Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ill-timed and unfounded

The UK’s decision to cancel flights to Sharm El-Sheikh was rash, writes Doaa El-Bey

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Hasty” and “unfounded” are two words used to describe the UK government’s decision to cancel flights to Sharm El-Sheikh and evacuate British holidaymakers from the Red-Sea resort amid fears a Russian plane that crashed in Sinai was downed by a bomb.

As the story developed, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi was on an official state visit to the UK. Al-Sisi’s three-day visit was his first to the UK since he became president last year.

Said Shehata, a lecturer in Middle East politics, says the visit was a mixture of success and bad luck. Opening channels of communication and boosting bilateral relations are always a positive thing, he says, “and holding meetings to attract more British investment to Egypt was clearly a good step.”

“Now, though, it will take time for these investments to reach fruition because of the situation,” adds Shehata, a resident of London.

The crash of the Russian plane overshadowed Al-Sisi’s visit as the UK announced the cancellation of all flights to Sharm El-Sheikh and made plans to bring its stranded citizens home.

“It was a hasty decision and could have been communicated in a better way. The timing and speed of the decision were a mistake by the British government. Egypt faces a daunting task as it tries to tackle the tourism issue, as well as foreign direct investment following the Russian plane crash,” says Shehata.

A diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity agreed that the UK decision was rash.

Prime Minister David Cameron said it is “more likely than not” that the Russian airliner was downed by a terrorist bomb.

“He based his decision on ‘more likely than not’ rather than on the result of proper investigations. He should have waited until the investigations are over,” says the diplomat.

Responding to Cameron’s decision, Al-Sisi dismissed speculation about a terrorist attack as “propaganda” designed to damage Egypt’s tourist industry.

He struck a more conciliatory tone, however, at a press conference held in Downing Street after meeting with Cameron. Al-Sisi said there was “good mutual understanding” between the UK and Egypt, and the two countries were “aligning and co-ordinating measures together.”

Hussein Haridy, a former assistant to the foreign minister, argues the UK should have sent a group of experts to assess the situation rather than taking the “unprecedented” decision to cancel flights. The timing of the British government’s announcement, he said, appeared to have been chosen to send the message that Egypt is not capable of providing security at its airports.

While Haridy does not believe the crisis over the plane unduly affected Al-Sisi’s visit, he believes the visit itself was ill-conceived, given the UK government’s stance on the 30 June Revolution and the fact that it offers a safe haven to Muslim Brotherhood members.

Nor, adds Haridy, has the UK offered Egypt genuine support in its war against terrorism.

“Although we are part of the international coalition to fight IS [the Islamic State group], the UK and the West do not listen to our demands, and those of the Libyan government, to target IS in Libya and lift the ban on arms to the Libyan army that they need to be able to fight extremist groups there, including IS.”

Opposition to Al-Sisi’s visit had been mounting since it was announced in June. Several groups, mainly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, protested in front of Downing Street during the president’s meeting with Cameron.

Some British officials were also against receiving Al-Sisi, describing the visit as “not wholly appropriate” given Cairo’s human rights record.

Shehata also believes official preparations ahead of the visit were insufficient. “The failure of the Egyptian media office in London to challenge anti-Egyptian coverage in the British media was striking,” he says.

Downing Street defended Al-Sisi’s visit, saying it was important to engage with the Egyptian leader on issues like the war on terror. A spokesman for Cameron said the prime minister would raise Egypt’s human rights record during his meeting with Al-Sisi.

The British government, alarmed by the situation in Syria and Libya, increasingly views Al-Sisi as a bulwark in the struggle against extremism in the region.

The UK government has been keen to engage with Cairo on security and has licenced £85 million ($128 million) of arms sales since July 2013, including components for military combat vehicles, valued at £40 million ($60.3 million), licenced in March.

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