Atlantic Unbound | November 15, 2001
A conversation with William Langewiesche, the author of "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," on the cultural reverberations of a seemingly straightforward airplane crash
n October 31, 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic ocean soon after takeoff, killing all 217 people aboard. The flight-data and cockpit voice recorders were recovered within weeks, and the story they told seemed shocking but conclusive: at a moment when the captain was out of the cockpit, the copilot, Gameel al-Batouti, disengaged the autopilot and calmly pushed the airplane into a steep dive. When the captain returned, Batouti fought him for control of the airplane—and then turned off the engines. But the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), charged with investigating the crash, soon realized that what they had thought would be a simple, open and shut case would actually require all of the political and diplomatic skills they could muster. The Egyptian investigators professed outrage at the idea that the crash would be called intentional, which they seemed to feel was a cultural slight—setting off a conflict with the NTSB that continues to this day. The Egyptians went on to raise theory after theory for what could have caused the crash, and the NTSB, with the help of Boeing, performed extensive tests to see if any of the theories matched the flight's profile. None of them did.
William Langewiesche spent several months researching "The Crash of EgyptAir 990" (November Atlantic), looking at the flight data, flying simulations of the crash, meeting with the NTSB, and traveling to Cairo to interview the Egyptian investigators. His piece is not so much the story of an airplane accident as it is the story of the cultural clash between the NTSB and the Egyptians—a clash that has big implications for relations between the U.S., Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole.
I spoke with him on November 8.
During the investigation into the crash of Flight 990, there was such a disconnect between the NTSB and the Egyptian investigators that they may as well have been talking about two different accidents. Could you talk about the roots of this disconnect? How could they see the same accident in such radically different ways?
When I began researching this article, the possibility seemed very real to me not only that the NTSB would be seeing things in strictly American technocratic terms, but that those terms could be wrong and that the Egyptian perspective on the same basic information could provide a completely different result or reality. In other words, it did seem possible at the beginning that the NTSB was wrong and that the Egyptians were right when they said that the NTSB lacked the cultural knowledge necessary to interpret the cockpit voice recorder—the recording that is so central to this particular accident profile. As I got further into it, it became clear that the Egyptians saw the same thing that the Americans did, and that cultural relativity really didn't explain anything here. And then you take it one step farther than that and you say, Why were there the different official positions? That's where you see the differences of culture coming in. The different positions have to do with fundamental differences in notions of government and government officials' role in the pursuit of the truth. Not that the American government always pursues the truth by any means. The NTSB, however, is a branch of the government that does pursue the truth and that has pursued the American and Western European ideal that if you write an accurate history and you damn the consequences of that, you will be better off as a people.
Whereas in the case of the Egyptians, they were following a completely different line of thinking. It seemed to me that they knew very well that their man, Batouti, had done this. They were pursuing a political agenda that was driven by the need to answer to their higher-ups in a very pyramidal, autocratic political structure. The word had been passed down from on high, probably from Mubarak himself, that there was no way that Batouti, the co-pilot, could have done this. For the accident investigators in Egypt, the game then became not pursuing the truth but backing the official line. They were pilots themselves—they were highly educated people, usually. Some of them were highly educated engineers. They were very savvy about Western ways. They knew very well what the United States was all about; they knew what Europe was all about; and they used the American system of the press and the NTSB and Boeing against itself. They took our openness and turned it on its head. It was an overt and conscious manipulation of the American system, and in the long run it was not to their benefit. That's the final irony—in the mid-term of their careers, it probably is to their benefit. They will keep their jobs, because they towed the party line. But in the long run, Egypt as a country loses.
It sounds like the Egyptians had a good understanding of our society and how the NTSB would react during the investigation. What about the NTSB—did they have a good understanding of the Egyptians and how they might use the system?
