In Egypt, a nation that in recent years has been besieged by uprisings, mass arrests, political crackdowns and terror attacks, the reaction to the crash of Egypt Air flight 804 has been unusual.
There was no bantering of conspiracy theories or Western plots against the great state of Egypt, as commonly happens after devastating events damage Egypt’s economy and prestige. There was no widespread talk of how the crash could lead to increased government repression or national economic collapse. The collective emotion was more like punch in the gut as yet another tragedy befell the most populous Arab state.
In a diverse nation of nearly 90 million, there was a sense of shock, coupled with pleas throughout the day: “Why can’t Egypt get a break?” “Please don’t let this be a terror attack.”
And of course: “What happened?”
Yes, people actually are waiting and seeing what facts surface over time about the circumstances of the crash.
Maybe that was because this crisis was not like any other. There was no Egyptian on whom people could fix blame, my Egyptian friends and family explained to me.
The flight, after all, took off from Paris, not Cairo, so it was hard to hold someone within Egypt’s fragile government or security forces responsible.
At a press conference Thursday, just hours after the plane went missing, Sherif Fathi, the minister of civil aviation, said that the cause was more likely a terror attack than not.
“I don’t want to go to speculations and I don’t want to go to assumptions,” Mr. Fathi said. Still, he said, “if you analyze the situation properly,” the possibility of “having a terror attack is higher than the possibility” of technical failure.
The crash, for Egyptians, was about victims they knew or might know.
By contrast, the MetroJet flight that exploded over the Sinai in October was made up largely of Russians and other foreigners, not Egyptians.
It was treated as a diplomatic and public relations problem by the government, even to the point of denying evidence supplied by other government. Egypt refused to consider a bombing as a possible cause, saying instead such claims were part of an effort to harm Egypt.
Even the March hijacking of an Egypt Air flight from Cairo to Alexandria by an Egyptian man with a fake bomb felt like something that affected mainly outsiders. Such a flight would usually be filled with foreigners. Most Egyptians can’t afford to fly anywhere, and even those who can would rarely choose to do so between two cities that are a three-hour drive apart.
But on the flight that disappeared over the Mediterranean early Thursday morning, there were 30 Egyptians. And the stories about them that emerged were the stories of many of the men and women and children. As I phoned people I knew in Cairo, I quickly found friends of friends who knew some of those on board.
There was apparently a woman who traveled to France to buy things for her upcoming wedding. Others spoke of distant relatives among the victims. And even those who had no obvious connection to the tragedy felt the crash had struck them personally. Families gathered at Cairo International Airport, waiting for news of their loved ones, surrounded by Egypt Air staffers desperate to comfort them any way they could.
In addition, there were passengers from Algeria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Chad, Kuwait, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
Some Egyptians were defiant, posting on social media about boarding Egypt Air flights even as the circumstances of the crash were not clear. One woman, Monica Hanna, explained on twitter that she “supported our national carrier.”
A popular Egyptian blogger, known as The Big Pharaoh, noted that he was following developments while waiting to board a flight.
While the Egyptian government is leading the investigation, the UK, French, Greeks and Italians also are part of it.
Perhaps the rather subdued reaction to the crash spoke to an Egypt people simply exhausted by tragedy and shocks to their way of life.
In fact, some relativized it among the daily insults to freedom and reason. One Egyptian, Nihal, put the crash third in the list of events of the day, behind an ongoing hunger strike and the arrest of Mina Thabet, director of the Minority and Religious Groups Department at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF).
Thabet has been a vocal advocate for Egyptian minorities, particularly the quickly dwindling Coptic Christian population.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el Sisi, ascended to power in 2013 by engineering a popular uprising and the ouster of his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi. Since then, thousands of activists and government opponents have been arrested by authorities in what many see as a desperate bid to prevent another uprising.
Moreover, the Egyptian economy has plummeted in recent months as the Egyptian pound fell officially to a record 12 cents to the U.S. dollar. All the while, the restive Sinai has become a haven for the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
As my friend concluded as she shared what she heard about the distant relatives she barely knew who may have perished: “There is only so much we can take in a year.”