To the National Transportation Safety Board, the 1999 crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 appears pretty cut and dried. On Oct. 31 that year, according to the NTSB's final report filed March 21, copilot and first officer Gamil Al-Batouti intentionally plunged a Boeing 767 into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., killing all 217 people on board.
Here in Egypt, however, the NTSB's take on the tragedy is anything but conclusive. Official sources, such as the Egyptian government, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority and government-owned EgyptAir instead blame the crash on a mechanical malfunction. Several of the country's largest papers go much further, floating the idea that "the Israeli Mossad" was behind the attacks, infiltrating air-traffic control towers and somehow having the plane shot down.
Post-9/11, Americans have learned of the United States' credibility gap on the storied "Arab street." That is certainly true in Egypt, where the credibility problem has reached a boiling point in recent days. In the past week alone, protesters have taken to the streets, furious at Israel's response to Palestinian terrorism and what it views as the United States' uncritical support of Israel. And on Tuesday, Egypt -- which in 1979 became the first Arab country ever to enter a peace agreement with Israel, a plan largely brokered by then-President Jimmy Carter -- announced it would suspend diplomatic relations with Israel.
The most populous Arab country and one of the United States' most cherished allies in the Arab world seems more estranged than ever. As recently as early March, while visiting President Bush, President Hosni Mubarak claimed to "fully agree" with American values such as freedom and integrity -- and not without some reason: Egypt receives nearly $3 billion in U.S. aid every year. But while U.S. officials have spurred Egypt to work as the mediator between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Egypt's role in the Middle East conflict is often to fuel the fire in the region rather than quell it.
That role is nowhere more apparent than in Egypt's eight daily newspapers. It's not a free press; it operates largely under government control, and government restrictions hinder other competing newspapers from starting. And it feeds its reading public a steady stream of the sort of bias that has taken root in the Arab world and may be the biggest obstacle to any lasting peace.
The newspapers aren't always filled with anti-American and anti-Israel conspiracies. Some coverage of the Flight 990 fiasco, for example, while defensive, at least tried to argue with facts.
In its final report, the NTSB never uses the word "suicide," but the NTSB does use phrases like "as a result of the relief first officer's flight control inputs" and "manipulation of controls," clearly implicating the copilot, Al-Batouti. It's not a surprising claim; media reports have used transcripts of the plane's flight data recorder, or "black box," to point the finger at Al-Batouti, who said the phrase "tawalkat ala Allah" ("I rely on God") at least 10 times in the flight's final minute and a half, words interpreted by the NTSB -- and an American audience -- to be those of a man with the darkest intentions.
But Yehia Al-Agati, the owner and chairman of National Aviation, a private charter, cargo and air taxi carrier, was quoted in the March 7, 2002, issue of the independent English weekly Cairo Times, saying, "A missing tail section could cause the plane to nose dive." Al-Agati went on to attack the conclusions of the NTSB, adding that the Arabic phrase repeated over and over by Al-Batouti, "I rely on God," was not something a man would say before committing suicide.
And in the Nov. 23, 1999, issue of Al-Ahram, arguably the most popular of Egypt's Arabic dailies, and one of four officially owned by the government, Salaah Muntaser writes how the translation of the phrase "tawalkatala Allah" was incorrectly translated by some as meaning "I made my decision now. I put my faith in God's hands." He states that it is a common phrase used in everyday conversations, rather than words used specifically before one decides to take his own life.
In another article in the same paper, Nabil Fahmi, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, reiterated this idea, saying that one of the main problems in the NTSB investigation has been "errors in translating [the black box]."
Despite these entirely reasonable arguments, many other Egyptian news sources have offered much more elaborate explanations for the plane's crash that belie a clear agenda.
According to a front-page Al-Ahram article, in the same issue, "the Egyptian man on the streets" thinks that the true culprit behind the crash was "the Israeli Mossad."
Another article in the same paper cites Amin Hammad, an Egyptian Parliament member from Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), as repeating this claim, adding details of his own to the claim. "The Israeli Mossad infiltrated the American control tower and shifted the airplane from its course so that it would be hit [by a missile]."
