“When I look at you, I am filled with optimism,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi told Dalia Ashraf, a reporter for Al-Nahar television, who promptly broke out in tears. Ashraf, who is in her 20s, had thrust a microphone at the president when he arrived at Sharm el-Sheikh airport after the crash and asked in a wailing voice: “What will become of Egypt? How will we save the tourist industry?”
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In a subsequent interview with Al-Arabiya television, Ashraf explained that finding herself face-to-face with the esteemed leader, who had agreed to talk to her even though she is young and doesn’t have senior status, had caused her to cry. Hold the excitement, though. Ashraf's job is to accompany Sissi nearly everywhere he goes, including on his recent visit to Germany. The issue isn’t Ashraf, but rather Sissi’s optimism.
The Egyptian president got a real slap in the face when, during the course of his recent visit to the United Kingdom, the British government decided to suspend all flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, from where the doomed plane departed, and to bring U.K. citizens already there home. But he still tried to maintain an air of statesmanship and understanding, saying that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions until data from the black box on the ill-fated Metrojet plane had been analyzed (to determine if the crash was caused by a technical problem or sabotage).
He neither confirmed nor denied the possibility of sabotage, but apparently the Egyptian media were given other instructions. Almost without exception, the Egyptian press has been filled with opinion columns and editorials suggesting a plot against Egypt. Al-Ahram newspaper published a political cartoon in which an old man is seen talking to a young male in a T-shirt with the slogan “I love Egypt.” The elderly man says the assault on Egypt (meaning not sabotage of an airplane but the claim that it was sabotaged) reminded him of the “tripartite aggression,” a reference to the 1956 Suez Campaign that Britain, France and Israel fought against Egypt. “Sixty years have passed,” the younger Egyptian replies, “and our enemies have remained the same.”
Senior journalist Abdel Halim Kandil called the “assumptions” about the sabotage of the plane “political and economic, designed to exact revenge against Egypt and Russia.” For his part, the writer Ashraf Ashmawi said he was convinced that it involved “a dirty plot” hatched by “powers and traitors” in Egypt, together with the United States and Britain to “trip up Sissi over his cooperation with Russia.”
Amidst speculation in the headlines over who would have an interest in hurting Egypt, one subject is not a matter of dispute: The Metrojet crash has dealt a severe blow to the Egyptian tourist industry, which stands to suffer monthly losses of about $280 million in the coming months, according to official Egyptian estimates. Thousands of workers in the sector are expected to be laid off and the country’s foreign currency reserves from tourism are expected to decline further after shrinking by one-half since 2011.
Saudi King Salman was enlisted to help Egypt out, ordering Saudia Airlines to continue flying to Sharm el-Sheikh. Egyptair is offering flights between Cairo and Sharm at a loss, and travel agencies are offering Egyptians major discounts. But Egyptian or other Arab tourists don’t spend like other tourists and they don't bring in the same amount of foreign currency. Egypt’s hopes of expanding the tourism sector to $20 billion a year by 2020 (compared to $7.3 billion last year) have now run aground and it is difficult to know how and when it will extricate itself.
Egypt has experience with terrorist attacks on its tourist sites. In the past, Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh, Luxor and Cairo have all been hit by attacks, each of which has impacted the number of tourist arrivals. But the attack on the Russian airliner has had a different impact. As long as tourists or business people thought that they were visiting a secured site, like Sharm el-Sheikh, or a Cairo hotel chock-full of security personnel, they were likely to continue to come. But when the flight itself arouses fear, foreign visitors are deterred to a much greater degree.
The problem is not just the lost sense of security and the economic damage. Egypt’s prestige is also on the line. It’s standing as a country that had successfully fought terrorism and was capable of protecting its citizens, has been undermined over the past two years by a constant stream of attacks in Sinai or the major cities. Up to now, the attacks have been perceived as part of a local war, similar to the battles being waged in other Arab countries against terrorist groups. The bombing of the Russian airliner, on the other hand, is liable to cut Egypt off from the world over fears of flying in and out of the country.
This apparently is at the root of the need to describe the claims of sabotage on the Metrojet airliner as a foreign conspiracy. Rather than simply fighting local terrorism, Egypt is purportedly the victim of an international plot by forces greater than itself. It's not a stance that Egypt invented. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is also convinced that foreign forces are interested in overthrowing him. And, as is well known, Israel too is convinced that it is the victim of international plotting.