Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Are the Russians coming?

The latest Russian security delegation to Egypt may herald an end to Moscow’s ban on flights landing at Egyptian airports, Dina Ezzat reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A high-level Russian security delegation arrived in Cairo on Monday in yet another round of consultations over security measures at Egyptian airports.

The objective of the visit is two-fold: To check that security measures for flights, accommodation and travel within Egypt by Russian tourists have been thoroughly revised and meet the parameters set by Moscow, and to inspect — along with Egyptian officials and the investigating committee — the wreckage of the Russian flight that exploded shortly after taking off from Sharm El-Sheikh Airport on 31 October last year, killing all 224 people on board.

According to an Egyptian government source, the Russian delegation, the fifth to have visited Egypt since Russian President Vladimir Putin banned Russian flights to Egyptian airports in November last year pending a complete overhaul of security measures is starting on the right foot.

Both Egyptian and Russian sources sound more positive over the possibility of an end to the flight ban than they have previously.

According to a Moscow-based source who works within the tourist industry, Russian officials are appreciative of improved security measures at Egyptian airports.

“We have not yet received the go ahead to start promoting trips to Egypt but I think this time things are really happening,” she said. “Yet still there is no telling when exactly the decision will be issued.”

Speculation over the possible end of the ban on Russian tourists’ visits to Egypt has surfaced at least twice during the past 10 months, often prompted by official statements from the Egyptian side.

In August, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi during an interview with editors of leading state-owned dailies, promised that it would not be long before Russian tourists began to return to Egypt. Al-Sisi did not, however, fix a date. Nor have any dates been offered by the Russian side. On Sunday Russia’s minister of transport said Moscow had received assurances from Egypt on the improvement of security measures but they still needed to be “thoroughly and effectively tested” because Moscow could not rely solely on what is being said.

According to information offered by both the Egyptian and Russian sides once the visiting security delegation ends its mission it will compile a detailed report for Putin and relevant government bodies. 

“I think it is safe to say we are moving closer to seeing the end of the ban. I think Russian tourists will be able to enjoy their Easter holidays (early spring 2017) by the Red Sea. They might even be able to travel earlier. We are also hearing suggestions from government quarters that it might be possible for tourists to fly to Egypt by Christmas,” said the Russian tour operator.

“I am hopeful because I know that the government, which understands that losing Russian tourism was a devastating blow to an already ailing industry, has worked to accommodate most of the security measures requested by the Russian side,” says Ahmed Hussein, a tour operator who works in conjunction with a Turkish partner to bring Russian tourists to Egypt. But Hussein worries that an end to the flight ban could yet be derailed, not necessarily through unhappiness in Moscow over the nitty-gritty of Egyptian airport security. “Do we know, for example, how close the Egyptian and Russians are to agreeing a joint statement on the fate of the jet that was blown up last year? Any disagreement there could further delay the return of Russian tourists,” he says.

An Egyptian government source says a compromise has now been agreed over Moscow’s demand that Russian officers oversee dedicated arrival and departure gates for Russian tourists. Now, says the official, Russian personnel will be involved in security operations but under the supervision of Egyptian officers. “We are in the process of discussing the chain of command, who gives orders to who and how any cases of disagreement are resolved,” said the source. He added that rather than dedicated gates for Russians, Russian flights would have fixed hours of the day when they use departure and arrival gates and that when they are not being used by Russian tourists they would be allocated to other, mostly European flights.

Many tour operators say the biggest worry over the return of Russian tourists stems from the realisation, as one guide put it, “that the ban is intrinsically tied up with bigger political issues”.

“It’s an open secret that the issue is not just about what happened to the downed plane but also involves wider disagreements between Cairo and Moscow.”

An Egyptian diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly the issue of Russian tourists returning to Egypt could not be viewed independently of the whole file of Egyptian-Russian relations which reached a zenith soon after Al-Sisi became president only to plunge into a sudden low last year.

“I think the Russians overestimated what their renewed friendship with Egypt meant. I think there was an expectation that Cairo would back Moscow’s regional schemes but that was not possible. We happen to see things in different lights at times,” says the diplomat.

Cairo may agree with Moscow that removing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is not a priority but this does not mean Egypt is willing to furnish facilities for Russian operations in the Middle East on its territory, explains the diplomat.

Relations between Egypt and Russia have been further complicated by ongoing relations over a loan from Moscow to finance the building of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, with Russian technical know-how. 

“The deal was supposed to have been finalised by now. It remains hanging, at least from our perspective, because Russia is expecting too much from Egypt, not just in relation to repayment terms but also in the allocation of technical responsibilities,” says the Egyptian diplomat.

While Moscow makes no link between the resumption of tourist flights to Egypt and the nuclear power plant or military support the diplomat argues “it is difficult to fully separate the management of these issues”.

Owners of hotels in Hurghada, a favourite Russian destination, who closed their premises last year, are reluctant to reopen until a date is confirmed for the return of Russian tourists.

Yet even in the absence of a fixed date, says tour operator Nader Emil, there is optimism within the industry, “not just because the meetings between Egyptian and Russian security officials seem to be on track but also because there are signs some other countries are easing — if not fully lifting — the restrictions imposed on their nationals visiting Egypt”.

“I think towards the end of this year we will see an increase in the number of German and Swiss tourists and we are already seeing an increase in the number of tourists from Poland,” says Emil.

Even a partial return of Russian tourism, Emil argues, would be a positive development “since it will tell the world that it is alright to visit Egypt”. 

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