Six a.m. in Cairo, May 19, I woke to the news of another disaster. EgyptAir flight 804 fell out of the sky en route from Paris, France. The world wondered if it was terrorism. Egypt pondered the same, but the cause almost didn’t matter. With many Egyptians I exhaled deeply, sighing in familiar resignation, “Oh no, not again.”
Writing about Egypt these past seven years, I have shed many a tear over local developments. Most have come observing the nation’s self-inflicted wounds, as young men are anointed ‘martyrs’ after near-pointless street clashes. Others have come as once hopeful faces hardened into determined grimace against either the regime or its opponents, if not altogether into despondent passivity.
But that morning there was no time for tears, and one reason was personal. The next morning I would fly with my family the same route to Paris, transferring onward back to America.
For us the inconvenience was a delayed flight, a missed connection, and acute exhaustion after a very long day. But back in the United States I could soak in the green grass, breathe the fresh air of freedom, and lament a polarized political discourse that seems offensive given our comparable blessings.
But in Egypt flight 804 is far more than an inconvenience. It is hard to weep when suffering becomes endemic, when a country steels itself against the inevitable next blow. Tears were a natural response for the families who lost loved ones. The rest of the nation simply feels under siege.
When Metrojet flight 9286 crashed into Sinai in October of last year, Egypt hoped beyond hope that it was not terrorism. As ISIS claimed responsibility and Russia and the UK suspended their flights, many interpreted the hemorrhaging of nearly $250 million per month in lost tourism revenue as a targeted strike at the nation’s economy.
Fortunately, the hijacked EgyptAir flight 181 in March ended safely as the result of a lovestruck looney. But for flight 804 a terrorism component would almost perversely be welcome, though no claim of responsibility has yet been issued. If Paris authorities failed, at least Cairo has the misery of good company. Should EgyptAir equipment or crew prove to be at fault, another mental log gets marked against a would-be pyramids vacation.
Already it is too late. Who wants to come to a nation beset by five years of upheaval? Who wants to invest when governments are shuffled like a used deck of cards? The Egyptian pound devalues as foreign reserves evaporate. The regime desperately attempts to balance between necessary economic reforms and protection of the poor. But all the while prices are rising, and only Gulf largesse buys time in hope that Egypt can get its house in order.
Set aside domestic political reform, for most Egyptians have. A dedicated few strive after the liberal reforms promised early in Tahrir Square, while the Muslim Brotherhood nurses their grudge against the many enemies they feel cheated them from power. The Western press rightfully rails against the human rights failings the government admits are a necessary compromise in search of stability. But the outcome is political stagnation as leaders ask for trust, but without the reserve of transparency on which it can be built.
The resulting gap is filled in with conspiracy, on all sides. The Muslim Brotherhood blamed the regime for the crash and warned more disasters would follow unless Egyptians unite against the alleged coup. Some regime supporters suggested Israeli involvement, and many saw evidence of a Western media campaign against Egypt. No matter what the failing, they say, Egypt is made to be at fault.
Pummeled from the right and left by events not always of their own making, it is hard to determine if conspiracies are spun just to distract the populace or if they are actually believed in full. But for want of a fully developed and accountable democratic political system, someone somewhere is always conspiring behind the scenes. It is just impossible to pin down who.
In the aftermath another familiar cycle begins. Anonymously sourced quotes from foreign or Egyptian figures reveal information or posit interpretation. Egyptian authorities follow behind to deny, that no official findings have been concluded. Perhaps all is true and legitimate in the moment. But the world waits and eventually loses interest; Egyptians simply add to the list of yet unaccountable deaths, stretching back to the first days of the revolution. Still unknown is who killed the protestors.
The difficulty comes in policy recommendations, especially in an atmosphere filled with punditry. Hardheaded analysis is necessary, and God bless the diplomats who must make decisions. The Christian in us wants to help, but how to advise? In the contested arena, sincere critique is taken as interference, for the Arab world has suffered at the hands of our moralizing endeavors. Foreign policy is about national self-interest; they are quite used to our situational application of principle. They are also quite used to seeking someone else to blame.
What does this imply for Egypt and terrorism, Egypt and good governance, Egypt and struggling political economy? Listen to Egypt’s groan, and sigh in return. Each disaster is felt personally, every loss a tragedy. Rather than seek strategic distance, embrace a sympathetic analysis. Mourn with those who mourn. Love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly. Suffer with them, but stay true to principle. Wounds—if from a friend—can be trusted.
Now is the time for comfort and prayer. Unfortunately, it is also the time for transparent investigation. In all her calamities, Egypt alone is ultimately responsible for the latter. The West can encourage, and demand fidelity. But without the former, we are no help at all.
Jayson Casper is a journalist resident in Cairo. Every week he offers Friday Prayers for Egypt, invites all to pray along, and hopes it makes a difference.
Photo Credit: Wing of EgyptAir plane in November 2008. By captain.orange via Flickr.