The British government couldn't have picked worse timing to instruct U.K. airlines to halt all flights from Egypt's Sharm Al-Sheikh airport due to fears that the Russian plane that crashed on Saturday was brought down by an explosive device. The U.K. made the announcement hours after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi arrived in London for an official visit and a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.
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Sissi couldn't have imagined a worse welcome. For five straight days, long before aviation investigators are slated to reach initial conclusions, the Egyptian government has been insisting that there is no reason to assume that the passenger flight's crash that killed all 224 on board was caused by a terror attack. Cameron's government, which has come under fire from the opposition and human rights groups for hosting Sissi, wouldn't have embarrassed the Egyptian president with such an announcement without fairly solid intelligence suggesting the possibility that a bomb caused the crash.
The British announcement came out of the blue, as some 2,000 British tourists are vacationing on the beaches of the Red Sea in southern Sinai. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Thursday he expects tourists to be flown back from Sharm starting Friday, after measures are taken to tighten security at the resort's airport. British Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced that security experts are to be sent to Egypt to make sure that the planes can take off safely.
The possibility of a terror attack was initially ruled out due to the assessment that the local ISIS affiliate's anti-aircraft missiles couldn't have hit the Russian plane. Over the past few days, mounting signs have raised the likelihood that terrorism was at play, in the form of an explosive device that may been planted on the plane prior to takeoff. The urgent nature of the British announcement indicates that the information has come from a different country. This joins Wednesday evening's reports that U.S. intelligence believes in the likelihood of the bomb scenario. The U.S., U.K. and Israel have close intelligence ties, but while the U.S. and Israel have advanced means of surveillance focusing on Sinai, the U.K. is the only one of the three that has passenger planes regularly flying in and out of Sharm.
The Sissi government, which prides itself on its assurances of stability and an unyielding war on Islamist terror, has suffered a tremendous public humiliation. Over the past few days, government spokespeople in Cairo have been trying to refute the insinuations coming from Russia that an “external factor” brought down the plane. Up to now, there was cause to doubt the credibility of the evidence cited by Russia, which is trying to evade responsibility for the poor maintenance of aircraft belonging to its airlines. So far, the Russian government has not yet halted the dozens of flights that ferry thousands of Russian tourists daily to the resorts in southern Sinai.
Still, the British announcement amounts to a major expression of no-confidence in Egypt’s ability to secure the civilian flight paths out of its territory. It’s not only a blow to President Sissi’s pride, but a very serious blow to Egypt’s tourism industry. Since the revolution in Egypt and the dwindling number of visitors to the pyramids and other antiquities sites in the heart of the country, tourism there has relied mainly on the vacationers who continued to come to southern Sinai. The ISIS group in the area that had been expanding its activity with a series of serious attacks against Egyptian military personnel in northern Sinai, had up to now refrained from operating in southern Sinai. This was largely due to the fact that many Bedouin tribesmen in northern Sinai assist ISIS, and also work in the hotels and the tourist industry in the south.