives of 224 passengers and crew of the Russian passenger plane that crashed in Sinai has also robbed the financial security of millions of Egyptians working in the tourism sector as airline after airline ceases flights. While every government is duty bound to put its own citizens before all other considerations, the way that the situation was handled by Britain was not only an unprecedented break from aviation disaster protocol but also a slap in the face to a country recovering from years of turmoil.
Early in the investigation, British Prime Minister David Cameron called a Cobra meeting at Downing Street to discuss actions in light of intelligence primarily gleaned from terrorist ‘chatter’ overheard before and after the incident. What followed was an announcement that all flights to Sharm Al Shaikh would be suspended just as the Egyptian president arrived in London on a state visit.
Despite high level telephone conversations between the two countries that took place hours before his arrival, Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi was not given the courtesy of a heads up. Indeed, courtesy was entirely absent from his visit. Whereas the Chinese leader was received with pomp and ceremony, Al Sissi got little more than a hurriedly rolled-out red carpet and a two-hour meeting with Cameron. It’s not difficult to imagine Al Sissi’s inner feelings, but he was smiling, composed and statesmanlike during the subsequent joint press conference. Cameron, on the other hand looked positively shifty.
A far worse discourtesy was Cameron’s omission to share his ‘intelligence’ with Cairo and Moscow until a Russian foreign ministry spokeswomen expressed her disgust, adding that if the information wasn’t given, Russia would conclude those countries had other goals. Cameron called Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that same evening but according to the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry that intelligence has still not been shared with Egypt. The fact that they kept what they ‘knew’ for so long from countries allegedly being targeted by a Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant) affiliate is nothing short of scurrilous. The Egyptian government should have been informed about this so-called chatter before the disastrous event so that appropriate measures could have been taken.
The behaviour of the western media has been just as appalling. CNN, BBC and most others decided Cameron’s theory set-in-stone even as the information contained inside the plane’s black boxes was being downloaded. ‘Bomb’ was indelibly imprinted on viewers’ minds and would have remained even if the material evidence proved technical failure. Daesh, currently handing out celebratory sweets to passing cars in its ‘capital’ Raqqa, was handed a glorious victory well before the facts were known. Britain’s newspapers are going all out to dig up the dirt on Egypt’s airport security lapses although if they were as negligent as portrayed, one would imagine bombs on planes would have been a regular occurrence whereas this is Egypt’s first and the country is pulling out all stops to tighten-up its procedures.
A French publication has quoted an unnamed source close to the investigation saying an explosion was heard on the cockpit recorder. Are those people investigators or snitches? Note that not a single representative from the investigating countries turned up to join their Egyptian colleague at Friday’s press conference in spite of being invited. It turns out that the sound heard has to undergo spectral analysis to determine the cause.
The UK government has declared Sharm Al Shaikh ‘safe’ as opposed to its airport, yet the media refers to the flights to ferry holidaymakers as “rescue flights” inferring the resort is a war zone. The local British expat community in Egypt has reached out to many of those stranded offering free stays in vacant holiday apartments. Egyptian hotel employees have been buying toiletries for stranded tourists out of their own pockets.
Instead of triggering panic and inconvenience, Cameron could have shared his ‘intelligence’ with the Egyptian leader privately allowing Al Sissi to take the decision to suspend flights temporarily, while offering to work with Egypt to secure the beleaguered airport.
Contrast the treatment meted out to Egypt with the global sympathy shown to Malaysia which lost three passenger aircraft in a year — one still missing, one crashed and the other shot down over Ukraine! Did Britain or any other country tell its citizens not to fly Malaysian? Of course not!
Did Cameron advise Britons not to visit Paris following attacks by Islamist radicals at the Charlie Hebdo office? Airlines didn’t blacklist New York after 9-11 and neither was London subsequent to the 7/7 attacks on transportation. Why has Egypt been singled-out?
Egyptians and British expats in Egypt are taking to social media to express their anger; many believe there is a political component to the UK’s unprecedented reactions. In the absence of sympathy and any spirit of cooperation from its purported western friends, they might just be right.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.