The Egypt Air Love Story


The Egypt Air Love Story

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

The morning of March 29 started off on quite a sombre note, as news trickled in of yet another commercial airliner getting hijacked. Details were sketchy. Egypt Air Flight MS181 had been forcibly diverted from Cairo to Cyprus, and the scuttlebutt said that the hijacker was wearing a suicide belt. By now, possible terror attacks are announced so often that we all respond on autopilot. I jumped onto Twitter, ignoring my scheduled tasks for the day in favour of the vicarious thrill of yet another breaking news story. A friend who covers foreign affairs pinged me on Facebook, and we discussed the sobering possibility that this might be a repeat of last year’s Metrojet bombing, when a homemade bomb brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai desert.

We sat and waited for the now familiar script to play itself out, bracing ourselves for a rising death toll, and secretly enjoying the tingle of excitement that all journalists feel in such situations, though most of them won’t admit that even to themselves.

But as it turns out, this particular hijacking was less like United 93, and more like the old Leslie Nielsen movie Airplane. Instead of the tired old trope of the “jihadist hijacker” we were all expecting, the story gave us all the ingredients needed for the next David Dhawan film. There’s the goofy, deranged protagonist — in the old Bollywood “harass her till she gives in” mould — pulling out all the stops for a ridiculously OTT romantic gesture. You have dirty secrets being spilled in public, the slapstick comedy of panicking hostages, a case of mistaken identity, a selfie that wasn’t, and a frozen chicken. What a perfect illustration of the thin line between tragedy and farce. I haven’t seen a more effective bait and switch since the BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign.

Now I should point out that all hijackings are deadly serious, even ones that seem to have been cooked up at an All India Bakchod brainstorming session. There’s always the potential for disaster and death, and the hijacker — an Egyptian national named Seif Eldin Mustafa — put many lives at risk. That said, this was probably the most hilarious hijacking in aviation history, one that provided a much-needed moment of comic relief to foreign affairs correspondents, conflict reporters and a general public that has had to deal with too much public death and destruction in recent years. It also gave us journalists an opportunity to reflect on our automated responses to “terrorist” attacks and how those can lead us astray.

But first, the facts: A short while after the flight took off, Moustafa told the flight crew that he was wearing a belt of explosives – which later turned out to be fake – and demanded that the flight be rerouted to Cypriot. He went through all this effort to speak to his estranged ex-wife, or at least get the Cyprus counter-terrorism forces to deliver his love letter to her. While journalists on Twitter made tired old Meatloaf references (are all foreign correspondents too busy reading up on ISIS to keep up with pop culture, or do they just have terrible taste?), the passengers on the plane were involved in their own comedy of errors.

Then there was the curious case of the chicken. One passenger had reportedly been smuggling a local variety of frozen fowl on the flight. Having made it through Egyptian security and a hijacking, man and fowl were sadly separated by Cyprus security.

One passenger called everyone in his phone book, shouting, “I’ve been hijacked! I’ve been hijacked!” Another decided it was the right time to tell his wife about a secret bank account where he’d funnelled their money. His wife was so shocked by this news, she forgot all about the hijacking and started badgering him for the account’s details. A British health and safety inspector on the flight decided that the best use of this time was to take a photograph with the hijacker, which makes me wonder about the British approach to “safety”. On the plus side, the coverage that photo received was a reminder that not a single editor in the world knows what a “selfie” actually is. They’ve got to be taking the pictures themselves, lads.

Another passenger — this one is my personal hero — woke up in Cyprus, only to say, “I just don’t want to miss my connection.” Apparently, he’d passed out after the flight crew collected their passports, and missed the whole thing. The comedy continued even after the passengers had been offloaded. An Egyptian professor — wrongly identified by some media sources as the hijacker — stepped off the plane to get a long, loud phone call from his wife asking why in the world he’d hijacked a plane (and probably asking him to pick up some Halloumi cheese on the way home).

Then there was the curious case of the frozen chicken. One passenger had reportedly been smuggling a local variety of frozen fowl known as farkha baladi on the flight. Having made it through Egyptian security and surviving a hijacking, man and fowl were sadly separated by Cyprus security when the plane was readying to return to Cairo. The chicken smuggler protested loudly, saying, “You allowed an explosive belt on board, but you won’t let me take my chicken?”

Game, set and match to chicken smuggler.

The Egyptian and Cypriot authorities also jumped into the comedy game. In a rare moment of honesty, an Egyptian foreign ministry official told reporters: “He’s not a terrorist, he’s an idiot. Terrorists are crazy but they aren’t stupid.” Not to be outdone, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades painted a big red target on his back by making a joke: “There’s always a woman involved.” There goes the feminist vote in the next election, Nicos.

Twitter, of course, was awash with jokes that kept Buzzfeed’s meme factory occupied for the next couple of days. But as the day ended, it was also time for serious reflection for journalists. The premature identification of the wrong man as the hijacker was not just irresponsible, it exposed the dangerous patterns we regularly fall into when reporting on possible terror attacks, especially when Muslims are involved. The media has become increasingly comfortable jumping to conclusions and making unwarranted assumptions when it comes to terrorism coverage; assumptions they never seem to make in the case of white supremacist shootings or the murders of Indian rationalists.

That these assumptions are often correct does not make it okay to jump the gun, and hopefully this incident has reminded my fellow journalists of the dangers of complacency. And as a special note of caution to foreign affairs correspondents – a job profile that comes with an exceptionally high divorce rate and the risk of psychological damage.

Don’t get any bright ideas, friends. Postcards are still the way to go.