Egypt Still Refuses to Admit Russian Tourists Were Blown Out of the Sky
CAIRO — As the world knows well by now, Russian and U.S. investigators have concluded with considerable certainty that a bomb brought down Russian Metrojet 9268 on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board. The self-proclaimed Islamic State took responsibility for the crash, posting photos of what it claimed was the bomb.
And yet in Egypt the crash remains the non-mystery no one talks about it. Egyptian officials who are in charge of the investigation say they have yet to draw any conclusions, even as countries that don’t have access to the crash site say they are fairly sure of the cause.
That ongoing willful denial is emblematic of the way the Egyptian government refuses to acknowledge a burgeoning terror threat, diplomats complain privately, making the state unwilling to accept help or to confront publicly the growing ISIS presence in the most populous country of the Arab world.
“There is a broad sense within Washington that Egypt isn’t viewing the terror threat that it faces realistically and therefore is unable to fight it effectively,” said Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “To make matters worse, when the West urges Egypt to do something about its terrorism problem, Egypt responds defensively, asking why is it being singled out?”
Indeed, in the days after the crash, when Russia announced it canceled all Egypt-bound flights, an Egyptian state newspaper ran a screaming headline, “You too, Russia,” as though the state had been betrayed.
“I think a lot of this is about pride. They hate to admit to the world that there was a security breach,” H.A. Hellyer, at the Royal United Services Institute, told The Daily Beast. “That would be fine but an attack happened—and everyone can see it.”
This month, Egypt and Russia announced plans to develop a nuclear reactor here, drowning out local coverage of the downed flight and the grave economic costs to the tourism sector.
When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in the official readout of the meeting the Egyptian presidency made no mention of the downed jetliner. Rather, el-Sisi “highlighted Egypt’s efforts and vision in combating terrorism, noting the significance of bolstering international cooperation and confronting terrorist and extremist organizations in the region through a comprehensive strategy.”
For now, from the point of view of the government in Cairo, the deflection tactic worked. Tweets and editorial cartoons of the day no longer promulgate theories about the plane crash, but rather mock an impoverished state like Egypt committed to building a nuclear plant. And in that mocking, they exposed their bigger frustrations.
“The nuclear reactor is a great project… Finally we have hope that Egypt will be wiped off the map and, we will all rest… The mother of the world will relieve the whole world,” read one tweet. And yet there is no denying the terror problem is growing. What began as a problem largely limited to the restive Sinai has in the last two years expanded into a jihadi travel route from western Egypt to Libya and even in parts of Cairo.
A year ago, the predominant Sinai jihadist group, Ansar beit al-Maqdis, announced its loyalty to ISIS. This month, ISIS claimed responsibility for a hotel attack in the city of el-Arish where judges were counting ballots in parliamentary elections, killing at least seven, including an election judge. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
Egypt has insisted it can tackle its own security while at the same time it rejects claims that it doesn’t accept help. Rather, Cairo argues it never received an offer. But as long as Egyptian officials will not concede a security breach could have led to the downed flight, their allies argue they cannot offer any proper assistance.
The Egyptian government “wants the world to say, ‘We support Egypt,’” Hellyer said.
If there is a positive side to Egypt’s security situation, it’s this, according to Trager: It is still the only country with a significant ISIS insurgency that has not lost territory. “That is a very low bar but one that they are meeting, and one that Washington should not take for granted,” said Trager. “While ISIS has become more deadly, it remains a domestic terror threat, not a quasi state.”
Moreover, for all the moaning about Egypt not accepting help, the United States and its partners have failed to push Egypt toward official recognition of the tragic reality in the Russian jet crash. Rather, representatives from one country after another fly to Cairo and made their case, only to be ignored by Egyptian authorities facing no real pressure to do more.
“The outside, even Cairo’s friends, aren’t coming to the Egyptians in a unified, multilateral effort, all together,” said Hellyer. “These are all bilateral efforts. So the Egyptians can and do deflect, until the world moves on to another problem.”
But Hellyer stressed that it is up to Egypt to set a tone that it wants to work with the international community. Otherwise the Metrojet crash will indeed mark a low point for the government.
The crash in itself “is not shameful,” he said, “unless you don’t do something quickly about it.”
And that time probably has passed.