Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt under fire

Who’s to blame for the Western campaign unleashed against Egypt, asks Nevine Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

Western media and official reactions to the crash of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 in Sinai on 31 October, killing all 224 people on board, reveal a conundrum.

If it was a bomb planted by militant Islamic State (IS) affiliates in Sinai that brought down the Russian flight, then Egypt and Russia are the victims of a terrorist attack. One might expect an international response characterised by solidarity and cooperation aimed at hunting down the culprits to prevent future attacks.

Instead, the whole affair turned into a media circus focussed on stranded tourists waiting to be taken home, allegations of substandard security measures and criticism of Cairo’s human rights record. All of which have the potential to harm Egypt’s battered economy and tourism industry.

As investigators were still sifting through the wreckage, heads of state and government officials, in press statements and interviews with the media, speculated about what caused the crash.

Shortly before meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 5 November, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared on Sky News that it was “more likely than not” that a bomb had brought down the plane.

US President Barack Obama repeated Cameron’s speculation on the same day, telling Seattle radio station KIRO: “There is a possibility there was a bomb on board.”

Their statements were said to be based on intercepted electronic communications between militants in Sinai. London apparently passed the intelligence on to Moscow but not to Cairo.

The UK rushed to repatriate British tourists in Sharm El-Sheikh and complained that the Egyptians were not cooperating. Shortly after, Russian President Vladimir Putin, after speaking with Cameron by telephone, also decided to halt flights to Sharm El-Sheikh and went one step further, stopping all flights to Egypt.

Returning to Cairo from London, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri criticised the failure to share intelligence relating to the crash.

“We are the party most closely connected with the issue,” Shoukri said. “We expected the information to be provided to us instead of being released to the media in this public manner.”

Shoukri also lashed out at some countries for “concentrating on their self-interest” and underestimating the terrorism challenges facing Egypt.

Investigators from France, Ireland and Germany are included in the official investigation because of their various connections to either the plane or the flight. The US and UK are not taking part. The FBI reportedly offered “forensic assistance” to both Russia and Egypt, according to FBI spokesman Joshua Campbell, but by mid-week neither country had accepted the offer.

While the crash presaged a field day in the foreign media, official Arab reactions remained oddly mute. Al-Sisi is likely to have discussed the latest developments with Arab leaders when he travelled to Riyadh on Tuesday for the Summit of South American and Arab Countries.

What lies behind all the negativity?

Could it be because of Egypt’s support of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria? Or does disdain for Al-Sisi’s regime and his popularity at home play a part? Was it a belated reaction to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, or an attempt to signal disapproval of the president’s domestic and economic policies?

Former ambassador Maasoum Marzouk is “shocked” by the “undiplomatic and unprecedented” ambush in London. “There was an intention to insult the president and Egypt,” Marzouk told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“It is very personal against Al-Sisi, to show they do not support him or his policies. There is no explanation for this diplomatically inappropriate behaviour by Britain. It’s a mistake to treat Egypt this way.”

It was unnecessary to make these revelations ahead of the Al-Sisi-Cameron meeting and the British should have waited to discuss and share the information with the president first, the veteran diplomat said.

“The Russian plane crash has opened a Pandora’s Box for Egypt,” Dr Wafik Moustafa, founder of the London-based Conservative Arab Network, told the Weekly. “I believe opposition to Egypt in the West is much stronger than is apparent.”

Moustafa, a physician and the first Egyptian-born Briton to run in British parliamentary elections, published a book last year titled Egypt — The Elusive Arab Spring. He believes several elements factored into London’s actions, including domestic pressure on Cameron because of opposition to Al-Sisi’s visit, Cairo’s human rights record, the perceived hegemony of the military in Cairo and Egypt’s cozying up to Moscow.

Said Moustafa: “Al-Sisi came to power in extraordinary circumstances and had a golden opportunity to move forward but he got very bad advice from the start.”

Marzouk believes that the Obama administration is facing mounting pressure from influential think tanks, media and political circles in the US that continue to label 30 June as a “coup”. Washington, he said, used the crash as a vehicle to show that it disapproves of the Egyptian regime. “It became a free for all,” he said.

Moustafa also argues that London was too “harsh” in its handling the issue, and suggests it might have been due to the “substantial influence” that the Muslim Brotherhood wields in Britain.

“They are organised, well funded, united, and work with renowned barristers and politicians while Al-Sisi’s defenders here do none of the above,” says Moustafa.

Marzouk disagrees, saying that the possibility of the Brotherhood influencing Downing Street is exaggerated. He is also doubtful that the West is punishing Egypt for the ouster of the Brotherhood in 2013. “That’s a long time ago. Perhaps Egypt did not cooperate on some things more recently,” he said.

The perceived insult to Al-Sisi serves only to increase his popularity at home, said Marzouk. A statement signed by leading public figures condemned the “anti-Egypt campaign”, describing it as “harming Egypt’s reputation and economy.”

Among those who signed the statement, which was posted on Facebook on Monday, are Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and head of the Constituent Assembly (CA) which drew up the new constitution; Abdel-Geleil Mustafa, a member of the CA; Mohamed Abul Ghar, chairman of the Socialist Democratic Party and a CA member; Gaber Gad Nassar, president of Cairo University and a CA member; and Abdallah Al-Sinnawi, a political writer and analyst.

“Is this payback for the 25 January-30 June Egyptian Revolution?” the statement read. “The Egyptian people can stand steadfast under the most difficult circumstances.”

It urged “all Egyptians and Arabs to go to Sharm El-Sheikh for their next holiday to compensate for expected drop in foreign tourism.”

But foreign media and officials are not the only ones to blame for the onslaught. Critics and supporters alike say Cairo was unprepared and far too slow to react.

Al-Sisi’s delegation knew about London’s position before the president’s plane landed last week, according to Marzouk. They should have prepared a strong statement to counter what the Britons were saying and then cut short the visit.

Journalist and television personality Ibrahim Eissa also blames Egyptian diplomacy for failing to anticipate what happened in London, adding that instead of waiting to return home Shoukri should have protested the London ambush on British soil.

“What the British did was a diplomatic crime against Egypt,” he declared on his television show on Sunday. “It is pandering to the anti-Sisi camp in the UK. The Egyptians should have terminated the visit and returned home immediately.”

Moustafa also blamed Al-Sisi’s advisers for not “reading the situation correctly” as they headed to London. “His advisers are old school and out of touch, which is a disaster,” he said.

Many observers agree that Cairo needed to get ahead of the “terrorist bomb” story instead of denying it, and should have launched its own diplomatic and media campaign focusing on terrorism. Cairo lacks a crisis management mechanism and is sometimes caught off guard and unprepared.

“Egypt is targeted by everyone abroad,” claimed Eissa. “The media, officials, experts — they all want to punish Egypt, tie it down and kill its plans to flourish.”

Moustafa believes Al-Sisi is at a crossroads. To avoid falling into dangerous traps that may lie ahead, the president needs to rebuild trust and take more pragmatic steps to encourage greater inclusiveness in domestic politics.

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