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Egyptair crash blindsides a nation that thought it was recovering

CAIRO >> Egypt seemed poised for a modest comeback. After years of cascading crises that had devastated the lifeblood of its economy, tourism, there were signs of a turnaround.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia told his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, that he might soon resume Russian flights to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which had been suspended after a passenger plane was blown out of the sky more than six months ago.

Then the U.N. World Tourism Organization chose Luxor, home to the famed Valley of the Kings archaeological site, as its world tourism capital for 2016.

But Thursday, Egypt found itself in a dark, if familiar, place when an EgyptAir passenger jet disappeared from radar and crashed into the Mediterranean with 66 people on board.

For years now, Egyptians have barely had a chance to recover from one crisis before being hit by another: a damaged economy, a diminished currency, a repressive president and a dangerous insurgency waged by a franchise of the Islamic State.

This latest setback was such a shock to the nation that Egypt’s leaders abandoned their typical approach to crisis management: obfuscation. Instead, they offered what appeared to be a candid assessment, acknowledging that the disaster might well have been a result of terrorism. And that was even before there was hard evidence of terrorism.

Although visibly strained, Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Sherif Fathi, admitted that some Egyptian officials had made errors in dealing with the loss of the plane, EgyptAir Flight 804, and conceded that it might be linked to Islamist militants.

The possibility of a terrorist attack, he said, was “higher than the possibility” of a technical failure.

“The initial response has been different this time,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. “We haven’t seen the kind of obfuscation that was typical of Egypt before.”

Fathi’s rapid acknowledgment of a possible terrorist link contrasted sharply with the Egyptian response to the downing of a Russian charter flight over the Sinai Peninsula in October, when the government repeatedly denied any connection to militancy, only to reverse its position months later.

That about-face was typical of Egyptian official reactions that have often looked like defensive crouches, and that have quietly infuriated some allies and led them to question Egypt’s ability to carry out transparent investigations.

It is a pattern that has pitted el-Sissi against some of his closest Western allies. His government has publicly clashed with Italy over the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student whose bloodied body was discovered on a Cairo roadside in February. Egyptian officials have largely disregarded Italian anger over the killing, and persistent accusations that Egypt’s security forces were responsible.

Instead, Egypt has offered what are widely considered implausible accounts of how Regeni was killed.

Egypt also tried to shift blame for the deaths of eight Mexican tourists in an Egyptian military air attack in September. After months of Egyptian inaction over the killings in the country’s western desert, apparently the result of a mistake, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement this month accusing Egypt of failing to investigate the episode properly and of not sufficiently compensating the families of the dead tourists.

As Egypt’s tourism industry has cratered this year — tourist numbers are down more than 40 percent — its economy has suffered a painful retraction.

Now, even small gains are likely to be washed away. On Thursday, Russian security officials were among the first to suggest publicly, without citing any proof, that Islamist terrorism was behind the crash. British officials, who have been working with Egypt to improve security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, said it was unlikely that they would reverse their flight ban anytime soon.

Another drop in tourist numbers is likely to further weaken the Egyptian currency. This, in turn, would increase inflation and put new pressure on el-Sissi, who has responded to criticism with an iron fist this year, silencing critics and street protests through mass arrests and convictions.

Last weekend, 152 people, mostly in their 20s, were sentenced to two to five years in prison for participating in street protests against the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. The furor over the islands appeared to rattle el-Sissi, catching him by surprise, and dealt another blow to his sagging popularity.

Still, analysts say, the EgyptAir crash could also give el-Sissi’s government a chance to capitalize on international sympathy — provided it does not engage in the sort of defensive behavior that has alienated allies in the past. As the search for wreckage continued Thursday evening, el-Sissi’s office issued a stream of statements describing calls of sympathy he had received from the leaders of Italy, Saudi Arabia and France.

Hanna, the analyst, said there could be a more cynical explanation for the seemingly more candid approach of Egyptian officials: that they see an opportunity to blame another country, France, for the security lapses that led to the disaster. On social media on Thursday, some Egyptians, anticipating a terrorist link, called for Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport to be shut down on security grounds, much as Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport was in the fall.

Blaming France, though, could alienate one of Egypt’s diminishing number of European friends. The French president, François Hollande, visited Egypt last month to sign a $1 billion weapons contract and a slew of other investment deals with el-Sissi.

Paradoxically, the proliferation of challenges facing Egypt may cause Western countries to strengthen their support for el-Sissi, despite his harsh policies, Hanna said.

“It solidifies the status quo,” he said. “Because the country faces serious security threats with the potential to spill over into the rest of the world, other countries are loath to make a drastic change and to focus on things like human rights, politics and other freedoms.”

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