The Mysterious Plane Crash That Explains U.S.-Egypt Mistrust

By Steven A. Cook

How a 1999 disaster and its aftermath revealed the contradictions and complications of the American-Egyptian partnership

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U.S. and Egyptian officials handle the damaged flight recorder of Flight 990 / AP

At 1:20 a.m. on October 31, 1999, Captain Ahmad el Habashy, the command pilot of EgyptAir flight 990, eased his Boeing 767 off departure runway 22R at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.1 The big jet roared west at 180 knots over Jamaica Bay momentarily before Captain el Habashy gently rolled the airplane to the left, clearing Long Island's southern beaches, and then out over the open ocean. Six minutes after lifting off, New York Terminal Approach Control, which handles departures and arrivals into the metropolitan area's major airports, instructed el Habashy to climb to "flight level 230" (meaning 23,000 feet) and contact New York's

Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), also known in shorthand as "New York Center." Nine minutes later, an air traffic controller located at ARTCC's nondescript facility in Islip, Long Island, called on el Habashy and directed him to climb to flight level 330 and maintain Mach .80 -- 609 miles per hour -- for the long ocean crossing that was to have taken flight 990 almost 5,900 miles and about ten hours to its final destination at Cairo International Airport.

Within a few minutes of reaching cruising altitude, the relief first officer, Captain Gamil el Batouty, entered the flight deck and informed the command first officer, Adel Anwar, that he was being relieved. This was unusual. In keeping with standard EgyptAir and international procedures, flights of 990's duration carry two crews -- a command crew consisting of a lead pilot and first officer and a relief crew with the same complement. The lead pilot and first officer are responsible for departure and arrival as well as the first third and last third of the flight.

El Batouty, whose training records revealed a pilot who struggled to achieve proficiency on the 767, was three hours early for his turn in the first officer's right seat. Fourteen minutes after el Batouty took up his position on the flight deck, Ann Brennan, the New York Center controller, called on flight 990 as it departed the Atlantic sector: "EgyptAir 990 radar contact lost recycle transponder squawk one-seven-one-two."

No answer.

"EgyptAir 990 New York Center."

Silence.

Brennan was concerned. Not only had she lost flight 990's transponder but also the primary radar targets on the aircraft. She immediately informed her supervisor that "something was wrong." The two veteran air traffic controllers then called on ARINC -- a nonprofit corporation that airlines use to communicate with their aircraft in flight -- for assistance: "Mike Sierra Romeo [MSR--EgyptAir's International Civil Aviation Organization airline designator] nine nine zero," called the ARINC operator, but neither el Habashy nor el Batouty replied.

The events surrounding the EgyptAir disaster were a metaphor for U.S.-Egypt relations

Brennan and her colleague enlisted the help of their counterparts at Boston Center and the pilots of a Lufthansa 747 en route from Mexico City to Frankfurt. After calling EgyptAir 990, the Lufthansa pilot reported back to the New York Controller, "I am sorry there is no reply New York and on one-twenty-one-five we hear no emergency locator transmitter." Next, Brennan hailed "Huntress," the code word for Northeast Air Defense of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Made famous in movies like the 1983 teen drama War Games, starring Mathew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, NORAD is responsible for tracking everything that comes into or out of the airspace of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

"[Frequency] One-seven-one-two over Dovey [the "intersection" where aircraft begin transoceanic flight] should be maybe a little east of Dovey by now," Brennan informed the airman on duty at Huntress in Rome, New York.

"Copy standby."

[Pause]

"New York. Huntress. Negative. I can't find him."

Brennan then asked Huntress to contact civil and military controllers in Canada for assistance. Her efforts were in vain.

A full twenty minutes before Brennan even placed her call to Huntress at 2:14 a.m., EgyptAir flight 990 had plunged into the Atlantic Ocean sixty miles southwest of Nantucket Island. All 217 passengers and crew were lost. What followed was for most Americans the standard ritual of airplane accidents: saturated media coverage, memorial services for the dead, and a news conference with a group of no-nonsense types declaring that it was too early to make any "determinations" but vowing to "get to the bottom of this" to ensure the safety of the "flying public."

These were the investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who would unwittingly play a central role in the ensuing drama of what happened to flight 990. For Egyptians, the crash of flight 990 and the immediate aftermath was a tremendous shock. After all, eighty-nine Egyptian nationals, including thirty-three military officers, most of whom were in the United States on official Ministry of Defense business, perished in the crash. In Cairo, the state-run media, much like U.S. networks, focused on the victims' families, broadcasting loops of distraught husbands, wives, fathers, daughters, aunts, uncles, and children. Interviews with the crews' families figured prominently in the coverage. A kind of pall was cast over normally noisy, hectic, lively Cairo. The entire country mourned. The impossibility of a proper burial injected additional pain into an already unbearable situation.

