Thursday, May 19, 2016

EgyptAir: More pain for Egypt, more embarrassment for government

Karim Traboulsi


Analysis: What will be the implications of the crash of EgyptAir flight MS804 for the country's economy, reputation and the credibility of its regime?
With the reported crash of EgyptAir flight MS804 off the Greek coast, with the presumed death of of all 66 on board, the embattled nation should expect more difficulties for its aviation industry and tourism sector, as well as its reputation and political credibility, including that of its authoritarian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, analysts have remarked.

This the third high-profile aviation incident related to Egypt since a Russian airliner blew up over Sinai in October 2015; Russia and Western governments have said the plane was probably brought down by a bomb, and the Islamic State militant group claimed it had smuggled an explosive device hidden in a soft drinks can on board.

And it is the second involving EgyptAir, since the hijacking of an internal flight which was forced to land in Cyprus in March. That EgyptAir plane was flying from Alexandria to Cairo, before a man - with what authorities said was a fake suicide belt - forced the pilot to make a detour.

Thursday's crash could have been caused by a terrorist act, according to suggestions from French and Egyptian officials and independent experts.

But whether or not it is found to be the cause of Thursday morning's crash, EgyptAir, the state-owned national carrier, will face further scrutiny over its safety record.

In November, Russia barred the airline from flying into its airports.
EgyptAir, the state-owned national carrier, will face further scrutiny over its safety record
Since these incidents, there have been reports the carrier's passenger numbers were tanking, with flights often taking off at less than 50 percent capacity, with inevitable implications for its profitability. Thursday's doomed plane had a capacity of 150, but had only 66 passengers on board, including crew and security officers.

Reports of chaos at Cairo airport following the crash underscored the country's lack of preparedness to deal with disasters, even after these series of incidents. Dozens of flights were cancelled, as conflicting statements were made by officials.

Families of the victims, at least 30 of whom were Egyptian nationals, gathered at the airport awaiting clarification over the fate of their relatives.

At least 15 were French, alongside two Iraqi victims and one Briton, though embassy officials have yet to confirm this.

EgyptAir has since urged the media not to publish any information that had not been confirmed by Egyptian authorities.
Families of the victims, at least 30 of whom were Egyptian nationals, gathered at the airport awaiting clarifications about the fate of their relatives
In broader terms, the tragic crash cannot be good news for the country's collapsing tourism sector, which is disproportionately sensitive to any negative publicity.
Egypt is a popular destination for Western tourists, but the industry has been badly hit since unrest riled the country in 2011, made worse by a military coup in 2013 led by current President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

A group of eight Mexican tourists and four Egyptians were mistakenly killed by security forces in September 2015 when they came under fire during a lunch break in Egypt's vast Western Desert while on their way to the Bahariya oasis. The Sisi administration was widely accused of mishandling the incident.

Tourism, a cornerstone of the Egyptian economy, slumped further following the downing of a Russian jet last year, amid an Islamist insurgency and a string of bomb attacks in the country.
Commensurate with this, there will be further economic pain for Egypt. On Thursday morning, Egypt's stock exchange opened to a four-billion Egyptian pound ($450m) loss in early trading, as news of the crash spread.
On Thursday morning, Egypt's stock exchange opened to a 4-billion Egyptian pound loss in early trading, as news of the crash spread
Politically, the credibility of the country's powerful president Sisi and his government could take another hit, should the crisis be mishandled like previous ones, from the Russian plane crash to the case of murdered Italian studentGiulio Regeni.

Sisi headed a meeting of the National Security Council following the crash, and contacted the French president to coordinate investigations.

"The meeting focused on protecting the regime and avoiding further embarrassment and incidents amid the current popular anger and deterioration at all levels in the country," an Egyptian military source told The New Arabon condition of anonymity.

Following the two-hour meeting, a statement was issued saying the army had been tasked with coordinating search and rescue operations with Greece and France. Assistance will also be offered to the families of the victims.

However, conflicting announcements by Egyptian officials over the cause of the crash, and whether or not a distress call had been made by the plane before it disappeared suddenly from the radar, raise concerns over the government's transparency with this and previous incidents.
If the Egyptian government focuses on warding off responsibility to insulate itself from domestic public opinion, rather than on investigating the facts of the matter, it will only serve to worsen its reputation in the eyes of its international partners, with major implications for the country's economy, finances and stability.

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