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Disaster Could Sink Egyptian Tourism, Push Putin Deeper Into Syria

The Egypt air disaster has implications for Egyptian tourism and the fight against the Islamic State.

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The cause of the crash of a Russian plane in Egypt on Saturday that killed all 224 people on board remains unclear. But the disaster is already prompting other airlines to stop flying to the region, a substantial blow to Egypt’s faltering tourism industry. And if the plane was brought down by militants — an affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility, though experts believe that’s unlikely — Russian President Vladimir Putin could be pulled deeper into the fight against the terror group.

On Monday, Alexander Smirnov, deputy general director of Metrojet, said the only possible cause of the crash is “an external impact on the airplane,” although he did not specify what this impact was. On Sunday, aviation experts, including Viktor Sorochenko, a senior official with Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee, said the plane broke apart in the air due to mechanical issues and that fragments of it are scattered over a broad swath of one of Egypt’s most dangerous regions; the plane’s black boxes have been recovered. He said that it is too early to draw additional conclusions about what caused the Kogalymavia plane, operating under the name Metrojet and flying from the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg, to go down over Egypt’s volatile Sinai Peninsula, where hundreds of Egyptian security personnel have died in recent years in a low-level war with Islamist militants there. The crash was one of the worst aviation disasters in Russian history.

Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said this weekend he was told by experts that it was impossible for militants in the region — including the Islamic State-linked Wilayat Sinai — to shoot down a plane at more than 30,000 feet, the altitude at which the Airbus A321 was flying when it broke apart. This didn’t stop Lufthansa, Emirates, and Air France from ceasing flights over the region until the cause of the accident is determined.

That dealt another blow to Egypt’s tourism trade, a major component of Egypt’s economy, which has been languishing for years because of security concerns. In 2014, tourism contributed 11.3 percent of Egypt’s GDP and brought in 14.4 percent of its foreign currency revenue. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, one in nine Egyptians depend on tourism for work.

Last year, tourism revenue was down 95 percent from 2013 thanks to accidents, political unrest in the aftermath of the 2013 revolution that unseated former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and terror attacks. In August 2014, 33 people were killed and 41 injured when two tour buses collided in the Sinai peninsula. In September 2015, eight Mexican tourists were killed when Egyptian forces hunting militants fired on them. This followed a terror attack in August 2015, when six people were injured when a car bomb went off in Cairo. The Egyptian capital is popular with tourists.

The Islamic State’s claim that it is responsible for the attack — even if it proves to be untrue — could put Putin in a tight spot. The Russian strongman sent warplanes and troops into Syria nominally to fight the Islamic State, but his military has instead been bombing many of the rebel groups working to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin could now be forced to devote more resources towards the Islamic State fight, a move that would potentially reduce his level of support for Assad. Any Russian shift would come just as the Barack Obama administration has been changing its tactics for battling the Islamic State, including the announcement last week that 50 American Special Operations forces would be sent into Syria to work with rebels there and help them call in airstrikes.

According to the Kremlin, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called Putin to express his condolences after the plane went down. For his part, the Russian president called for a day of mourning Sunday.

Photo credit: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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