With one hundred Americans also killed, a sense of shared anguish emerged as Egyptian and U.S. officials participated in a memorial service for the dead in Newport, Rhode Island. Yet the palpable grief of the Egyptians soon morphed into collective anger at the United States, specifically the NTSB and Boeing. After the investigators' initial review of flight 990's cockpit voice recorder, they suspected that Gamil el Batouty's early relief of command co-pilot Adel Anwar was an ominous indication of what happened to flight 990.

On the garbled tape, U.S. government Arabic translators discovered that shortly after Captain el Habashy excused himself from the flight deck to go to the lavatory at 1:42 a.m., el Batouty seemed to declare, "I place my fate in the hands of God" -- which, to some, indicates a Muslim preparing himself for imminent death -- moments before the 767 began a 40 degree dive (most airline passengers never experience anything more than a 5 degree angle of descent). The tapes also indicated that the first officer repeated the phrase a number of times and shut down the plane's massive engines during critical moments when Captain el Habashy returned to the cockpit and desperately tried to reverse the jet's fall. An NTSB leak to the American press produced speculation that el Batouty committed suicide, taking 216 souls with him in the process.

The news of the NTSB's theory only two weeks after the tragedy was taken in Egypt as an American assault on Egypt's national pride. The Egyptian press, columnists, pundits, and government officials expressed dismay that the investigators had barely begun their investigation when they seemed to have settled on an explanation without considering alternative theories. They also emphasized that the phrase el Batouty allegedly uttered before the 767 began its precipitous drop, tawakilt al Allah, is often used when, for example, Arabs start a car and is meant in a way that God should look after them. As a result, the Egyptians rejected the hasty conclusion that Gamil el Batouty, a former military pilot, flight instructor, and long-serving first officer for Egypt's flag carrier was responsible for the crash. Experts informed viewers of Egyptian television that it was impossible for el Batouty to have taken his own life because he was a good Muslim and suicide is haram (forbidden) in Islam.

The fact that TWA flight 880 exploded mysteriously off Long Island on its way to Paris in July 1996 -- after which the American media falsely speculated that Islamist extremists brought the plane down --  and that a Swissair MD-11 had crashed in the Canadian Maritimes after experiencing a fire in the cockpit in August 1998 led Egyptians to alternative theories about what caused EgyptAir 990 to fall from the sky. These conjectures included claims that the U.S. military destroyed the plane with a surface-to-air missile; Jewish groups allegedly controlling New York City conspired to have the plane brought down; and Israel's foreign intelligence service, Mossad, planted a bomb aboard the aircraft. Peace treaty aside, the hostility many Egyptians feel toward Israel, the widely held notion that Israel harbors aggressive intentions toward Egypt, and the fact that military officers were among the victims made an Israeli hit entirely possible for many Egyptians. Excerpted from Steven A. Cook's The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square (Oxford University Press).

When some months later an Alaska Airlines flight crashed off the West Coast of the United States and it was disclosed that investigators were focusing in on a malfunction in the plane's rear stabilizers, Egyptian commentators were shocked. They argued that the NTSB's focus on defective equipment in the Alaska Airlines crash but not in the EgyptAir case was proof positive that the U.S. government was engaged in a conspiracy to smear Egypt and the national air carrier.

But why?

The answer came from more responsible pundits and Egyptian government officials. They argued that the loss of flight 990 was the result of mechanical failure. They also implied that the el Batouty suicide hypothesis was part of an effort to protect the plane's manufacturer, Boeing, and American insurance companies from the liability claims that were sure to come with the result of an objective crash investigation.

From the start, the Egyptian government argued that a fair inquiry would reveal that there was something inherently wrong with the design of the 767 that made the crash of flight 990 possible. The Egyptians went so far as to hire a group of retired NTSB officials and former pilots to press their case. In the end, the NTSB's final report on EgyptAir 990 concluded in eerily anodyne language: "The probable cause of the EgyptAir flight 990 accident is the airplane's departure from normal cruise flight and subsequent impact with the Atlantic Ocean as a result of the relief first officer's flight control inputs. The reason for the relief first officer's actions was not determined." Still, Egyptians firmly believe that a mechanical failure in one of the plane's critical systems was the cause, whereas Americans have long concluded that el Batouty downed the plane intentionally.

On a quiet August afternoon six years later, over tuna sandwiches and Diet Cokes in the cafeteria of Princeton University's famed Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, retired U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer, described the aftermath of the EgyptAir crash as the most challenging moment of his three years as ambassador in Cairo. This was telling for a man who took up his post amid a cascade of invective aimed at him by the Egyptian press for his adherence to Orthodox Judaism and coincided with the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, which strained Egypt-Israel relations. Kurtzer's Egyptian counterpart, Nabil Fahmy, also identified the crash of flight 990 as the most difficult episode of his tenure in Washington. Almost eleven years later to the day of the crash, sitting in a comfortable chair in his office, now the dean of the American University in Cairo's School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Fahmy reflected on the grim aftermath of the disaster.