In the same article, Omar Barakat, another Parliament member, representing the opposition Al-Wafd party, was quoted as saying, "There was an American-Zionist conspiracy. I blame the CIA and the Mossad, because 33 Egyptian officers were on board the airplane."
The peculiar fact that there were 33 Egyptian army officers on board the flight has been used as the concrete foundation that the crash was part of a conspiracy. But the arguments supporting such a conspiracy, while reported seriously, all lack evidence.
In the November 25, 1999, issue of the English-written Al-Ahram weekly, also owned by the government, Hammad is quoted as saying, "The plane was deliberately obliged by Kennedy airport traffic control to take an air route that is different from the usual course. [This is] because the traffic control is operated by Jews who deliberately pushed the plane to take a different course."
Numerous other Egyptian dailies reported this same conspiracy, each adding various twists. In an article published on November 12, 1999, in the weekly government-owned magazine Akher Saah, Ibrahim Qaud reported that the Jewish lobby "which controls the American media" was responsible for the negative reaction of the American media toward Egypt in regard to the EgyptAir crash.
Another government-owned weekly magazine, Al-Musawar, cited a senior EgyptAir pilot who criticized the American investigative team, claiming it relied on Jewish translators of the flight recorder.
But while the EgyptAir crash provides an example of how the Egyptian news promulgates conspiracies, it's hardly the only one. As has been reported elsewhere already, many Egyptians have also claimed that the Mossad was the true culprit behind the Sept. 11 bombings.
In the Nov. 5, 2001, issue of the Egyptian weekly newspaper Al-Usbua, an article titled "True Perpetrators of the Sept. 11 Attacks Arrested -- Zionists with maps of the WTC ... " reports that directly following the attacks, seven Israelis were arrested in Florida, with anthrax microbes as well as maps of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the White House found in their house.
Other theories, however outrageous, were at least somewhat more polished. In an editorial published in the Oct. 7, 2001, issue of Al-Ahram, Dr. Zahran of Suez Canal University wrote, "The scope and nature of the attacks attest to planning and execution by an intelligence apparatus close to the CIA. No intelligence apparatus is as close to the CIA as the Israeli Mossad." Dr. Zahran's piece seems to lose its luster thereafter, as he states that "there were many rumors, and open publicly, that the Jews, who were huge stockholders in the airlines and insurance companies, sold their stocks at the highest possible prices in Europe some 10 days before the attacks on America." Suddenly Mossad and these alleged stockholding Jews are one and the same.
In an article published in Al-Ahram on October 29, 2001, titled "The Jews are behind the Explosions in America," author Abu Zayid cites 14 pieces of alleged evidence to make his claim. His "facts" include that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was warned by his security services not to travel to New York City during the month of September, no Arabs were actually on board the four airplanes seized by the hijackers, and many Jews sold their stock in the Manhattan stock exchange two days before the attack, in addition to the now-infamous myth that 4,000 Israelis employed in the World Trade Center did not go to work the morning of Sept. 11. As ludicrous as that story seems, the press repeats it frequently and easily here, with no reader ever confronted with, for example, the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" section that memorializes the victims in the tragedy, listing their numerous Jewish surnames as well as Israeli nationalities.
Interestingly enough, though guilty for spreading numerous Egyptian conspiracies in its own right, the Sept. 27, 2001, issue of Al-Ahram Weekly cited an unknown Canadian organization, Intel-Stern, as the source of the infamous e-mail that cited how 4,000 Israelis were warned not to go to work in the World Trade Center the day of the attack. This article goes on to censure those who created the e-mail as well as those who sent it on to others. As reporter Omayma Abdel-Latif writes, these conspiracies play on "people's fears, hopes and appetite for extravagant hidden horrors, invisible enemies and future threats."
No better example may exist than one that appeared in the November 2001 issue of Al-Ilm, a scientific journal published by the government-run Al-Gumhuriya, which is edited by Samir Ragab, a ubiquitous presence who also edits the government-run English daily Egyptian Gazette. It includes an article on the history of biological and chemical warfare that blames Jews for purposely spreading the AIDS virus in an evil plot. According to the study's author, Dr. Husniya Hassan Moussa, a lecturer at the National Research Center of Egypt, "Jewish tourists infected with AIDS are traveling around Asian and African countries with the aim of spreading the disease."
