Cultural Chasm in EgyptAir Inquiry

Crash: Differing views of suicide, technology and government underlie Muslims' reactions.
November 22, 1999

By JOHN DANISZEWSKI, Times Staff Writer

     CAIRO -- 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 unfounded.
     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 God."
     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 thorough.
     "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 990 crashed.
     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 States.
     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.