Increasingly clear-cut suggestions from U.S. investigators that a co-pilot deliberately crashed EgyptAir Flight 990 into the Atlantic Ocean have led the Egyptian people and their government from shock to indignation to a growing display of anger.
The unwillingness to accept what investigators describe as evidence from cockpit recorders comes from government officials, pilots, students, journalists and religious leaders, as well as the public. Although much is at stake--legal liability, tourism and the government's reputation on security--the swell of anger seems to flow mainly from the simple conviction that an Egyptian would not do such a thing.
That has left much of the Cairo press scrambling for an alternative theory. Writers have come up with everything from "laser rays" to sabotage by Israel's Mossad intelligence service to a U.S. government plot designed to avoid exposing Boeing Co. to liability.
In a measure of the rising tension, the State Department urged an end to what it called speculation by investigators, reported in the U.S. media, about what caused the Boeing 767 to plunge into the ocean with 217 people aboard. Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the reports from Washington are producing what he called "wild conspiracy theories" in the Arab press.
"We are concerned and troubled by speculative conclusions coming out of those in the United States involved in this general investigation," Rubin said. "We're appealing for calm, and calm can only come if there is a minimum of speculation about conclusions in this country, and a minimum of wild, exaggerated, unfounded conspiracy theories in other media in the Middle East."
Egyptian officials have complained privately to their American counterparts about the conclusions of U.S. investigators suggesting that evidence shows that a co-pilot, Gameel Batouti, steered the plane into the water on purpose after uttering a traditional phrase placing his fate in the hands of God. In the Egyptians' view, the evidence is far from conclusive and the investigation into a possible malfunction of the plane should continue.
Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said today there is not yet any evidence that warrants concluding the crash was anything other than a "technical failure."
"You can't jump to conclusions from someone quoting the Koran and say that this was more than an accident," Moussa said in Istanbul, where he was attending a summit conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "The investigation has to continue."
The probe, which rests with the National Transportation Safety Board, has entered a holding pattern while Egyptian officials in Washington review voice and flight data recorders along with other aspects of the work done by NTSB officials. The agency was preparing Tuesday to transfer the matter to the FBI to handle as a criminal matter because of the evidence assembled against Batouti. But it delayed that decision until the review by an Egyptian team, in part because of eagerness to avoid offending a close ally.
The fact that the American investigators focused on Batouti's use of a religious phrase was among the chief concerns here, linking--in a way that Egyptians find insulting--the daily words and practices of their Muslim faith to images of suicide and mass murder.
Egyptians say the phrase--"Tawakilt ala Allah," or "I put my faith in God"--is employed by anyone beginning a task, no matter how mundane, and could mean Batouti was trying to correct a problem with the plane.
Determining whether the phrase was a plea for help in a crisis already evolving or part of a suicidal plunge is one of the chief questions before American and Egyptian investigators. U.S. investigators have said evidence assembled from data recorders shows a possible struggle in the cockpit, with someone in the pilot's seat seeking to pull out of the dive and someone in the co-pilot's seat--presumably Batouti--pushing down on the controls.
No one has suggested a political motive for Batouti's alleged action, and the picture that emerges from friends and family is of someone whose religious and political beliefs were in the mainstream of this moderate country.
During a sometimes testy news conference today near Cairo International Airport, executives of the Egyptian Air Line Pilots Association leapt to Batouti's defense, arguing that all of the evidence cited by investigators so far could have other explanations.
The autopilot, which investigators say Batouti probably disengaged, could have disconnected because of turbulence, said Capt. Walid Murad, head of the association. The engines could have turned off through some technical failure; the steep dive could have been initiated as a curative action for sudden decompression or some other logical reason.
Although acknowledging it was "unlikely" all these conditions would occur at once, he rejected as "rumor and speculation" the notion that Batouti crashed the plane. He did not commit suicide, Walid said, adding: "I know this 100 percent. That is not in our hearts. It is not in our culture."
In part, the level of disbelief is so high because of the man involved. Batouti spent most of his career as an instructor at Egypt's government-run flight academy, training many of the men he would fly with after he joined EgyptAir in the late 1980s. He was by all accounts a jocular man, with what friends insist was "no motive" to kill himself as he approached retirement early next year.
Asked today about Batouti's finances and the possible burden imposed by medical treatment for a 10-year-old daughter who suffers from lupus, Murad said Batouti was "rich," coming from a well-to-do family and with a successful career that put him in the upper strata of Egyptian workers.
An informal sampling reflected a similar mood among the public. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociology professor at American University in Cairo, said he polled several dozen students and found only one who thought suicide was a possibility.
"The rest had some conspiracy theories," he said. "They accepted that it was human-induced--that it was a bomb or some terrorists who entered the cockpit and struggled with the pilot--but they dismissed the notion of suicide."
Stigmatized by a society that regards it as a form of apostasy, suicide is believed to be rarer in the Middle East than in the United States. Empirical studies are rare on the topic, said local mental health experts, but they said public reaction to the idea that Batouti crashed the plane to kill himself shows the dynamic at work.
Staff writer David A. Vise reported from Washington:
A number of Islamic scholars and leaders in the United States reinforced the idea that the invocation attributed to Batouti would not have been a prelude to suicide.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the use of the common phrase is inconsistent with the action that Batouti allegedly took in downing the aircraft. He said that the U.S. government and media should proceed slowly before reaching conclusions, and that he believes the crash followed a mechanical problem.
Awad said it is "irresponsible" for U.S. officials to release Batouti's use of the supplication out of context, and their interpretation shows a "religious and cultural bias" against Muslims. He said it is proper for Egypt to ask the United States to defer transferring responsibility for investigating the crash to the FBI until more facts are known and additional experts can analyze the cockpit voice recorder.
"It doesn't hurt to wait, but it hurts to speculate," Awad said at a news conference.
Added Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the organization: "That is a routine prayer. It does not, and should not, in any way lead to an evil action." He said the group wants to fill the "information and cultural gap" that exists in the United States regarding Islam.
Staff writer John Lancaster in Washington contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Foreign Minister Amr Moussa warns against a hasty judgment based on a common utterance.