Commentary

Destruction of Russian Jet in Egypt Worries Neighbors

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The downing of a Russian jet in a suspected terrorist attack over the Sinai Peninsula has led to the evacuation of thousands of Russian tourists from Egypt, which in recent years has been the main lifeblood of the local economy. More importantly, the specter of terrorism has sent shockwaves across the region, with many fearing further destabilizing attacks. Some have also wondered about what Russia’s next steps will be, especially with regards to its military campaign in Syria, which some have suggested might be the reason why the plane was targeted.

Al Ahram’s Sherif Tarek picks up on the economic ramifications of the tragedy, highlighting the importance of tourism for Egypt’s economy: “Russians are the largest single tourist group in Egypt, making up about a fifth of foreign vacationers in the country over the past four years, as well as 60 percent of tourists to the Red Sea, according to official data....Workers in Sharm understandably fear for their livelihoods, which are highly contingent on tourists' turnout. Many think the past week suggests the scarcity of foreigners in the city will last longer than any of the previous crunches Sharm has faced over the past year....The ailing tourism sector is one of Egypt's main sources of foreign currency, of which the country is in dire need to buy basic foodstuffs and fulfil its international obligations.”

In another recent editorial, The National’s editorial staff urge the Egyptian authorities to restore trust and safety to ensure the tourism industry does not suffer irreparable harm: “With Russia’s incursion into the Syrian conflict and Egypt’s reliance on tourism to bring in foreign currency, it would not be surprising for a terror group to deliberately target a Russian aircraft full of tourists. As Egypt has seen before through terror attacks at its tourist sites – most recently in a thwarted strike at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor in June – targeting the tourism industry is designed to weaken the Egyptian state as a whole....Egyptian tourism recovered from the massacre in 1997 in which 62 people, mostly tourists, were slaughtered at Hatshepsut’s Temple near Luxor. It will recover from this incident too, but only if it can assure visitors they can visit the country in safety.”

But, as Jordan Times’ Osama Al Sharif reminds us, the destruction of a plane carrying Russian tourists is about more than just Egypt’s economy: “A security breach of this sort, if proven, will have catastrophic results for Egypt....Already Britain suspended charter flights to the Egyptian resort....The repercussions for Egypt will be tremendous, both economically and politically. President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has been fighting Islamist jihadists in northern Sinai for more than a year now. But in spite of launching one of the biggest military operations in Sinai since the 1973 Arab-Israel war, the Egyptian army is yet to deliver on its promise to defeat the militants….But then there is the bigger picture. A terror act that brought down a civilian plane is a first for Daesh and its affiliates. It widens the scope of the menace that this organization poses to the region and to the world....This is something that should draw attention to the chaos in Libya, where Daesh is in control of Sirte and other strategic areas, and to the fact that no country or coalition has managed to defeat this extremist group until now.”

In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed makes a similar argument, cautioning that “The verbal campaign undertaken by the authorities and the media in Egypt against the western governments, in response to the precautionary measures taken by them such as stopping tourist flights and bringing back their citizens from Sharm el-Sheikh will not change their decisions and will weaken the main argument in dealing with the Russian plane crash crisis….Looking at the bigger picture of the Russian plane crash crisis, if the supposed terrorist act is true, then the entire MENA region is continuously at threat and terrorist organizations are deliberately targeting foreign interests, the main forms of transport and tourist resorts in order to hit Arab governments in the pocket and to destroy their images which would lead to chaos and eventually the overthrowing of regimes.”

Iranian news agencies, on the other hand, seem determined to use score political points against Western countries, urging them to work closer with Russia rather than at cross-purposes with it: “Perhaps the US and British officials don’t want to arouse sympathy for the Russians. Perhaps, Russia is The Enemy, considered even worse than the jihadists, and they want to stop President Vladimir Putin from extending Russian influence into the region. But that’s not the point here. The point is that Western governments can no longer dismiss the commonality of global security interests that exists among nations when it comes to intercepting terrorism threats….Under the circumstances, the US and British officials should take note: Those who can smuggle a bomb onto a plane bound for St Petersburg, can also smuggle bombs onto planes bound for other European and American destinations. They should hold their heads in shame as they refused to share intelligence about the crash – even with Egyptian authorities. They shouldn’t expect Moscow to exchange any intelligence with them once the threat is aimed at Europe or the US - particularly seeing that they 'expect something catastrophic very soon.'”

Meanwhile, Russian observers, including Moscow Times’ Natalia Antonova, have expressed concerns about the quality of Russian air safety, urging for immediate changes in the aftermath of the tragedy: “If there is one genuinely discordant note about these proceedings it is the typical Russian fatalism that creeps up at times like these. Among the outpouring of sympathy and grief, very few questions are being asked as to how such a disaster can be prevented in the future….Still, all statistical data points to the fact that Russian air safety can and must be improved — legislation needs updating, more public oversight is required, pilot training should be prioritized, and so on, and so forth.... The victims of this terrible tragedy deserve more than just sympathy and mourning. They deserve to become catalysts for real, tangible change.”

Yury Barmin, also writing for the Russian daily Moscow Times, sees the airplane bombing as a turning point for Russia’s involvement in Syria, with Putin more likely than not willing to double down on his Russia strategy: “The tragic crash of the Russian airliner over Egypt put the Kremlin in an awkward position. Moscow first downplayed the possibility of a terrorist attack, then suddenly decided to suspend flights from Egypt. This confusing official response suggested that, for the first time since he launched a military campaign in Syria at the end of September, Putin is unsure of how to proceed….In similar fashion, now that Russia's aerial campaign in Syria seems to be changing little on the ground, an act of terrorism in Sinai could be the impetus for Moscow to further boost its contingent at the military base at Latakia. Putin may now feel less constrained by the need to finish the Syria campaign quickly. Initially, the Russian government said that air strikes may continue for up to a year, but now the Russian air force may be allowed to stay in Syria longer — for as long as it takes to avenge the innocent lives lost in Egypt.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.