Egypt: Why Not A Bomb?

On Halloween, a Russian airplane left the southern tip of Sinai, only to suffer a catastrophic failure and be scattered across several square miles of desert.

This is bad news for Russia, whose citizens died.  It is bad news for the airline company, likely to lose business.  It is bad news for Egypt, facing yet another obstacle to its tourism industry.  All three organizations had an incentive to spin it, one way or the other.

There are no good options for Russia.  If accidental, it hinders Russian trust in Russian brands – ever more critical given the ongoing sanctions.  If the result of terrorism, then Russia’s efforts in Syria have extracted a greater cost than Russia was prepared to pay – and Putin’s claims to provide security look hollow.  Putin being Putin, the latter two are probably more critical – first because the black market puts a hard limit on how much pain the sanctions and reverse-sanctions can actually place on most Russian citizens, and second because complaints are already piling up over the dead bodies returning from another Russian adventure (East Ukraine).

Metrojet, of course, needed the answer to NOT be mechanical failure or pilot error.  They said as much, and then proceeded to say it was far too early to make claims about terrorism.  What, precisely, would be the alternative to mechanical failure, pilot error, and terrorism?  Freak weather conditions at 30k feet over a desert?  My own read on this is that Metrojet rejected mechanical failure, but political pressure from Moscow prevented them from also coming out and claiming terrorism.

Egypt, though, would usually be all about advertising the terrorism attack.  Since General Sisi put himself in charge of the government, Egypt has avoided awkward questions about police brutality, political prisoners, and autocratic leanings by pointing out a) the Middle East is dangerous and b) Egypt is one of the few countries with the location, ability, and desire to counter Islamic extremism.  According to this logic of strategic rent, playing up terrorism to get further money, weapons, and political support from the United States should be Egypt’s first priority.

Yet, they initially and strongly resisted the idea that the plane could have been brought down by terrorism.  There are a few explanations for this, all of them interesting.

First, that Russian tourism is worth more than U.S. support – possibly the United States has made it clear that increasing support is not in the cards (see police torture etc.).  If there is nothing further to be squeezed from strategic rent, then the next priority is tourism.

Second, perhaps Sisi believes that Egypt’s domestic situation is far more unstable than it appears, and that a crack in his promise of security would be even more risky for his regime than it would be for Putin’s.  Unfortunately, it is difficult for this (amateur) observer to discern how (un)stable the Egyptian domestic situation might be: Egypt, the U.S. government, and U.S. media companies are all not reporting on the issue.  Egypt of course has no incentive to accurately described the scale of protests and/or crackdowns (though the scale is reportedly quite large).  For its part, United States papered over the ‘not a coup‘ in order to not interrupt aid, and so despite the afore-cited brutal crackdowns little fuss or attention has been spent.

Finally, the observed statements could be the product Russian pressure on Egypt.  Given Russia’s significant problems – sanctions exacerbated by a shrinking population, and a rusting Cold War military that contemporary Russia can not properly replace – it seems unlikely that Russia can muster either the threats or the capital to get Egypt on Putin’s “It wasn’t terrorism” line.

Egypt’s surprising refusal to immediately jump on the threat or terrorism indicates not is as it might seem in Egypt, and I for one will be watching for further clues as to what is going on.

2 comments to Egypt: Why Not A Bomb?

  • Now that time has lent some degree of clarity on this issue, I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on 1) what motivation ISIS would have for taking down a Russian passenger plane (after all, at the time, Russia was mostly bombing rebel targets- not ISIS- in Syria, aiming to prop up Assad’s regime), and 2) what, if any, effect this action wound up having on ISIS, Syria, and the current situation there.

    • It’s not clear how in command the Islamic State is of these foreign attacks. I would guess that their motivation was to strike at Egypt, and Russia was collateral damage borne of the limited number of flights going in and out of Sinai. This case, more than most, is quite opaque. All the involved parties seem happy to sweep the whole matter under a rug, and ISIS isn’t talking much either.

      Since then we have had several more foreign ISIS-driven, or inspired, or claimed attacks. It certainly seems that attacking the far enemy is a non-negligible part of their current strategy. Best guess, they don’t expect a few small attacks to overcome today’s resistance to major foreign expeditions, and they can use those small attacks to generate positive press in their people.

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