EgyptAir crash fuels fears and theories

Relatives of EgyptAir flight MS804 passengers at Cairo airport (19/05/16) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Passengers' families have little concrete information about the aircraft's final moments

On EgyptAir flights arriving in Cairo since flight MS804 disappeared from radar screens over the Eastern Mediterranean, one finds a mix of attitudes.

On mine, some were fatalistic, others nervously pragmatic - one passenger told me he could not afford to change expensive, long-laid travel plans, however grim the news. Some were more openly apprehensive.

Egypt sees itself as a regional power in the front line of a war against global jihadism and its strong-man President, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, portrays himself as the hammer of political Islamism at home.

Privately many Egyptians appear to worry that might make their country an obvious target for jihadists - the fear being that a long-bubbling Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula might escalate elsewhere in Egypt.

You do not find those fears reflected in the mainstream media, which sees its role in Mr Sisi's Egypt as cheerleading for the state where possible and downplaying criticism when necessary.

But the fears are nonetheless real - most Egyptians firmly support the idea that their country should be a strong regional power but there is a genuine anxiety about the price tag such a role might ultimately carry.

Agonising wait

For the relatives of the missing gathered at a Cairo hotel, the absence of concrete information must be almost unendurable.

They now face a very personal and agonising search for answers that cannot really begin until the search for the bulk of the missing wreckage yields results.

Image copyright AP
Image caption An intensive search operation is under way in the Mediterranean

The Egyptian air force has now reported finding debris in the Mediterranean somewhere between 125 miles (200km) and 185 miles north of Alexandria.

That is a start, but the task of recovery remains immense - this is a search not just for evidence of what caused the crash but for the bodies of those who died in it.

The performance of Egypt's armed forces and intelligence agencies will be closely scrutinised.

If the loss of flight MS804 turns out to be the result of a terrorist attack, as most Egyptians now assume, it will raise further questions about the quality of security surrounding EgyptAir operations.

A competent and efficient process that quickly identifies who did it and how, may go some way towards restoring that reputational damage.

Heightened speculation

Alongside the mood of national mourning and a feeling that the grief of the passengers' families is widely shared here, there is also a sense that Egypt is once again the subject of hostile foreign scrutiny and part of the reaction in the media reflects a deeply felt resentment at any criticism.

That has been reflected in part on social media where the Arabic hashtag "I will only fly EgyptAir" was created in the hours after the plane was reported missing.

The defensive tone was also taken up by a television presenter who appeared on screen dressed in an EgyptAir pilot's uniform to decry criticism of the airline.

He was careful to add, though, that he did not want to imply such criticism amounted to a "conspiracy".

Conspiracy theories abound at moments of crisis in Egypt and they are particularly likely to flourish when there is a lag between speculation and concrete official information.

No event creates those circumstances more starkly than the loss of an aircraft at sea, when there is a lag between the sort of speculation and interpretation which floods the internet and the dearth of hard, official information.

There are now signs that the first evidence is being recovered but everything depends on finding the aircraft's black-box flight recorders which should include the details of its final, fatal moments.

Nowhere is that evidence awaited more keenly than here in Egypt. There is sensitivity to outside criticism here but that is is vastly outweighed by a shared sense of shock and grief.

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