The NTSB turned out to be more politically and internationally savvy than I had expected they would be. But there wasn't very much they could do. Some people within the NTSB wanted to draw a line in the sand by wrapping up the investigation in the first six months and moving on to the things that they considered more important. But the much larger and more powerful political system in Washington did not allow that to happen—and that may have been appropriate. There are things more important than aviation safety, that's for sure. They were dealing with a very important ally in a very unstable part of the world. There was a level of concern out there about not pissing off Mubarak. Mubarak's a guy who's easily pissed off. He's an autocrat. He's used to having temper tantrums. Everybody knew that. So there was no way the NTSB could really fight back against these manipulations of the system. They were told, in no uncertain terms, "You will not offend the Egyptians. If the Egyptians bring up objections and want you to continue the investigation, you will continue the investigation." They were never told, "You will alter the truth." But they were told, "You will not just wrap it up and move on, you will not just be technocrats, you will have to respond to the political realities of our time."
This must have been especially hard for the NTSB because, as you wrote, from the beginning it just seemed so obvious to them— of course the crash was intentional. They may never have to back off that, but they did have to play the game of, "Okay, we'll look into the possibility of a dual actuator failure..."
These guys are technocrats, not political people. That's why they're there. They are engineers, number-crunchers, airplane geeks. On the other hand, the ironic thing is that as these further investigations were imposed on them by the political process, delays that the higher level of technocratic investigators at the NTSB were strenuously objecting to, the lower level guys—the front-line troops of the NTSB—got into this, because some of it was exciting and interesting stuff. I mean, wow, let's look at the performance characteristics of the 767's elevator-control surfaces at Mach 1. What could be more fun? Let's go off the scale of tested knowledge and operate purely on the basis of mathematics. That's exciting in an abstract, academic way. And so what happened within the NTSB was that investigators, having been pushed into this, would go at it wholeheartedly and actually get quite excited about it, even though if they stood back as their superiors did, they would have known that they were pursuing fictions.
Why do you think it was so important to the Egyptians that the crash not be labeled a suicide?
I think the answer has to do with a deep sense of insecurity, which is the result of at least two hundreds years of what some there perceive as a sustained insult against themselves. The insecurity is a result of having been colonized, of having been pushed around, of having been dismissed as insignificant people or, more recently, as quaint people. All of these things are very insulting to dignified men and women.
There also is a feeling of economic desperation—that the only thing Egypt has going for it is tourism. They believe that their tourism industry is extremely important—and by some measurable standards it is the only real economy they have right now, aside from getting foreign aid from the United States. And they are very sensitive to anything that would diminish or might remotely threaten that flow of tourists. Therefore, they would be as concerned about the news of one of their pilots on the national airline killing everyone as they would be about the news of an Islamic terrorist attack against tourists at some ancient site.
And then there's just the autocratic nature of Egyptian society. If Mubarak himself had said, We will admit that this is a possibility. My dear friend must have done something very wrong here. We can accept that as a mature people. If Mubarak had had the sort of reaction that, for instance, an American President would have had, then the Egyptians would have reacted in a very different way.
So it was taken as an insult when the United States said, This accident was caused by your guy going haywire.
Yes, it was really taken as an insult against all Islamic people. And to me that is just so profoundly sad. Because it most certainly was not an attack on Islam. It was one individual who did this. It had nothing to do with his religion.
All this has very interesting parallels with what is going on now—the sense of a general insult.
I think we can never overestimate the level of insecurity that people have about themselves. And the Muslim world has a strange love/hate relationship with the West. On the one hand you admire the West, and at the same time you hate it. You would like to emulate the West, but you would also like it to go away and leave you to your own ways. And you would most certainly like not to be insulted by the West. After centuries of insult, both real and perceived, the emotions are very, very raw. So when you bomb Afghanistan, you'll find that people who are in no sense Afghans are reacting emotionally all through the world. That is the slope we are on right now.
I think that that sense of general insecurity is foreign to our way of thinking, so it's difficult for Americans to comprehend why the Egyptians reacted the way they did.
Someone asked me why it is that the Egyptian government would react this way to their own pilot doing this, while the American government would react in quite a different way to an American pilot doing this. And I think the very simple answer—one of the answers—is that we are a very strong country, and we can approach all such disasters from a position of great self-confidence and strength. And a place like Egypt is simply the opposite. It's weak. It lacks confidence.
This gets to the heart of what this article is about. The article is really not about aviation safety, and it is only apparently about this rather unimportant killing of people two years ago. It is about the difficulties that we in the United States with our form of government have as we move through the world and as we confront the possibilities of completely different agendas and of manipulation of our system. It's about the stubborn differences that remain even with a place that is as close an ally, so-called, as Egypt is to us. A place so officially pro-American as Egypt can in fact be quite the opposite—can be quite destructive and hostile to our ways.
