Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
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Public outrage over suicide leak

By Thomas Gorguissian in Washington
and Mona El-Nahhas in Cairo

Speculations that the co-pilot of EgyptAir Flight 990 brought the Boeing 767 down in a suicidal act, killing all 217 people aboard, infuriated Egyptians. The hypotheses were mainly based on religious words said to have been uttered by co-pilot Gamil El-Batouti before the plane plunged into the Atlantic. However, a top US investigator condemned speculative media reports about conversations taped by the cockpit voice recorder, saying some of the reports were "flat wrong". The US media had started to hint at the possibility of a criminal act committed by the crew even before the voice recorder had been retrieved.

Egyptians rejected allegations of El-Batouti's suicide, describing them as nonsense. Moreover, some believe that the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, had a hand in the crash, connecting this to the presence of 33 Egyptian army officers on board. Many angry Egyptians criticised what they described as US attempts to distract attention from the Israeli involvement by placing the responsibility on Egyptians. Others condemned what they believe were investigators' jumping to conclusions that could damage Egypt's reputation.

Trying to avoid a possible crisis in relations with Egypt, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) decided to delay a hand-over of the investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the request of Egyptian investigators who did not find strong evidence of a criminal act. A group of Egyptian experts have just arrived in the US to take part in the investigation conducted by the NTSB.

Foreign Minister Amr Moussa dismissed as "false" reports of El-Batouti's alleged suicide. Moussa pointed out that the airliner's file is now in the hands of civil aviation experts and that "we have to wait and see how the mystery of the accident will be unraveled from the technical side."

When Egypt objected to the FBI takeover, observers in Washington said that there was tension in relations between the two allies. What appears to be going on now is some type of "damage control" in order to come out of this controversy with minimal damage to bilateral relations.

"We have no reason to believe that the Egyptians have any different view than we do about the importance of getting to the bottom of this, no matter what the cause. There's no reason to believe that," State Department spokesman James Rubin said on Monday.

Nabil Fahmi, the Egyptian ambassador in Washington, said that Cairo will continue its cooperation with the US. "Even though there has been this widespread anger within Egypt, the government of Egypt is determined to cooperate with the United States and let the US continue to take the lead," Fahmi said in a CNN interview. "It is important to all these people [investigators] and to the credibility of the investigation that we give them time to do their work."

Head of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority Abdel-Fattah Kato said on Sunday that he had been told by Jim Hall, head of the NTSB, that there was a "very high probability" the plane was downed deliberately. Kato said Hall had called for extreme calm in dealing with the case, adding that he denied having made any statements about the suicide of any crew member.

On Saturday, two Egyptian aviation officials, Murad Shawqi, head of aviation safety at the Civil Aviation Authority, and Mamdouh Heshmat, head of the aviation sector at the Ministry of Transportation, returned from the US, after having taken part in the US investigation. "A political agreement has been reached with the American side that the file will remain with the NTSB," said Shawqi. Asked when the investigation would be completed, they said it might take several years to determine the accident's true causes.

In a statement issued on Saturday by the Egyptian Pilots Association, the American media was urged to be patient, not to rush matters and to give investigators a chance to concentrate on their work. The statement asserted that Egyptian pilots are highly efficient and that they regularly undergo medical and psychological examinations.

Walid Murad, head of the association, said at a news conference that co-pilot El-Batouti was "a pilot of high standard, well-trained and with good morale."

Murad accused the international media of indicting El-Batouti on the basis of partial evidence. "Both the American and the Egyptian people want to know the truth and I do not think there will be any blackout from either side," he said. Murad added that the religious words allegedly uttered by El-Batouti just before the plane's auto pilot was disengaged and the engines turned off could have meant that El-Batouti was facing some kind of danger.

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