Heated debate over Egyptian airports getting foreign inspections

An attempt to minimize the damage to tourism incurred by the Russian plane crash in Sinai in October

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Earlier this month, a Swiss delegation completed its security inspection of Egypt’s Hurghada Airport, which covered baggage zones, arrival and departure halls, metal detectors, and x-ray machines.

The delegation included airport security experts and representatives of the Swiss Ministry of Transportation.

Less than a week before, a similar German delegation carried out the same procedures at the same airport. The two visits were preceded by a deal that allows the British Control Risks Group to inspect, provide consultancy and train staff at the Cairo, Sharm al-Sheikh, and Marsa Alam airports.

Though known to be an attempt to minimize the damage to tourism incurred by the Russian plane crash in Sinai in October, the inspections were seen by many as a violation of Egypt’s sovereignty, hence an unwelcome intervention.

Security expert General Fouad Allam argued that these inspections are based on assertion by Russian authorities that the plane was down in a terrorist attack, and a later statement by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in which he admitted terrorism was the cause.

“I believe that Western countries want to interfere in Egypt’s affairs and only use the war on terror and the protection of their citizens as a pretext,” he said, adding that those inspections constitute a violation of Egypt’s sovereignty.

Security expert Khaled Okasha said that even if the plane crash proved beyond doubt to be a terrorist attack, it still does not justify the inspections.

“Other countries like France and the United States were also the target of terrorist attacks, but they did not seek the help of foreign companies,” he said.

“Egypt is only trying to curry favor with Western countries so that they would resume sending tourists.”

Okasha described the inspections as “a disgrace” since they question the ability of the Egyptian police and army to protect the country.

‘Lack of integrity’

For security analyst Nader Nour al-Din, allowing foreign inspection constitutes an “acknowledgment of lack of integrity” on the part of airport staff. “The inspections mean that we admit that airport staff are corrupt and that there is no hope in reform from within,” he said.

Security expert General Gamal Abu Zikri argued that the inspection should have made sense had the plane crash proven through investigations to be a result of lax security measures at the Egyptian airport.

“There were speculations that had there been a bomb, it could have been planted in Turkey and not Egypt,” he said. “Allowing foreign countries to inspect delivers a message about the state’s inability to protect its airports, which is not true.”

Abu Zikri admitted that some development in airport security systems might need to be done, but not through foreign companies; “It has to be 100% Egyptian.”

Board member of the Egyptian Travel Agencies Association refuted claims that inspections would revive tourism.

“Is there any written agreements that tourists will return after the inspections are completed? This is just talk,” he said, adding that inspections by foreign entities would not encourage tourists to go to Egypt if they don’t want to or if they don’t trust its security apparatus.

Following the plane crash in Sinai, Western media gushed with anger, with several outlets reporting on the lack of security and loop-holes inside Egyptian airports.

According to one report, a holidaymaker was spotted bypassing a security queue – unfathomable in other major airports – at a price tag of $30 at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

The picture of the incident was initially tweeted by a BBC Arabic reporter, which was carried by Western press, but he later downplayed it as an defective “paid service” made available by the airport, rather than a bribe.

Al Arabiya English spoke to our own witnesses who recounted what they believed to be recent security breaches at Egyptian airports. These can be read here.

‘Goodwill gesture’

In a recent interview with Egyptian media, former Deputy Interior Minister Mohamed Nour al-Din said Egypt was subjected to excessive international pressure following the Russian plane crash.

“Egypt had to allow those inspections as a gesture of goodwill and in the hope that tourists will start feeling safe once more,” he said, adding that this does mean that the inspections violate Egypt’s sovereignty.

“Inspectors do not interfere in Egypt’s affairs, but only supervise the technology required to make airports safer such as detectors, x-rays, staff armament and so on, but the implementation is by Egypt’s police and armed forces in coordination with the ministries of tourism and civil aviation.”

Former Civil Aviation Minister Wael al-Maadawi has said that the inspections are carried out in a way that ensures no violation of Egypt’s national security.

“The Egyptian state makes sure that none of the deals or inspections involving foreign entities would in one way or another compromise Egypt’s national security,” he said, adding that none of the parties involved in the inspections has the right to impose something on the state.

It’s not unusual

General Chief of Staff Hisham al-Halabi, advisor to the National Defense College at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, said that foreign inspection at airports is not unusual.

“For example, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has the right to inspect airports and ensure that safety measures are followed.” Halabi added that Egypt does not really need such inspections, but they were necessary at this moment.

“Egypt’s security apparatus is capable of safeguarding airports, but Egypt was under the microscope following the Russian plane crash and had to prove its willingness to cooperate.”

Former Deputy Interior Minister General Magdi al-Bassiouni agreed that Egypt was in the position where it had to allow those inspections.

“The Egyptian state had to refute all claims about security loopholes in Egyptian airports,” he said. “The presence of those companies will reassure the world that Egypt is adopting the latest technologies in securing its airports.”

Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal said that a report to be issued by global consultancy Control Risks is not binding and the same applies to other inspections.

“The Egyptian government will do its best to implement the recommendations that would be included in the report in order to get a certificate from the company that airports in Egypt are safe, which in turn would reassure tourists,” he said.

General Gad al-Karim Nasr, former director of the Egyptian Airports Company, did not see the point of signing such a costly deal with Control Risks only for consultancy.

“The cost of the deal amounts to six million Egyptian pounds ($700,000) for six months. Why sign this deal if the company’s report is not binding?”

Nasr added that the recommendations in the company’s report might not be feasible.

“Most likely, the company would recommend purchasing new equipment and training the staff to use them, which would require hefty amounts of money at a time when several sectors in the country are undergoing a financial crisis.”