November 20, 1999
From Cairo Bureau Chief Ben Wedeman
CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- As U.S. investigators condemned a "cyclone of speculation" over the cause of last month's crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, many Egyptians have lost confidence in the probe and are turning to theories of their own.
Many Egyptians believe there has been a rush to judgment in the United States by those who believe that a co-pilot of the doomed jet, Gameel el-Batouty, caused the crash in an act of suicide. That perception has fueled a range of conspiracy theories in Cairo: In a society where the official version of events is met with skepticism, the rumor mill is considered a reliable source.
In comments Friday, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall said publicly for the first time that EgyptAir Flight 990 may have been crashed into the ocean deliberately. But he criticized news reports suggesting a co-pilot might have intentionally crashed the jetliner, killing all 217 on board.
"Any so-called verbatim information you have heard about that recorder is unauthorized -- second-, third- or fourth-hand, -- and as we have seen in some of the newspapers, headlines with information that is just flat wrong," Hall said.
Speculation has focused on a cockpit voice recorder tape on which a voice reportedly could be heard saying, in Arabic, "I made my decision now." Some officials, quoted anonymously, backed away from that interpretation Saturday: Egypt hopes its experts now in Washington to help translate the tapes can clarify any confusion.
"There is an element of cultural misinterpretation here, and that is why it was important for Egyptian experts to be on the scene," said Nabil Osman, a spokesman for the Cairo government.
Officials expect to work through the weekend trying to agree on a transcript of the cockpit voice tapes. But the intense speculation about sabotage or pilot suicide has only inflamed conspiracy theories in Egypt.
For many Egyptians, the investigation has lost its credibility, and the rumors of plots will probably live on for years to come. To most, the notion that el-Batouty could be responsible is simply beyond belief.
El-Batouty was a devout Muslim, and Islam forbids suicide. Many in Cairo are ready to believe sinister forces might have blown up the plane.
"If it succeeds, it would influence the Egyptian economy, because it would be a serious blow against tourism," said Adel Hussein, secretary-general of the Egyptian Labor Party.
Impatient for answers, Egyptians have drawn their own conclusions.
"The scientific community is saying, 'We have the black box.' You have the black box? Then reveal the truth now," Amin said. The lack of quick answers leaves some Egyptians thinking that "there's something wrong with the American scientific community -- or you are hiding something from us."
The NTSB's own rules and an international aviation treaty signed by the United States and Egypt would call for the leadership of the probe to be turned over to the FBI if it is clear a criminal act is involved.
"That threshold has not been met," Hall said.
He added that speculation about words captured on the cockpit voice recorder has "caused pain for the families" of the crash victims and "done a disservice to the long-standing friendship between the people of the United States of America and Egypt."
Correspondent Carl Rochelle contributed to this report.
NTSB: EgyptAir crash 'might' have been deliberate
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