Chasm in EgyptAir Inquiry
Crash: Differing views of suicide, technology and government underlie
November 22, 1999
No matter what the investigation into the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990
concludes, the inquiry and publicity surrounding the matter have already
accentuated a deep cultural divide between the United States and the
Arab and Islamic worlds.
At times, it seems that the societies
could not misunderstand each other more if they tried.
For years, Muslims have complained that
Americans are ignorant of Islam and quick to assume the worst about
Muslims and their religion.
In recent years, they cite the examples of
the TWA Flight 800 disaster and the bombing of the federal building in
Oklahoma City. In both cases, absent any evidence, initial public
suspicions focused on Middle East terrorism. They later proved
In the case of Flight 990, Egyptians and
other Muslims have complained vociferously about the significance that
federal investigators and U.S. news reports at first ascribed to a
phrase reportedly heard on the cockpit voice recorder--"Tawakalt
ala Allah," a common saying that means literally, "I depend on
If a Muslim pilot says in Arabic, "I
depend on God," it is the rough equivalent of a Protestant or
Catholic saying "Lord, please help me."
Yet somehow in the translation, the words
took on a more sinister meaning to some Western minds--possibly
indicating that a co-pilot at the controls committed mass-murder
suicide. Early last week, the phrase seemed a factor that might persuade
the National Transportation Safety Board to move toward relinquishing
leadership of the crash investigation and turning it over to the FBI as
a possible criminal matter. Only complaints by the Egyptian government
staved off that step.
In addition, some U.S. media, including
the Los Angeles Times, based on law enforcement or unnamed sources, said
the tape contained the sentence: "I have made my decision" (or
words similar to that in Arabic). That declaration now seems not to have
been heard on the tape at all.
One Egyptian commentator said the crash
aftermath was a near catastrophe for a strategic relationship that is
important for both sides. "A horrible human tragedy was transformed
into a major political crisis," said Cairo University's political
science chairman, Hassan Nafea.
While government relations remain solid,
officials say, the cultural chasm between the two societies is
illustrated by the differing attitudes on each side that have emerged
since the crash:
To most Americans, suicide by the Egyptian
co-pilot would be a tragic but plausible explanation for the crash that
killed 217 people.
But in Egypt, where suicide seems rare and
is seldom acknowledged, it has seemed insulting and cruel to even raise
the possibility. Because of the shame it bestows upon the victim's
family, and by extension upon Egypt itself, many here believe that every
other technical and mechanical factor should be eliminated first.
However, suicides do occur in Egypt at a
rate comparable to those of other countries, said Dr. Josetter Abduallah,
head of the psychology department at the American University in Cairo
and a clinical psychologist, but "it is just not talked about. It
is against the Muslim law. If you talk to anyone on the street, they
will tell you, 'No, we do not have suicide.' "
In fact, there remains a real question
whether the Egyptian public will ever accept a conclusion that the plane
was crashed deliberately in a mass-murder suicide, no matter what the
U.S. investigators conclude. "This hallucination might be accepted
in an American movie. But it is difficult to be convinced of this [being
done by] a mature and sensible Egyptian," noted Said Sonbol of the
Al Akhbar newspaper.
Another divergence is in the attitude
toward technology. Americans generally are more technically minded, and
the U.S. side in the investigation is putting great faith in the flight
data recorder, which has revealed no other immediate factor that could
have caused the crash.
Egyptians, however, typically do not have
the same belief in technology and theorize that the flight recorders
could easily have been manipulated or could have missed something that
would have exonerated the Egyptian pilots.
Mohammed Abdel Moneim, an Egyptian
magazine editor, summed up what he sees as the difference in philosophy:
"The American has learned to conquer
life and put his trust in science and technology, while the Egyptian has
learned [that] time is more powerful than the human being, and we cannot
stand alone, but that it is better to have God by your side."
Egyptians, like many Third World peoples,
tend to believe that governments and regimes conspire constantly and lie
to cover their tracks. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be more
trusting of governmental motives and actions.
In this, Egyptians tend to look at
Americans as hopelessly naive. It is more credible to many Egyptians
that some organized dark force--Israel's Mossad or the CIA--brought down
the flight than that a single individual committed such a horrible
crime. The speed at which the American investigators seemed to be moving
toward a suicide explanation for the crash only heightened the sense
that a cover-up was underway.
A senior Western diplomat said it has
seemed from the beginning that Egypt "wants to put forward
everything but the responsibility of EgyptAir" for the accident.
Emad Din Adib, editor of Al Alam Al Aom
newspaper and a Cairo television host, disagreed. He said he is
convinced that Egyptians could ultimately accept the blame for the
disaster if they believe that the investigation has been fair and
"We are more eager than anybody to
reach the truth. But please take your time and prove it to me," he
said. "Why is it so easy to jump to a conclusion for EgyptAir and
not so easy to tell me what happened to a TWA jet or Swissair after two
or four years? Where is the common sense in that?"
He decried what he saw as haughtiness on
the American side. "They look down on people. It is as if a plane
manufactured by an American company like Boeing cannot possibly have a
mechanical failure. But an Egyptian from the Third World may have
committed a mistake or even a crime."
Nevertheless, Egyptian feelings have been
partly mollified by the decision by the National Transportation Safety
Board to keep jurisdiction and to go over with Egyptian counterparts the
translation and meaning of both flight recorders with more exactness.
Six U.S. investigators with the Federal
Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board
have arrived in Egypt with the government's cooperation, a senior
Western diplomat said Sunday. They were expected to begin looking into
all aspects of the crash, including the backgrounds of passengers, crew
members and anyone who had access to the EgyptAir plane before Flight
Officials for both countries insist that
formal U.S.-Egyptian relations are intact and have not been harmed, but
the diplomatic source said the misunderstandings surrounding the
investigation have strained popular attitudes in Egypt toward the United
Adib, the newspaper editor, complained
that Americans are "very cosmetic" when it comes to judging
the Arab world. He blames what he calls the "American Express"
political tour of the region.
"This is like when American Express
brings in tourists to Cairo for the first time and they visit the
pyramids for one hour, the Egyptian Museum for a half-hour, and so on,
and in this way you are said to know Egypt's history. They do the same
thing with us politically," he said.
But on the other hand, Muslims often
appear distrustful of the West, assuming at some basic level that
Westerners are out to get them, and have been since the Crusades.
In the case of Flight 990, there has been
a flurry of rumors in Egypt that the United States or Israel played an
active role in the plane's destruction. The conspiracy spinning grew so
outrageous that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer took the unusual
step of publicly chastising one prominent editor for "irresponsible
and malicious" anti-American comments.