A plane fell, will Egyptian tourism?

A plane fell, will Egyptian tourism?
6 min read
09 Nov, 2015
Comment: While Western spies are quick to bolster the Islamic State group's claims it downed the Russian jet, Egypt's investigations are unlikely to be transparent, writes Amr Khalifa.
Conflicting messages on the nature of the accident seem to have political motives [Anadolu]

When tragedy strikes, Egyptians raise the bar on satire. In these times, tragedies have become daily routine in Egypt, and satire is a tool for survival.

Days after the tragic explosion of Russia's Metrojet Airbus A321, a Twitter user named Mosmar joked: "Thank God tourism won't be hit, there is no tourism to begin with."

A planeload of 224 Russian passengers and crew flew out from Sharm El Sheikh, Sinai, on October 31 to St Petersburg. They never made it. What caused that plane to crash in Hasna, 46 miles from El Arish in Northern Sinai, will have a great impact on the near- and medium-term future of the hard-currency-producing tourism industry in Egypt.

Wilayat Sinai, the local Islamic State franchise, which chiefly operates in northern - not southern - Sinai, claimed responsibility mere hours after the devastating explosion. If this proves to be the case, then the attack would be a huge blow to Egypt's counterinsurgency strategy.

Readers will remember that the government stated only a few weeks ago that Northern Sinai was "under full control".

A plane exploded at 31,000 feet, 224 are dead, and Egypt and Russia are leaning strongly towards mechanical or human error while the British, the French and the Americans are strongly leaning towards an act of terrorism.

The eventual impact on Egyptian tourism and ultimately on a flailing Egyptian economy is no less complex than the current diplomatic scene between those four geopolitical players and the investigation itself.

Political messages or transparent investigation?

     It is important to remember both crews investigating the disaster have incentives not to be fully transparent

Before deconstructing the scene further, it is important to remember both crews investigating the disaster have incentives not to be fully transparent with material evidence.

Russia has a horrific track record with the Malaysian airliner investigation, and a strike against its plane could mean it was being punished by IS for its sorties in Syria. Egypt, meanwhile, has every reason to undermine a conclusion of terrorism - as it will cost it billions in potential lost revenue from tourism and further stain its security reputation.

Long before Egyptian air control towers lost contact with Flight 7K9628 at 0620 local time, tourism was in dire straits. With revolution came a long period of unrest which adversely affected the industry. No one was spared: several months before Mohamed Morsi was deposed, the Washington Institute reported Egypt's losses as totalling $2.5 billion in the tourism sector.

Two years later, Egypt was deemed one of the most dangerous spots in the globe due to a surging insurgency. In 2013, the World Economic Forum ranked the country as "one of the world's most dangerous destinations for tourists".

At the get-go, terrorism and security experts focused on the possibility the crash was caused by shoulder-mounted missile systems known as MANPADS, but quickly dismissed the theory since the plane was at 31,000 feet when it exploded - beyond the range of most surface-to-air missiles.

French newspapers, however, just two days later, reintroduced the possibility of terrorism - via a bomb on board. But Egypt and Russia, who remain hesitant on stating terrorism was to blame, were hit harder on Wednesday, when the British cancelled flights and US intelligence mentioned "intercepts and chatter" that indicated terrorism.

That same day, Wilayat Sinai issued an audio recording that insisted on responsibility for the bombing, an unusually assertive "prove it wasn't us" step. True or not, the claim sows fear - and that is precisely their goal.

By Thursday, the language of certainty crept into the conversation.

David Cameron asserted that terrorism was "more likely than not" to blame. With words that, quite likely, made the meeting with his Egyptian counterpart a dissficult affair, Cameron insisted that "because of intelligence and information we have", the possibility of a bomb onboard had increased.

President Obama, in a marked gear change from Washington, also told a radio station: "I think there is a possibility there was a bomb onboard."

In London, Sisi said nothing was clear yet, but that Egypt would cooperate fully with the United Kingdom.

His aviation minister was noncommittal. "The investigation team does not yet have any evidence or data confirming this hypothesis", referring to terrorism claims.

Ambitious and delusional

Long before Egypt opened three tombs in Luxor on Thursday, to shine a positive light on tourism, the nation had been making efforts to raise the industry's sinking ship from a sea of failure.

In a country fond of five-year plans, the tourism ministry set a goal by 2020 of reaching 20 million tourists annually; an ambitious plan is set to kick off in December of this year.

A lofty target number of $26 billion in revenue, by 2020, is dependent on the rise of tourist spending from $23 per night to $100 within that five-year plan. But fresh off an optimistic forecast for a new Suez Canal that failed because it depended on an overly hopeful read of international trade, there is little appetite for a similar pitfall in tourism.

Consider the number of tourists in 2014: only 1.8 million and you understand the doubts.

But Egypt is putting a great deal of faith in a US advertising firm to help boost tourism over the next three years. Cairo is reportedly paying $68 million to J Walter Thompson Co to garner improved results.

     If the gamble pays off, it will have been a risk well worth taking for Sisi

For a country struggling mightily, these numbers are astronomic - but the tourism industry hits two important birds with one stone: hard currency and employment. If the gamble pays off, it will have been a risk well worth taking for Sisi, a president whose popularity, even his supporters admit, is declining.

All the planning, the advertising and the budgeting won't be worth the paper it is written on when domestic and neighbouring instability are considered. Attacks continue in Egypt's Sinai, with at least six dying as a result of an IS-sponsored attack in Arish last week.

Libya remains a militant hotbed, especially in the east, and for a man like Sisi who views political Islamists as potential terrorists, that is an issue. Tunisia has its own Islamist violence issues and was recently attacked twice. To its west Egypt has Yemen, where it is supporting its Saudi ally - and, of course, Syria and Iraq remain in a state of war.

For prospective western tourists, flying into Egypt is more thorn than rose.

Late on Thursday evening, the UK's Telegraph told of "British spies" uncovering a major terrorist attack via intercepted chatter after the crash.

But without hard facts obtained from the investigation that chatter will remain just that: chatter.

Sisi's regime will be investigating the crash in the coming weeks - but they will also be praying it is not terrorism. If it was a bomb, the world will have a stronger than previously thought IS on its hands.

More troublingly for Sisi, his ability to project his ability to fight "terror" would markedly decrease - so would his macho brand in multiple western capitals.

Even though nothing is concrete, it does not look good for Egypt, as Russia jumped on the terrorism bandwagon and also suspended flights to Sharm El Sheikh. Russian President Putin made the announcement himself on Friday afternoon.

If the weeks ahead prove the British, American and French working theory correct, the damage to Egypt's reputation will only be outweighed by the damage to Egypt's tourism industry.

Until then, Egypt would do well to be as transparent as possible. The world is watching.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst and commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.