What makes these wild conspiracy theories particularly insidious is the lack of a strong, reliable Egyptian media voice that will set the record straight. The most recent of such tales to take hold in downtown Cairo has no connection to the Mossad or Jews at all, but involves the claim that there is a taxi-driver serial killer on the loose, referred to as As-Safah (the killer), in two of Cairo's neighborhoods, Nasser City and Heliopolis, targeting young female Cairenes. Like the WTC conspiracy theory before it, according to the March 7 issue of the Cairo Times, this rumor was also started by various e-mails, one of which was titled "Warning: Serial Killer on the Loose!" and cites a nonexistent Reuters story as its source.
Perhaps because this e-mail was the cause of a sweeping wave of fear among many Cairenes, the Egyptian government decided to conduct its own investigation into the writers of the e-mail, soon finding the young men who spread this dangerous notion. But not before media sources such as Sawt Al-Ummah, a weekly newspaper, had already done their own part in spreading the tale. An article published on February 25, 2002, titled "The Slaughter of Women: A Ghost Threatens the Young Women of Heliopolis," details murders of numerous young women in Cairo, with vivid descriptions of their gory deaths.
In this case, at least, the Egyptian government shot down the conspiracy. But it was a rare effort to chain a beast it largely controls. Due to government restrictions on the licensing of newspapers, only eight daily papers are published in Egypt. Four of these are officially owned by the government itself, and the other four, though technically owned by other organizations, including some opposition parties, are dependent upon direct government subsidies to continue their operations. Furthermore, according to a Cairo Times article, each of these other four dailies prints its copy at government-owned printing presses.
Egypt's censorship laws, which in various forms began under the late President Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, produces a system of "shabby journalism," in the words of Cairo Times Publisher Hisham Qassem. Qassem adds that "[Egyptian] reporters are not properly trained, and subsequently their articles are often based upon mere speculation." Additionally, because the government essentially supports the press, there is no competition among the papers and thus no motivation to improve. "The Egyptian government has created a system of disinformation," which in turn has encouraged "a lack of political and economic development for the last 50 years."
Why the Egyptian government uses its right hand to publish these conspiracy theories in its newspapers as it uses its left hand to accept a U.S. aid package is a legitimate question. As is why the U.S. government continues to give aid without publicly condemning the government-run media's pernicious anti-American, anti-Jewish, and anti-Israel conspiracy tales, all of which only help incite the Egyptian public against the U.S. and Israel.
Then again, pre-9/11, no one seemed to take the rumor mill too seriously. Last year, the region was gripped by stories about the Japanese children's game Pokimon, during the first year Nintendo decided to market the children's game to those in the Arab world. Those smiling neon characters, newspaper readers soon learned, were hiding a dark agenda.
Saudi Arabian Sheikh Abd Al-Monim publicly declared that the game was atheistic and meant to convince children that there is no God. In March 2001, Saudi Arabia's Higher Committee for Scientific Research and Islamic Law banned Pokimon for promoting Zionism and "possess[ing] the minds" of Saudi children. Numerous Egyptian clerics followed suit, as did the media. In a late March issue of the Egyptian weekly Al-Midan, Sheikh Abu Bakr was quoted as saying, "Pokimon figures encourage Western thought, animal worship, and the theory of evolution."
That was followed by an article in the April 12 issue of the Egyptian Gazette (edited by Samir Ragab), which stated that "Pokimons are a tool in the hands of the Jews to incite Egyptian youth to licentious behavior." The rumor might have reached its reductio ad absurdum when it was speculated that the name of the main Pokimon character, Pikachu, actually was meant to sound like "be a Jew."
At the time, these reports were repeated humorously stateside. An April 2001 blurb in Newsweek's "Periscope" section repeated the outrageous claims with a tone of sunny bemusement: "None of this is likely to dent Nintendo's sales, according to company spokesmen. But the credibility of these so-called clerics may take a long time to recover."
Maybe their credibility was hurt in the eyes of Newsweek readers. But in Egypt, their ideas were repeated without skepticism and delivered to an audience ready and willing to believe them. And unfortunately, as Israel-Palestinian relations spiral further and further out of control, Egypt's press will only exacerbate the situation in the region.