Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Flight 804

Media coverage of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804 is a reminder that while Egypt has friends, it also has habitual detractors, the narratives of which can only be countered by Egyptian voices, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptians woke up on Thursday, 19 May, to learn with sadness, coupled with a sense of unmistakable resignation, of the disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804 from Paris. Most of the 66 people who perished, in what subsequently became clear was a crash, were Egyptians. As is the case in international air travel, the plane carried many nationalities, so it was not only a national disaster but an international tragedy.

For Egyptians, this was the second shock in less than 10 days. On 10 May, terrorists gunned down eight policemen in an ambush in Helwan, a suburb to the south of Cairo. It was a brazen attack that reverberated across the country, already weary of the now-routine attacks against the army and police forces in North Sinai.

Hardly a day goes by without a soldier or an officer falling victim to terrorist attacks. The plane crash came when the morale of the Egyptian people was not at its best. Indeed, they feel that they are being tested as never before, as far back as they can remember.

Not surprisingly, the first cause that they thought could explain the crash was terrorism. Only seven months ago a Russian airliner was downed by a terrorist act over Sinai. The terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State group claimed responsibility. This time around, the Egyptian people thought that terrorism was, most probably, the culprit.

Of course, in normal circumstances when a civilian plane crashes officials and public opinion do not jump to conclusions. They wait until the black boxes are found and their recordings analysed before they declare what caused the crash. The situation is different in Egypt these days.

Not only Egyptians, but also the outside world  particularly some Western media  favoured the scenario of a terrorist act behind the disaster of Flight 804. Not to be outdone, and to the consternation of many, the Egyptian aviation minister, in his first appearance after the crash, talked about terrorism as a probable cause.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, the French foreign minister was more circumspect when he dealt with media queries. He did not rule out any cause but did not use the word terrorism. As he said, it was too early to speak about what caused the plane to disappear in the Mediterranean. The black boxes were still to be recovered.

For those who followed the international coverage of the crash, they could not have escaped the impression that the crash was used in a very duplicitous way to question almost everything in Egypt, from the safety record of EgyptAir over the past decade, to the way Egypt deals with terrorist groups within its borders, and the policies adopted by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to defeat terrorism, asking whether are not they could be counterproductive and lead to more radicalisation.

Needless to say, it is difficult to generalize but Egyptian viewers of international media outlets, in particular CNN, were surprised by the amount of bias in the coverage. Instead of analysing the information provided by official sources in the three capitals — Cairo, Paris and Athens (the plane came down minutes after it left Greek airspace) — CNN correspondents, some of them senior correspondents, went as far as talking about the possibility that one of the crew members on the flight had deliberately brought down the plane.

They drew parallel to the crash of an EgyptAir flight from New York in the Atlantic Ocean in October 1999. American authorities have always insisted that the pilot deliberately downed the plane. The Egyptian version is completely different but, for political reasons, the Egyptian government at the time did not press the issue lest relations with the United States sour.

The biased coverage of the crash of Flight 804 has shown that either some international media have no grasp on what is going on in Egypt after the 30 June Revolution, or they follow an editorial policy of maligning post-30 June Egypt. The latter could be right.

The way these media outlets have been covering developments in Egypt for the past three years leaves no doubt that their coverage should not be taught in mass communication courses as an example of professional journalism. To expect that this policy will change in the future would prove wishful thinking. We should learn to live with this sad fact. And the question should not be how to change it, because we will not, but rather how to develop credible narratives of what the Egypt of today stands for.

When we speak of today’s Egypt, we are speaking of the true and historical Egypt that triumphed on 30 June 2013. The world still needs to know that the reign in Cairo from June 2012 until 3 July 2013 was un-Egyptian. It was a historical aberration, and this explains why it did not survive more than one year.

We have a great story to tell the world, but for reasons unexplained we have not been able to narrate it. Neither the vocabulary nor the content of most official statements on many issues are credible enough for foreigners.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a lecture by the former chief of staff of the British army during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Speaking of Egypt and its role in the making of the contemporary Middle East, he stressed that Egypt has a story to tell but he still has not heard it.

He went on to say that Egypt has many friends, but also some detractors. I fully subscribe to this point of view. The coverage of the crash of Flight 804 is proof that Egypt has friends almost everywhere, and a few adversaries. We should stay engaged with the former and not exaggerate the influence of the latter.

We have to redefine our story about of what kind of Egypt we want to see rising in the first half of the 21st century. And what is even more important is to identify those people who are more attuned to the international agenda of today and tomorrow to tell our story. This is one of the lessons of the crash of Flight 804.

A prayer for the victims of this crash. Egypt is saddened but will always be triumphant.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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