Egyptians smell cover-up in suicide theory of air crash

National pride at stake, people ask for patience, offer own suspicions

November 21, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO, Egypt -- Even if U.S. investigators come up with proof that a suicidal pilot deliberately plunged EgyptAir Flight 990 into the Atlantic on Oct. 31, it's hard to imagine they would ever convince the Egyptian people.

Prodded by an outraged press, Egyptians of all walks of life are ready to believe that the crash resulted from a foreign conspiracy, a bomb or a technical failure -- almost anything but a murder-suicide by relief pilot Gameel el-Batouty.

The attitude was summed up Friday by a cartoon in the semiofficial newspaper Al Ahram with the caption: "I could believe the plane was hit by a minibus -- but I don't believe what America is saying."

Egyptian disbelief could turn into lingering anger at the United States if investigators' early suspicions about the cause of the crash prove wrong.

James E. Hall, the National Transportation Safety Board's chairman, said Friday that the crash might have been deliberate. At the same time, however, U.S. officials acknowledged that they had been mistaken about a potentially key piece of evidence that buttressed the murder-suicide theory. Earlier, they had quoted Batouty as saying, "I have made my decision now." On Friday, they said that quote could not be found on the cockpit voice recorder tape.

While U.S. and Egyptian investigators try to glean the correct interpretation of the cockpit voice recorder, investigators are searching for aircraft wreckage.

"Let us not blow up the Batouty issue, because he is not the only issue," the Egyptian government's chief spokesman, Nabil Osman, said yesterday. Last week, Egypt headed off an effort in Washington to put the FBI in charge of the inquiry. "Obvious, clear facts have to be on the table" before the crash is turned into a criminal investigation led by the FBI, Osman said.

Many theories

In Batouty's upper-class neighborhood of Heliopolis, middle-age men gathered Friday after prayers at the Al Tahrir Mosque to share conspiracy theories, including the suspicion that a bomb was planted by someone who left the plane after the first leg of the flight, or that a "black box" flight recorder was tampered with.

Tamar Abdel-Aziz, 61, an electrical engineer, said the truth would reflect badly on U.S. airport security or on Boeing Co., which manufactured the 767 jumbo jet.

"If he wanted to commit suicide, why would he take all those people with him?" asked Mahmoud Ibrahim, 59, a mechanical engineer.

Such conversations seemed common last week across this vast, pollution-choked metropolis, reflecting a population riveted to every turn of the fevered speculation in the Egyptian news media after the crash.

In the teeming, much poorer El Sayda Zeinab neighborhood, a group of men huddled over tea around a tiny metal table in an alley yesterday, ignoring the flies from a nearby butcher shop.

"Batouty was one of our best pilots in EgyptAir," said butcher Adel Abdul Ali, 40, who said he suspected that a "hidden hand" was behind the crash. "He was a fighter. I don't think he would kill himself. He was a very holy man."

Azet Muhammad Moustafa, 68, a retired waiter, tore up a sheet of paper and let the pieces fall on the broken pavement to show how a plane would drop if its engine suddenly stopped. Someone, he said, wanted to kill 33 Egyptian military personnel who were aboard the flight returning from a training mission in the United States.

The same theory was repeated by Amr Soliman, manager of a hotel branch of the Commercial International Bank.

"We think another country had something to do with this accident," said computer science student Mohammed Hamed, 19, as he stood on a Cairo street corner with his brother Amr and other companions. Asked who, he mentioned Israel's Mossad spy service, a favorite target among Egyptians with conspiracy theories about the crash.

Defending Eqypt's pride

The furor has struck at national pride, prompting Egyptians to leap to the defense of their national air carrier.

"Before, if you talked to people about EgyptAir, they could joke," says Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at American University here. In a play on the airline's name in Arabic, Misr, people used to refer to it as "Miserable Air."

"But on this occasion, I've heard Egyptians come to the defense of EgyptAir," said Kazziha.

Belief that American investigators are covering up wrongdoing or want to shift the blame overseas has been stoked by the Egyptian press, which has depicted leaks about the inquiry to the U.S. news media as an affront to this proud nation.

Writing in the semiofficial newspaper Al Akhbar, Galal Dowedar accused the U.S. and British news media of putting out a "corrupt" and "baseless" story at the instigation of the National Transportation Safety Board or "U.S. security." A military correspondent for the opposition publication Wafd asked, "What is America hiding?" and added: "There is nobody in Egypt or the rest of the world who doesn't suspect American intentions in this case."

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