Its rare that you find me agreeing with the government on security issues. I tend to take the view that much anti-terrorism “security theatre” often has political motivations (such as the current “snoopers charter”). However, that is not to say there aren’t some crazy people out there who mean us harm, as events at the time of writing in Paris show. And that some reasonable and proportional measures are appropriate in defending against such threats.
So, as for the UK government’s decision to ban flights to Sharm el-Sheikh I’m in full agreement. The Egyptian government are not what one could describe as reliable partners. They are for one very much beholden to what I will refer to as “the camel jockey lobby”, a reference to those Egyptians who hang around tourist traps and try to entice punters into taking camel rides (bit like the fella’s selling jaunting cart rides in Killarney through the gap of Dunloe…rip off merchants!). This is by no means the first time Egypt has faced a security threat, and they have a nasty habit of ignoring or denying such threats exist.
Take for example the case of Egypt Air 990. This plane plunged into the Atlantic off the US coast in 2001. The Americans quickly zeroed in on the actions of relief first officer Gameel Al-Batouti. Shortly after the pilot left him alone on the cockpit (to go to the bathroom) the relief pilot was heard (via black box data) turning off the autopilot, disabling various systems, uttering the words “Tawkalt ala Allah” (I rely on God) before plunging the plane into a dive. When the pilot managed to fight his way through to the cockpit, the relief pilot switched off the aircraft’s engines (rendering any attempt to pull out of the dive impossible).
Despite this overwhelming evidence, the Egyptians steadfastly refused to accept the obvious – that their pilot had deliberately crashed his plane. They concocted theory after theory which could explain away the crash on mechanical factors. The NTSB investigated and then dismissed everyone one of them. While the Americans do accept that the aircraft may have broken up prior to hitting the water, this was more than likely because the pilots had exceeded the aircraft’s flight envelope. Indeed, the very damage on the wreckage was, the NTSB claim, consistent with the sort you’d see if both pilots were imputing opposite control actions (i.e. one pilot trying to crash the plane, the other trying to climb out of danger) in a high speed dive.
To this day, the Egyptians classify this crash as “unexplained mechanical failure”. Some Egyptian tabloids even tried to concoct a conspiracy theory implicating Mossad. And this is by no means a one off. In the wake of the Luxor massacre the Egyptians were very slow to react. They blamed Britain for the attacks (it policy of offering asylum to people they’d tortured) and perhaps predictably, even tried to blame an Israeli conspiracy against them.
Indeed even in 2010, when there was a shark attack off Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptians did their best impression of the mayor of Amity, denying any danger….and then blaming the Israeli’s for it (leading to some Israeli bloggers to start posting pictures of sharks wearing Jewish skull caps!).
So with this in mind, you can understand the concerns of the government spooks. They had to accept reports about lax security, put two and two together, while accepting that the Egyptians would be very slow to accept the facts and do anything about it. And when Britain decided to fly people home, the Egyptians got the hump and refused planes permission to land, effectively taking many thousands of tourists hostage for a few days.
Indeed, If you’ve been listening to media reports, you’ll have noticed how they involved the authorities in the West (or Russia) ruling out various mechanical failure possibilities one after the other (engine failure, structural failure, etc.). I suspect that this was because behind the scenes the Egyptians have been concocting theory after theory to try and dance around the more obvious conclusion.
And of course the situation was made worse by the fact it was a Russian plane that was struck. As we all know Putin has been pretending to bomb IS, even though most of their attacks have hit the Free Syrian army. Now even the most pro-Kremlin media source is left with the uncomfortable realisation that all they’ve done is stir up a hornet’s nest and paint a giant target on every Russian in the Middle East. One assumes they are now going to have to actually start bombing IS, meaning they’ll be drawn ever more into a the war in Syria. Even if and when their boy Assad falls from power, they’ll probably still be entangled in Syria.
As for anyone who goes out to places like Egypt or the Middle East as a tourist, I think it has to be accepted that these are not safe countries any more. Yes, you might get a wonderful cheap holiday in the Sun. Yes, its not fair on the people out there, the majority of whom aren’t terrorists. But until Middle eastern states put their house in order, both in terms of dealing with the groups within their borders, but those who sponsor them (read the Saudi’s), these countries will remain unsafe and they have to suffer the economic consequences for that. And the locals need to put pressure on their governments to take appropriate action to deal with these issues and confront the Wahhabists.