Opinion writers, more so than their hard news brethren, have a running conversation with the reader. Ideally, that monologue is, paradoxically, a dialogue in the writer’s mind, with the goal being to clarify a muddy picture for the reader. Objectivity, is not a goal per se for anyone. So you look, you feel, you analyse, you read, you listen and discover the inner workings of your subject matter in an effort to relay the good, the bad, and the ugly—or in Egypt’s case the very ugly, the state potentially imploding. But what is ideal and what reality presents us with on a daily basis, when covering the Egyptian paradigm, are two vastly different images. Time and time again the governing gang in Egypt makes it Mission Impossible, even for Tom Cruise, to cover major news stories positively.
To read of Egypt and to write about her, for the past 64 months, has often been a highly masochistic travaille, particularly if you are of Egyptian persuasion. But as has been the case with remarkable consistency, this week’s events would require a magician, not an analyst, to put a positive spin on them. Mind you, the task at hand is to render the facts comprehensible, not pliable, with the truth your sole partner on the trip.
It was a trip, a monumentally disastrous one for EgyptAir flight MS804, which began a highly sombre week. Somewhere, approximately 290 km north of Alexandria, lies the fuselage of the aforementioned plane, with it 66 souls and, quite possibly, the dreams of a more invigorated Egyptian tourism industry. While there is no questioning the tragic human toll of the crashed plane, Cairo bound from Paris, at stake was much so more. Not only could Egypt not withstand another major terror attack, should investigations prove that to be the case, but the very integrity of the current regime is on the line. Why such high stakes? You need only look as far as the summer and autumn of 2015 to assemble the pieces of an ugly puzzle.
A self-inflicted wound by Egyptian security forces cost 8 Mexican tourists their lives in mid-September 2015, as they sought to discover the visceral beauty of the Western Desert. It was a grotesque mistake but one the Egyptian army deflected to the Interior Ministry. In an embarrassing display of lack of transparency and of arrogance by the authorities who failed to apologise for the incident nor investigate sufficiently. Instead, the world was met by two salient images. Visually, the Mexican foreign minister Claudia Massieu shooting visual darts at her Egyptian counterpart. While verbally, an Egyptian general declared: ‘’this incident has nothing to do with the army…this is the system of the country and you don’t have the right to question it’’. This mindset is precisely why Egypt continues to dig its own grave and it comes from the very top. After all, quite recently, it was the Egyptian president who uttered, the now infamous words, ‘’listen only to me’’.
Only weeks after the Mexican disaster did the tragedy of the Russian plane follow. Two hundred and twenty-four people perished, Egyptian tourism was decimated and quite likely so by an explosives laden soda can claimed Islamic State (IS). But while intelligence agencies, one after the other, lined up to say this was a clear case of terrorism Egyptian reputation was not pulverized by merely the crime but by stalling, lack of transparency, and double speak. Only when Al-Sisi, during a speech, months later, acknowledged it was terrorism did Egypt come clean. Yet even now, nearly 6 months later, there is no official report that admits terrorism in the Metrojet crash.
With those two, recent, black eyes it was only natural that the eyes of terrorism and security analysts would turn to the government to see how it would handle the fallout and the investigation of flight MS804. In an environment replete with repression and information suppression, just this week a French journalist was denied re-entry into Egypt, one can be anything but hopeful regarding the timely dissemination of information about the, week old, tragedy. Nonetheless, in the hours that followed the crash there were mixed results. On the one hand, EgyptAir, itself, did yeoman’s work in outlining all available info hour by hour but, simultaneously, Egyptian state TV had a singer wailing away, instead, as the disaster broke all across the globe. Since then, there have been some contradictory statements from official Egyptian aviation sources in contrast to Greek and French reports which said the pilot spoke to the Egyptian tower and that the descent of the plane was highly irregular. At this point, the jury is still out on how this particular disaster will be handled.
Just 6 days after this blow came a, no less important, strike to the Egyptian body politic. The story, and as with all stories there are variations, as told by Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), centers on an elderly woman from a small village in the southern governate of Minya who was stripped nude, and beaten by a mob of 300 individuals. At its outset, the issue exploded in the, hyper conservative, village of Abou Kourkas when a relationship, rumoured or true depending on whom you ask, arose between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, both married. As these reports circulated on Friday the mob proceeded to burn the home of the Christian male, who had earlier escaped, and committed, according to multiple reports, the atrocious crime of beating, stripping naked and marching the 60+ year old man’s mother through the village. In addition, the property damage by the armed mob of 300 to seven Copt homes was estimated to be in excess of EGP 350,000, all while local authorities did nothing to impede the building unrest.
Speak to human rights activists, ask Egyptian Christians within and without Egypt and the response is the same: anger but zero surprise. While the Egyptian foreign minister and his boss bellow that the Minya incident does ‘’not reflect the Egyptian people’’, all minorities and particularly Egyptian Copts have been on the receiving end of similar injustices for years. Moreover, as with this case, the government often stands by and watches. Even though Sisi, 5 days later, ordered ‘’all necessary actions be taken by the appropriate parties’’ it certainly begs the question where were Egyptian police and fireman as the woman was assaulted and humiliated and seven homes burned?
Whether it is the Coptic Cathedral under assault during Muslim Brotherhood rule, the murder of Coptic demonstrators during Supreme Council of Armed Forced (SCAF) leadership or the systematic sectarianism that plagued the Mubarak period Copts have been on the short end of the power divide in Egypt. In all these cases the governmental response has been to pay lip service but little else. Christians, who have supported Al-Sisi in great numbers, must be asking themselves when will things change?
Whether it is next week, next month, or next year, at some point statistical analysis says there must be a positive news story out of Cairo. Till that time Mission Impossible will remain the headline.
Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian journalist/analyst published in the New Arab, Ahram Online, Mada masr, Tahrir Institute and Muftah. You can follow him on Twitter @Cairo67Unedited