Once again, CNN falls foul of Egyptian nationalists

CNN’s coverage of the crash of Egyptair flight MS804 over the Eastern Mediterranean has drawn ire on Egyptian social media. The American network faces not just complaints about its perceived bias but accusations of conspiracy to harm Egypt.

Some Egyptians see CNN as a front for the American government. Every step America takes concerning Egypt, despite being its ally, is met with suspicion bordering on resentment.

CNN is no stranger to resentment from sections of Egyptian society. In 2013, the network hurt national sensitivities having used the term “coup” to describe the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi by the military. To many Egyptians opposed to Morsi’s rule, he was overthrown by popular will and the act of removing him from power by the military was nothing but a response to days of mass, anti-government protests.

But on the basis of normative, democratic standards, CNN, along with many other Western media organisations, called Morsi’s removal from power a military coup. Since then, pro-regime Egyptians have largely been hostile and deeply suspicious of Western media. No doubt, this sentiment has been deepened by  freshly added coverage by Western media of Egyptian political events, particularly the crackdown on dissent, and violations of human rights by the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Once again, CNN finds itself at the centre of a storm. Expectedly, it provided an extensive coverage of the disappearance of Egyptair flight MS804 that included interviews with Egyptian officials and Western security and aviation experts.

Some aspects of this coverage hit a raw nerve with Egyptians, many of whom have tended to uphold the assumption that the incident is an act of terrorism and to treat this assumption as a fact. Opinions to the opposite effect reported by Western media have only served to fuel suspicion of aggrieved Egyptians. And so have Western media’s reports that attempted to explore other possible causes of the crash or contained information that does not substantiate the terror-act assumption.

Angry reactions to CNN coverage reflect nationalistic sentiments and the sense of victimhood--the world-is-against-us-type thinking--that are unleashed invariably after every national disaster--terror acts or other. These events have tended to bring Egypt into further disrepute. Overall, Egyptians are oversensitive to anything perceived to be outside criticism, especially from the West.

This explains why CNN anchor woman Christiane Amanpour angered a few Egyptians on Facebook—ironically some are graduates of the American University in Cairo, one of the hubs of American culture in the Middle East. Many were repulsed by Amanpour’s questioning style in the interview she did with Egyptair’s Vice-President Ahmed Adel. The combative, probing style—she is known for—was seen as abrasive and offensive to the official of a grieving nation.

Another report, that tracked the route of flight MS804 before it disappeared, earned CNN suspicion.

An Egyptian woman started a petition online, asking CNN to extend an apology and retract its “insinuation that the pilot of flight MS804 could have crashed the plane”. 

Spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry, Ahmed Abu Zeid, joined the chorus of criticism. He tweeted:

Did CNN actually insinuate that the pilot could have crashed the plane?

In one of the many reports about the incident, CNN looked at four scenarios that investigators would consider in the probe into the disappearance of flight MS804. One of the scenarios—possible errors by the pilots—is probably the one that hurt feelings in Egypt. 

CNN cited two recent incidents in which pilots were blamed for “intentionally crashing their planes—in each instance when their colleague was out of the cockpit”. The two instances cited by CNN include an Egyptair Boeing 767 which plunged into the Atlantic in 1999 soon after leaving New York.

The US federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), found that the 1999 crash was a ‘result of the relief first officer's flight control inputs,’ but could not conclude why he had taken such action”, CNN said. In a cautionary note, the channel concluded that “past investigations offer many reasons to be cautious” in investigating what could happened to Egyptair flight MS804.

The reference made by CNN to the NTSB report and the explicit responsibility of the co-pilot Gamil al-Batuti inflamed sentiment of well-educated, westernized Egyptians on Facebook.

The conclusion of the NTSB report was questioned. Some repeated a widely held conspiracy theory that blamed the 1999 incident on foreign intelligence services. The blame usually means the US or Israel or the two together.

Why would the US bring a civilian Egyptian airplane down?

Many Egyptians believe that the aim of the alleged intelligence operation presumed to have caused the 1999 crash was to kill 33 Egyptian army officers who were among the passengers. The ultimate intention of the US is to weaken the Egyptian military, the conspiracy theory goes. The alleged downing of the plane was seen in the context of a US plot to deprive the Egyptian military of the expertise of the officers who had reportedly completed training in a top American military academy as part of a long-standing close cooperation. The recurring subtext in all similar conspiracy theories is that the US considers Egypt and other Arab countries as essentially enemies and Israel, their traditional foe, as its main ally and protege.

Such conspiracy theories don’t hold much water. It is true that the US has an ambivalent relations with Egypt and its Arab allies in general, a fact further complicated by Washington’s steadfast commitment to maintaining Israel’s superiority in the Middle East. However, despite the ebb and flow in American-Egyptian relations over more than 35 years, Cairo has remained an ally of the US and the second largest recipient of American military aid after Israel despite Washington’s initial reservation about the ousting of Morsi—a position that stopped short of calling this act a coup.

Under Sisi, Egypt’s relations with Israel have been at their best—a factor that endears Cairo to the traditionally pro-Israel Congress.

In the world of Egyptian reductionist conspiracies, Western media—be it Fox News, CNN or the BBC—all tarred with the same brush—is seen as serving the interests of the US and Israel.

Comments of English-speaking Egyptians were relatively restrained compared with the farfetched conspiracy theories and the invective-filled tirade expressed in Arabic against the West and Western media.

Mohammed Haffz, a propagandist and an apologist of the Sisi regime with thousands of followers on Facebook, lambasted CNN, the BBC and a Belgian newspaper Le Soir. Egypt is facing a western conspiracy is the premise of almost all of Haffz’s posts on Facebook. In the post below he ridicules Egyptians who dismiss the conspiracy theory argument.

In the post, CNN and the “Americans” get more than a fair share of invective for “hinting at the possibility that the pilot committed suicide”.  He ridiculed the Americans for their “stupidity” and “lack of imagination”, saying they repeat the same conclusion they reached about Batuti—the co-pilot in the 1999 Egyptair crash—for the crash of flight MS804.

The BBC, “the mother of all whores”, in Haffz’s own insulting language, earned vile criticism for a phrase in a report by its correspondent in Cairo Kevin Connolly. The phrase that angered some reads: “If the loss of flight MS804 turns out to be the result of a terrorist attack… , it will raise further questions about the quality of security surrounding EgyptAir operations”.

Haffz chided the BBC for “making no mention of, or a hint at, Charles De Gaulle airport, being the one responsible for security measures under international law”—a reference to the fact that Egyptair flight MS804 took off from Paris Charles De Gaulle airport.