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Fahmy, who had arrived in Washington only two weeks before the crash, had not even presented his diplomatic credentials to the Clinton administration when news came of the disaster. He remembered how difficult it was for him because he had no answers for devastated relatives. The ambassador was as helpless as they were to make sense of what happened to flight 990. It did not help that within days of the Newport memorial service, Cairo and Washington began a war of words over EgyptAir 990's fate. Although both Kurtzer and Fahmy were clearly relaying what had been upsetting and difficult personal circumstances, the events surrounding the EgyptAir disaster were a metaphor for U.S.-Egypt relations -- not the crash per se, but the aftermath -- in which two governments were clearly talking past each other. The situation was only made worse by the fact that, despite three decades of partnership and cooperation, the United States had become, unwittingly, a negative factor in Egypt's domestic political struggles.

When Washington and Cairo established strategic ties after the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, there was a sense of hope and promise.

Through the development of Egypt, the United States would go a long way toward constructing a stable, prosperous, and peaceful region that was unwelcome to communism and the Soviet Union. Peeling off the Egyptians was a palliative for a Washington that had been diminished by the events of the previous decade. It proved in part that, after Watergate, the ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, global power and prestige was not shifting inexorably in favor of Moscow. Moving Egypt into the Western camp was also a boost for the typically (even cliched) American "can-do" spirit. After all, the relationship may have been based on grand strategic considerations, but helping the Egyptians build a successful society would buttress the geopolitics. More than twenty-five years after the fact, former Ambassador Nicholas Veliotes is still excited. Now long retired, dressed in a black leather bomber jacket and jeans, at eighty-two he has not lost his step. Veliotes relishes recounting his experiences in Egypt and at the State Department. Ronald Reagan appointed him to represent the United States in Egypt when the American military and economic assistance program to Cairo was ramping up in 1983. One of the first things Veliotes did after arriving in Cairo was ask the Egyptians what they needed. An old State Department hand who had served in several senior positions in Washington, as well as postings in India, Europe, and the Middle East, Veliotes wanted to make good on Washington's commitments.

The Egyptians responded with a request that would warm the hearts of the coldest of Cold Warriors: Could the United States replace the Soviet designed and manufactured turbines for the Aswan High Dam? Veliotes happily passed on the request to Washington and, when the Soviet equipment was towed up the Nile on its way to the scrap heap, the symbolism was too much for him to resist. The ambassador recalls that he brought the embassy staff out to the banks of the river to appreciate the occasion. With a broad smile and deep laugh, Veliotes remembers that his staff cheered wildly as the Soviet turbines floated by.

Swapping out Soviet equipment for American technology was just the beginning, though. Eventually, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo grew to be the largest American diplomatic installation in the world (before the behemoth in post-war Iraq dwarfed it) due to the large Agency for International Development (AID) mission in Egypt. Veliotes recalls that much of the embassy staff was working on AID projects. American largesse contributed much to Egypt's infrastructure, agricultural development, and economic progress, but something was amiss. Perhaps it was American naivete or a fervent belief in the positive use of American power but, as time went on, Egyptians raised questions about this relationship and what, exactly, it meant.

To be sure, people like Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, Saad el Shazly, and others broke with Anwar Sadat early on over what they perceived as his ill-conceived willingness to throw Egypt's lot in with the Americans when it came to dealing with the Israeli challenge. Yet the concern went deeper than tactical and strategic questions related to the disposition of the Sinai Peninsula. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the American project in Egypt must have seemed to some Egyptians similar to earlier French and British efforts in Egypt, right down to the AID advisors nestled into various government ministries. The Aswan High Dam turbines, sewage systems, communications networks, rural electrification, and road building to which Washington contributed were of course different from Napoleon's printing press or Cromer's agricultural reforms. Yet, only thirty years after a coup that was organized largely around pent up nationalist demands, another global power was on the shores of Egypt, armed with the awesome technology of the West to unlock Egypt's modernization.

Against the backdrop of the broad sweep of Egypt's experience in the twentieth century, the budding relationship with the United States did not make sense. After all, it cut against the grain of the ideas that had animated Egyptian politics for the better part of the preceding one hundred years, whether it was Islamic reformism, social justice, anti-Zionism, Islamist activism, or Egyptian nationalism, all interrelated in a variety of dynamic ways. As a result, the American effort in Egypt was bound to have an impact on the basic question Egyptians had been asking themselves since well before the July 1952 coup -- "Who are we and who do we want to be?"

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/the-mysterious-plane-crash-that-explains-us-egypt-mistrust/251544/