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Twice before, Egypt was the last to acknowledge the real cause of its plane crashes

Russian Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov and unidentified officials look at wreckage from Russian MetroJet Airbus A321 at the site of the crash in Sinai, Egypt, on Nov. 2, 2015. (EPA)
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Across the world, leaders are jumping to conclusions about the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804, which was on its way from Paris to Cairo and lost contact in Egyptian airspace over the Mediterranean Sea. From the head of Russia's FSB security service to Donald Trump, terrorism is on the tip of everyone's tongues. And while the cause of the crash is still unknown, Egypt's history of ruling out terrorism when planes crash makes it especially significant that its civil aviation minister, Sherif Fathy, tentatively noted an attack as a distinct possibility.

“Let’s not try to jump to the side that is trying to identify this as a technical failure,” Fathy told a news conference. “On the contrary, the possibility of a terror attack is higher than a malfunction, but again, I don’t want to hypothesize.”

In two previous cases in which Egypt has had jurisdiction over the investigations of an air accident, its government — first under Hosni Mubarak in 1999, and then under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last year — vociferously denied any links to terrorism or foul play, even when other investigations found definitive evidence to the contrary.

EgyptAir plane made ‘sudden swerves’ before vanishing over Mediterranean

Metrojet Flight 9268

On Oct. 31, 2015, a chartered plan carrying Russian tourists from the resort city of Sharm el-Sheik was bombed, apparently by the Islamic State, over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Within two days of the crash, which killed all 224 people onboard, Russian teams had established that a mid-air explosion could have been responsible for the wide debris field, and an American intelligence official said infrared satellite had picked up on a heat-flash in the vicinity of the crash, which could indicate an explosion. On Nov. 17, Russia officially concluded that the disaster was an act of terrorism. A day later, the Islamic State published photos in its magazine, Dabiq, of what it said was the bomb used in the attack.

Still, almost a full month later, the head of the Egyptian investigative committee said that there was "no evidence that there is an act of terror or illegal intervention."

For months, Sisi dismissed claims of terrorism as Islamic State propaganda, until in late February this year he acknowledged publicly that the plane was brought down intentionally.

EgyptAir Flight 990

The case of EgyptAir Flight 990 has proved more intractable, and the Egyptian government still disputes an investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB says the plane's reserve first officer intentionally crashed the jet in international waters 60 miles south of Nantucket as the plane traveled from New York to Cairo on Oct. 31, 1999.

This flight fell out of the sky on a calm night while rising to cruising altitude. Since it fell in international waters, Egypt was initially given jurisdiction over the investigation, but the Egyptians requested that the NTSB handle it. The NTSB report details, second by second, the interactions between the plane's captain and the reserve first officer in the cockpit. At one point, the captain leaves to use the bathroom. Softly, his colleague says, "I rely on God," before dipping the nose of the plane slightly. By the time the captain returns, the first officer has essentially shut off the plane's engines and has repeated "I rely on God" at least nine more times. The plane dove to a lower altitude before leveling off, and then dove again until it crashed into the ocean.

The NTSB concluded that actions of Gameel al-Batouti, the reserve first officer, led to the crash. Egypt's investigative body, however, concluded that a mechanical failure was the probable cause and pointed to similar malfunctions in other Boeing 767s. A report in the Atlantic magazine, which drew on months of reporting in Egypt after the crash, found that most Egyptians believed the government's line. It also found that many saw the NTSB's allegations as an insult against Islam, stemming from a misunderstanding of Batouti's usage of the phrase "I rely on God."

Egypt relies heavily on tourism, and terrorism has wrought deep wounds on the industry there, as well as embarrassed the military rule of its government, which stakes much of its credibility on security and stability.

More on EgyptAir Flight 804:

EgyptAir plane made ‘sudden swerves’ before vanishing over Mediterranean

What we know about missing EgyptAir flight MS804