Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hijack revives bitter memories

Egypt is to revamp airport security and rework plans to win tourists back, writes Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A sigh of relief spread on Tuesday as the governments of Egypt and Cyprus announced the “peaceful end” to the hijack of an EgyptAir Airbus A-320.

The plane took off from Borg Al-Arab Airport just before 6am on Tuesday, heading for Cairo. At 9am the Egyptian authorities announced that flight MS181, which by then had landed at Larnaca International Airport with over 80 people on board, had been hijacked. The authorities offered no information on the identity of the hijacker or the reasons behind the forced diversion of the plane to Cyprus.

Within hours of the official announcement, a government official revealed the name of the hijacker — Ibrahim Samahah — and said he had forced the pilot to divert the plane to Cyprus by threatening to detonate an explosive belt that he was wearing. Samahah, said the official, was demanding asylum in Europe. Two hours later the story had changed and Samahah was no longer identified as the hijacker.

The authorities revised their earlier announcement, saying that the hijacker was Seifeddin Mustafa. They offered two possible motives for his actions: either he wanted to go to Cyprus to be re-united with his Cypriot ex-wife, or else he had demanded that Egypt release female political detainees.

In the interval, the hijacker agreed to release all women on board. He also released all the Egyptian passengers but kept three UK nationals aboard as hostages.

By 2pm Cairo local time the drama had come to an end. All passengers and crew were released and the hijacker surrendered to Cypriot authorities. Among the passengers were eight Americans, four Britons, four Dutch, two Belgians, an Italian, a Syrian and a French national.

“At times the hijacker was asking to meet someone from the EU and at other times he was asking to be moved to another airport. There was nothing more specific,” Prime Minister Sherif Ismail told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

Ismail said that the hijacker would be brought back to Egypt and questioned.

Egyptian officials were undoubtedly relieved when the Cypriot president said the hijack was not an act of terror. The Cypriot authorities who negotiated the peaceful end of the disturbing drama later speculated that the hijacker was mentally unstable.

Tuesday’s hijack brought back memories from 1978 when an Egyptian commando unit stormed a hijacked Cyprus Airways DC-8 at the Larnaca airport. Fifteen Egyptian soldiers were killed and the same number wounded in a firefight with Cypriot forces. All hostages were freed and the hijackers arrested.

A government official, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly following the end of the drama, said that “everyone” is grateful that it turned out to be the act of a madman rather than terrorists.

“Of course the hijack of a plane is never good news but in a sense all is well that ends well,” he said.

Egyptian officials were also reassured by the reaction of most countries to the hijack.

While Moscow reiterated its reluctance to resume flights to Egypt any time soon because of concerns over security measures at Egyptian airports, few other capitals echoed Russia’s reservations. There may be a degree of scepticism in European capitals, but none opted to change their current travel alerts or ban nationals from coming to Egypt.

Five European diplomats who spoke to the Weekly said they had received no notification of plans to halt flights to Egypt.

“I mean, if it is clearly a non-terror act then we have no reason to alter our flights to Egypt,” said one diplomat.

Another noted that Borg Al-Arab Airport, from which the plane took off, is hardly a hub for European visitors to Egypt. “Of course, we have to admit that the news was initially very worrying but it is clear now that we were not facing a terror attack,” he said.

European diplomats in Cairo agree that the news of the hijack carried an inevitable reminder of last year’s downing of a Russian charter flight in Sinai. But the “incidental bad image association” should not have a long-term effect, they say.

“I think our biggest problem was that we have reasons to doubt the narrative offered by the Egyptian authorities, not just because it was confused but also because in recent weeks we have seen the authorities offering contradicting and unrealistic accounts of the killing of an Italian researcher in Cairo,” said one Cairo-based European diplomat.

She added that fortunately, in this case, the Cypriot narrative supported Egypt’s version.

Egyptian authorities have released film from an airport camera showing the suspected hijacker, Mustafa, being thoroughly checked prior to boarding MS181.

After the crash of the Russian passenger jet, Moscow suspended flights to all Egyptian airports and London halted flights to Sharm El-Sheikh. In the wake of the disaster, Egypt upgraded its airport security, following recommendations made by delegations from Russia, the UK and other countries.

Cairo had hoped that by now, almost five months later, the sharp fall in the number of tourists visiting Egypt after the Russian plane disaster would have begun to be reversed. This has not happened.

Last week in Moscow visiting Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Russian officials that Egypt has undertaken all necessary measures to upgrade security performance but Russian authorities continue to decline to set a date for the resumption of flights.

For more than a decade Russia has provided Egypt’s Red Sea resorts with most of their custom. Egyptian tour guides and tourism agencies told the Weekly earlier this week that they had hoped to see a change in Moscow’s position. They also said they hope that the UK ends its ban on flights to Sharm before Christmas.

Egypt’s tourism industry, a key source of foreign currency, has been struggling since 2011, though the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada appeared to be insulated from the worst of the recession until last year’s Russian flight disaster.

During a major tourism event in Berlin last month Egypt suffered what some officials qualify as a real shock when it failed to secure any agreements.

Western diplomats in Cairo say the reluctance of tourists to come to Egypt is not only a function of security alerts but a reaction to the image the country now has following the still unresolved killing of Giulio Regeni and the continued political confrontation between the government and members of the civil society and human rights defenders.

Earlier this month the president’s office directed a committee to be formed to examine ways to rectify the bad image Egypt has in some Western capitals and in the Western media.

Another committee, says an informed government source, is likely to be established soon under the direct supervision of the prime minister to devise a strategy to reverse the drop in tourist numbers, which has forced many companies to either close or reduce their operations, leaving thousands of workers in the tourism industry jobless.

Egypt is counting on a revived tourism industry to help alleviate the shortage of hard currency. Drops in revenues from the Suez Canal and the failure to attract serious foreign direct investments have resulted in a severe dollar crunch.

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