If a Plane Crashes in the Desert and the Egyptian Press Doesn't Make a Sound, Did It Really Happen?

In the weeks since a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai desert, Egypt's media unleashed a campaign of obfuscation unparalleled since the days of the now-toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak.

by Mohamed Ezz
Nov 11 2015, 1:45pm

Headlines from November 8 read 'Egypt Stands Up to Western Terrorism' / Photo via AP

In the days after a Russian jet smashed into the Sinai desert, media outlets around the world asked the same, urgent questions: Who brought down the plane? Was it terrorism? Could the claim by the Islamic State that it attacked the jet in retaliation for Russian strikes in Syria be believed? But that's not what a casual observer in front of a newsstand in Egypt would see. By looking at just Egyptian media, you could easily miss that the crash even happened.

The day after the crash, the front page of Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest state-owned newspaper, was awash with details of flooding in the coastal city of Alexandria.

And while foreign media focused intensely on getting to the bottom of what exactly happened to the Russian jet, media in Egypt itself, the country with the most at stake, took an entirely different tack. It unleashed a campaign of obfuscation unparalleled since the days of its now-toppled dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

On the same day of the crash, the Islamic State affiliate Wilayat Sinai released an audio message claiming it brought down the Russian plane, killing the 224 people on board.

In the days after the crash, as few details emerged from the Egyptian-led investigation, foreign media scrambled to get reporters to Cairo and Sharm el-Sheikh, where the flight had originated, and to the crash site.

But in Egypt, all major newspapers failed to investigate the incident on their own terms, and only published the remarks of state officials and their press releases. The day of the crash, Al-Ahram merely reprinted the condolences of Egypt's prime minister on its website.

A similar dynamic played out on Egypt's popular news shows. That night, Amr Adeeb, a prominent Egyptian talk show host, praised the government for its reaction on air, and then pivoted to use the incident to highlight Egypt's strong relationship with Russia. "[President] Sisi even called the Russian president, Putin, and pledged full cooperation," Adeeb reassured viewers.

Some privately-owned papers did cover specific aspects of the incident in the following days, if spottily. But those stories tended to suggest that terrorism theories were just wild speculation.

On November 2nd, the widely read Al-Masry Al-Youm ran a story about how the same plane that crashed had had a previous accident that damaged its tail, while landing in Cairo from Beirut.

In the week that followed, a few TV segments touched briefly on the crash. But anchors invariably spoke to government officials who downplayed the possibility that the plane could have been taken down by a bomb — even as the Islamic State continued to insist it was responsible.

On November 5, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister, Mohamed Hossam Kamal, phoned into the widely watched Mostafa Bakry show. Bakry just let the minister talk: "Our security procedure is very tight," he said. "Foreign comments have nothing to do with tourism or aviation, but something else." He didn't' say what that "something else" was.

Then, three days after the crash, the UK halted flights to the resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, after British and American government officials suggested the possibility that the plane had been downed by a bomb on board. A number of European countries and airlines followed suit.

Later that night, even Russia halted all flights to Egypt.

Foreign media went into overdrive speculating that the flight changes all meant that these countries had received intelligence confirming Egypt's greatest fear: that terrorists had indeed done it.

But even this potentially monumental development failed to find its way to the public in Egypt. The next day, Al-Ahram ran on the front page a story about Egyptian-British cooperation in education.

Maydaa Abo El Nadar, a journalist at the small English-language Daily News Egypt, says that the comparably tiny English-speaking news outlets in Egypt have a bit more leeway in their reporting. But even so, they are under intense pressure to toe the government line. "Government officials do not give journalists anything, " she said.

The media blackouts and distorted coverage are a throwback to the Mubarak regime that was toppled in 2011.

On the evening of January 25th, 2011, when protests against the regime were at their most intense, Al-Ahram's front page ran a picture showing citizens giving roses to policemen.

Today, even with dozens of daily papers to choose from and a myriad private channels, many established after the revolution, there's an unofficial media blackout on sensitive events. Even private media owners are afraid to break the official government line, while some even directly coordinate with the government in order to safeguard their business interests in other, more lucrative, areas.

There are also stiff consequences for media that stray from the official line, and the government is particularly sensitive about coverage of the Islamic State.

Over the summer, IS affiliates in Sinai attacked several army checkpoints at once, claiming they had killed dozens of soldiers.

When that filtered into Egyptian outlets, President Sisi sprung into action. He pushed through a new law that levied a 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pound (about $25,000 to $60,000) fine on anyone offering a version of events different from the government's.

Egyptian media seems to have gotten the message. Less than two weeks after the Sinai crash, amid widespread international consensus that a bomb brought down the plane, the local press continues to ignore this possibility entirely. Instead it's now directing Egyptians towards an international conspiracy.

Al Masry Al Youm, for example, published a report on November 6th quoting former officials that blamed the crash on a conspiracy against Egypt designed to undermine Sisi's regime by damaging the nation's tourism sector.

After that, all major newspapers came out repeating the conspiracy theory. The tone of the coverage was defiant: "Egypt Defies the West's Terrorism," proclaimed a headline in the private daily El-Watan.

Many Egyptians without access to other information are buying it. "Our government is not to be blamed," said Ahmed Sami, a 40-year-old accountant, when asked about the crash. Western governments may be responsible for the crash, he said.

That's not surprising in Egypt these days, when conspiracy theories and plots against the nation are a mainstay of domestic media coverage.

Over the past year, the media has been covering a popular conspiracy theory that blames so-called "fifth-generation warfare," whatever that may be, for Egypt's misfortunes.

Major General Hossam Sweilam, the former head of the Armed Forces Center for Strategic Studies, often appears on talk shows to discuss evil plots directed against Egypt by the so-called Supreme Council of the world.

Newspapers regularly trot out Sweilam's theory to explain everything from floods,to bad government decisions -- and even street protests for more freedom.

But even "fifth generation warfare theory" couldn't explain away all the coverage the plane crash was getting around the world. So one week after the crash, the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation finally decided to hold a press conference and respond to mounting media speculation.

After investigators spoke, the microphone was handed to journalists. The very first question was from an Egyptian journalist, who wanted to know about the conspicuous absence of any of the non-Egyptian members of the investigation committee.

The man stood up, pointed to his nose, and shouted: "I smell a conspiracy against Egypt!