I know you spent a long time in Cairo reporting the story. What was your experience there in talking to people about the crash and its aftermath—not just people who worked for EgyptAir, but the people whom you spoke to on the street?
What I found in Cairo was very interesting. Of course it's a fantastic city, very appealing, with a very attractive culture in many ways. As far as this accident goes, there seemed to be three categories of people. First of all there were people involved directly in the investigation, and they presented a uniform party line, a uniform face with very few cracks. They stonewalled me, and that in itself was very interesting. I thought, first of all, you can't be doing this. It's so self-destructive, because it's so transparent. In the stonewalling they were revealing themselves. I went to Cairo knowing that Batouti had done this, but still suspecting that the Egyptians perhaps truly believed that he had not. If they had truly believed what they were saying, they would have reacted to me in Cairo in a very different way. They would have invited me around, they would have tried very hard not to block my access, but to give me access in order to prove their point earnestly. They did none of that. I guess they didn't realize or they didn't care that the blocking itself was a revelation. Between that and the technically primitive arguments that were often being presented to me as if I weren't a pilot, it became obvious to me that they didn't believe a word they were saying.
Then there was another group of people, the great majority of people in Cairo, I would say, who simply believed that the Americans were pulling something over on them, were insulting Egyptians and all other Muslims. It surprised me how far that went. When I was in Cairo I did a systematic exploration of the city and spent a lot of time in the slums, even though that had only a remote connection to the EgyptAir crash. I spent a lot of time talking to people. Sitting one day in a coffee house in a very poor part of northern Cairo, the subject of EgyptAir came up. Normally I wasn't really even talking about EgyptAir, but instead was asking how's life, what about Mubarak, what about the political system, tell me about America. But the subject of EgyptAir 990 came up, and this guy, who was dressed in rags, living in absolute abject poverty, said to me, "Oh, well, we know exactly what happened. The airplane was hit by a missile, and then it went into a dive, and the pilots managed to recover, and they were recovering when it was hit by a second missile." And the amazing thing to me was not that he believed without question that this thing was a missile, that there'd been an American conspiracy, but that he knew the flight profile—that there'd been a dive, a recovery, and a second dive. The knowledge of the accident was widespread, and the great majority of people in Cairo believed an Egyptian plane had been knocked out of an American sky and that one way or another a nefarious cover-up was underway by the American government.
Then there was also this small group of people, and I did run into them in Cairo, who knew perfectly well that Batouti, the co-pilot, had pushed that airplane into the water, and that the Egyptian government was stonewalling and was engaged in what they saw as a typical exercise in Egyptian governing. Those people tended to be the intelligentsia, and they didn't necessarily need to know the details of the accident, as I did, in order to come to this conclusion. They were so familiar with the Egyptian system that they could predict its reactions right from the start, without knowing the details of the accident, and indeed could backtrack and, by looking at the reactions of the Egyptian government, could draw the correct conclusion about the technical aspects of this airplane crash.
At the time you wrote the article, the Egyptians were awaiting the NTSB's final report, which most observers thought would essentially blame the crash on Batouti. How do you think this situation is going to play itself out? Is the report just going to be quietly released?
That's what the NTSB would like to do, is to release it quietly, and I think they're trying to avoid the usual public hearing. They're trying to be done with it; the less visibility the better. The question is, How are the Egyptians going to react? Are they going to make a lot of noise? When the Egyptians make certain assertions, the standard press, The New York Times, etc., really have no choice but to report those assertions. Now, they can report them in different ways—they can make a big effort to go find experts who in the same piece will cast aspersions on those assertions, or they can simply let them float, which is what they have tended to do in this case. For all I know, the Egyptians will continue to try to manipulate the American system by expressing outrage. How the events of September 11 have changed that, I have no way of predicting. It may be that the Egyptians have lost the urge to beat that drum. But no matter what happens, the NTSB will keep the same conclusion. It's inevitable; there's no other way they could go.
Katie Bacon is an editor of The Atlantic Online. Her most recent interview was with Robert D. Kaplan.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2001; The Crash of EgyptAir 990; Volume 288, No. 4; 41-52.