“Let my people go,” Moses pleaded with the Egyptian Pharaoh, several thousand years ago.
The British ambassador might well have been saying the same thing to President Sisi of Egypt last week, in the context of the 20,000 British tourists stranded in Sharm el-sheik after a Russian airliner crashed soon after take-off from the Red Sea resort’s airport.
Except that Mr. Sisi was in London, on a state visit, and diplomatic discussions with the Prime Minister, most of which seem to have been taken up with giving Mr. Cameron an ear-wigging. Mr. Cameron’s offence was perfectly timed for Sisi’s visit; it was to state publicly – apparently on the basis of intelligence reports and internet ‘chatter’ – that the airliner ‘almost certainly’ had been destroyed by a terrorist bomb.
The British government promptly organised an airlift. Empty planes were sent to Sharm el-sheik (which translates incidentally, as ‘city of peace’) to pick up the marooned passengers. But not their luggage; that would be picked up at some later date after the bags had been subjected to proper security checks, presumably by British bomb experts.
Mr. Sisi’s oral response to Mr. Cameron’s faux pas – or malicious act, take your pick – is not precisely known. His action, though, was clear enough. The ‘rescue’ planes would be permitted to land but not to take off again. Mr. Sisi’s public reasoning was that the resort’s small airport had insufficient facilities to store that many bags; not, as you might cynically believe, with his irritation that Britain was blatantly and presumably with malice aforethought trying to undermine the Egyptian tourist industry.
The Russians, meanwhile, made a much better job of doing that by suspending all flights to and from Sharm el-sheik, which left 50,000 of its own sun-seeking citizens in the same predicament as that of the Brits. I am not aware of any demonstrations against the Russian ambassador, but Britain’s envoy, visiting the scene to offer assistance and encouragement, no doubt expecting to be welcomed with cheers and garlands by a grateful throng, found himself heckled and harangued by an angry mob. Irate holiday-goers failed to comprehend why they were not being allowed to board the planes that were sitting on the runway for that very purpose a tantalising fifty metres away. A few did take off, which only made the remaining passengers even more frustrated.
Relations between Britain and Egypt have seen better days. But then they have also seen much worse days. Those were in the last throes of the Empire on which the sun was never supposed to set, when Prime Minister Anthony Eden colluded with France and Israel to occupy the Suez Canal after President Nasser of Egypt had nationalised it. Even before then, Britain had been accustomed to treating Egypt as a convenient protectorate, and its people as colonial subjects (or rather objects, since Egypt never had been formally inducted into the imperial family).
Mr. Sisi’s response may be seen as a small-minded act of petulance. Some declared it an affront to human rights. But history loads the dice in these political crap-shoots. In Mr. Sisi’s mind, one imagines, the British were being high-handed again, and Egypt was not going to stand for it.
My sympathy for the stranded travellers is genuine, but I can’t avoid the thought that they ought to have considered the risks when booking their holidays. They could hardly have anticipated that the downing (if that is what it proves to be) of the Russian plane, or of the silly tit-for-tat consequences. But the entire Middle East region is in an uproar, not least Egypt itself, which in recent memory has experience several uprisings, riots, coups and counter-coups and remains as it has long been, a viper’s nest of intrigue. Even in more distant memory, the country’s rulers always fell short of developing a facsimile of democracy, and mostly, it must be said, for want of trying.
So why did these sun-seeking Brits choose Sharm el-sheik as a destination. The same might be said of Tunisia, where just a few months ago masked gunmen rampaged across a beach, mowing down tourists as they went with automatic weapons.
It baffles me. Do these people read the newspapers? Do they watch the news on television? Or are they so remote from the realities of global conflict, so desperate for a few rays of desert sun that any risk is worthwhile? Did the Sharm el-sheik tourists, British or Russian, bother at any stage in the process of planning their holidays pause to calculate the risks?
I would. And I’m pretty sure my conclusion would be not to go anywhere near the Middle East, or North Africa, or any other sun-drenched, fly-blown, screwed-up middle-eastern hell-hole all the while ISIL – and other terror groups – are rampant and bent on acts of destruction. (In Sharm, according to the testimony of several of the passengers who managed to secure seats on planes, they did so by bribing airport officials to give them priority, in the process not bothering to subject them to the prescribed security checks.)
Perhaps the British Foreign Office will now place Egypt on its ‘caution’ list, if it has not already done so, which is where it belongs, along with Syria, Iraq and Tunisia.
I wouldn’t dream, anyway, of going to any Muslim country with the kind of governments these countries have, or for that matter to any non-Muslim country in the same category. Not for all the cotton in Egypt.
Mr Sisi presumably is not so stupid to detain the bedraggled band of Brits much longer, since that does more damage to his country’s economic interests than anything Mr. Cameron could contrive.
In which case, the cheap-rate charter flights will resume, and the sun-lovers from dreary Britain, bags bulging with suntan lotions, will no doubt continue to pour into Sharm el-sheik as if nothing had happened.
Brave? Or just foolhardy? Take your pick. You know where I stand.