Egypt claims it's safe after Russian jet crash, but won't call it terror

While Egyptian officials have resisted publicly endorsing Russia’s claim that a bomb destroyed a Russian jetliner near the Sharm el-Sheikh resort, Egypt has begun arresting Egyptians suspected of having helped stage the terrorist attack and have bolstered security at all major airports.

Reuters reported that two employees of Sharm el-Sheikh airport have been detained for questioning after the downing of the jet that killed all 224 people aboard. And Egypt’s minister of tourism said that Cairo has implemented new security measures at Sharm el-Sheikh and other international airports to assure tourists that Egypt is safe in the wake of the crash in late October.

In an interview in Cairo, Minister Hisham Zaazou said that even before an international panel has determined the cause of the crash, Egypt has bolstered security by conducting additional random security checks at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, welcomed foreign transportation officials to monitor security procedures, and added more narcotics and explosives detectors and trained dogs to address concerns about lax security, especially at Sharm el-Sheikh. Such concerns have prompted Russia, Britain and Turkey to cancel flights to the popular Red Sea resort. The U.S. embassy has issued a travel advisory instructing personnel not to travel to the Sinai Peninsula until the cause of the plane crash is determined.

“We’re determined to do whatever it takes to reassure our allies that Egypt is safe,” said Mr. Zaazou in an hour-long interview about security. The Russian Airbus A321 en route to St. Petersburg crashed some 20 minutes after take off.

A local affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the downing of the plane. But Egypt has until now staunchly resisted claims that the crash was caused by a bomb rather than by mechanical failure. President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi and other senior officials have strongly criticized what Minister Zaazou called the “rush to judgment” about the cause of the crash before an Egyptian-led, five-member international panel has issued its opinion.

A senior Russian security official said Tuesday that Russia was now certain a bomb caused the crash, since traces of explosives had been found amid the debris. President Vladimir Putin vowed to intensify Russian air strikes against ISIS in Syria and take other steps to punish the extremist group.

A statement from Egypt’s cabinet said only that Egypt would “take note” of Russia’s view while awaiting the outcome of the five-member investigative panel, which includes Moscow. Such a final verdict, Egyptian officials said, could take a year or more. The government’s statement continues to refer to the crash as the “tragic incident,” avoiding the use of the word “bomb.”

Mr. Zaazou stressed, however, that Egypt has not waited to tighten security at Sharm el-Sheikh and some 14 other airports that handle international passengers.

The crash is the second disaster involving foreign tourists in less than a month. In September, Egyptian planes mistakenly killed eight Mexican tourists in the Western desert, where Egypt has been battling the smuggling of weapons and militant Islamists from neighboring, strife-ridden Libya.

The government’s bungled handling of that episode, initially blaming the incident on the tourists and the Egyptian company escorting them, was widely criticized. When the company claimed it had a permit for the trip, Cairo had to express regret for assaulting the tourists whom it had mistaken for terrorists.

Mr. Zaazou said that Egypt accepted responsibility for the tragic incident, but added that after an internal investigation, he had revoked the tour company’s license, a rare step, he said, which effectively ensures its demise.

The government, he said, was prepared to do “whatever is necessary” to restore confidence in the security of key tourist sites.  While it was impossible to independently verify from Cairo the government’s claims about enhanced security at Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurgada, and other tourist destinations, security was noticeably heightened at Cairo airport Tuesday.

The crash and the Mexican tourist attack, but especially the crash, have devastated Egyptian tourism, a mainstay of the economy afflicted by four years of political instability. Egypt, he said, has already lost almost more than half of the almost 15 million tourists who visited in 2010, a year before Egypt’s long-serving president, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in a revolution and succeeded by a Muslim Brotherhood-led government which, in turn, was ousted a year later by the army by popular demand. General Sisi, who was elected president overwhelmingly in mid-2014, has been struggling to restore political and economic stability while battling Islamist forces in the northern Sinai Peninsula and combating Islamist-related smuggling in his western desert from chaotic Libya.

Mr. Zaazou estimated that Egypt would lose about 6.6 billion Egyptian pounds ($800 million) in tourism revenue in the next three months. “We’ve lost about 70 percent of our base overnight,” he said.

Winter is Egypt’s most popular season, especially at Sharm el-Sheikh which attracts 66% of all tourists, most of them from Russia and Britain, both of which cancelled flights to the resort soon after receiving intelligence that ISIS had downed the plane. In 2014, 3 million Russians visited Egypt, 1.5 million of whom went to Sharm el-Sheikh; 750,000 of Egypt’s 1 million British tourists stayed there.

Tourism is not only one of this nation of 90 million’s largest sources of revenue and hard currency, it also employs 1.5 million Egyptians and indirectly supports as many as four million.

To highlight tourism’s importance to Egypt’s economy, which is still projected to grow at an annual rate of over 4 percent this year, President Sisi and his cabinet met in Sharm el-Sheik Tuesday to discuss requests for emergency tax relief and other assistance from Egyptian businesses in the tourism sector.

The enhanced security outlined by Minister Zaazou was also detailed in a statement circulated by Egypt’s security officials soon after the crash. The statement, in Arabic, asserts that Egypt has ordered a comprehensive security review of screening procedures at airports serving Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurgada, two of the 13 international airports.

Metal detectors for passengers and x-ray machines for luggage have been inspected. More explosives specialists and detection equipment are being added to airport security teams, though the statement does not say how many. Random checks of passengers have increased and Egypt has doubled the number of secret service personnel inside and outside of Sharm, the statement said.

The government is also reviewing security procedures at Egypt Air, the state-owned airliner. More special operations soldiers and members of anti-terrorism units placed on “high alert” and resorts have received “internal and external protection,” though the fact sheet offers no specific details.

But what Egypt has not yet done is officially acknowledge that the crash was caused by terrorism, as Russia, Britain, and the U.S. have now concluded. Some Egyptian officials have even suggested that the U.K. and U.S. might have concocted the bomb plot to help restore the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

“Egypt is in denial,” said an Egyptian journalist who asked not to be identified given the government’s growing repression of skeptical reporters. “But given the importance of tourism to Egypt’s economy, it has been saying one thing and doing another.”