The crash of EgyptAir's Flight 990 [on Oct. 31] has exposed searing differences between Egyptians and Americans. From the U.S. point of view, the inquiry seems straightforward. Figuring out what went wrong means analyzing the evidence and coming up with the best explanation for the disaster. The American public generally trusts the naval recovery squads, transportation specialists and law-enforcement officers to do their job.
Not so the Egyptian public. Egypt's population profoundly mistrusts its government, and reasonably so given its long history of dictatorship and deception. Egyptians almost universally believe in conspiracy theories, and they nearly always blame the same three culprits: the British, the Americans and/or the Jews. In June 1967 President Gamal Abdel Nasser was caught on tape suggesting to King Hussein of Jordan that the two leaders falsely claim that U.S. and British forces had helped Israel defeat their armies. In 1990, when Egypt's tomato crop went bad, rumor had it that an Egyptian minister of agriculture who was one-quarter Jewish had sabotaged it by importing sterile seeds from Israel.
Conspiracy thinking can be found anywhere, but in the Middle East it dominates at the highest levels of the government, the media, the academy and the religious establishment. And Flight 990 is a particularly inviting target for conspiracy theorists. It carried 33 top Egyptian military officers, plus it originated in New York, the city with the world's largest Jewish population. That's enough to convince many Egyptians that someone purposely brought down the plane to harm Egyptian interests.
Not for a second do Egyptians accept the idea that a relief pilot, Gamil al-Batouti, had intentionally nose-dived the plane. They cannot imagine that a pious Muslim and former military officer should have caused such humiliation to his family and his country. When Americans try to interpret Batouti's much-repeated statement, "I put my faith in God's hands," Egyptians see bias against Islam.
Thus Egyptians have been engaged in a surreal debate over whether the culprit was Israeli, American or both. An Egyptian without access to Western media has almost no way of knowing that there is a serious case against Batouti.
The government mostly blames America. The managing editor of the government newspaper Al-Jumhuriya muses about a U.S. surface-to-air missile, or maybe a laser ray, bringing down the airliner. Mahmud Bakri explains in Al-Musawwar, a government-run weekly, how the airliner strayed into a no-fly zone and was instantly destroyed to keep some deadly military information secret. Or maybe, he speculates, New York air traffic controllers intentionally sent the plane in harm's way, a line of reasoning Mr. Bakri finds convincing because Jews "have strong networks of communication at U.S. airports."
Egypt's transportation minister told a parliamentary committee that Boeing, maker of the 767 that crashed, was making a scapegoat of Egypt: "It's the airline production company which tried to defend itself." Added one member of Egypt's parliament: "This 'accident' was deliberate, and the target was the large number of military [officers] onboard the plane."
Opposition dailies mostly blamed Israel. "Evidence of Mossad Involvement in Blowing Up the Egyptian Airliner," screams a huge red banner across the front page of Al-Arabi. The chief editor of Al-Wafd writes on the front page of his newspaper that "Israel's fingers are not far away" from the crash, reasoning that the Jewish state could not pass up the opportunity to eliminate 33 U.S.-trained Egyptian military officers.
That a plane crash arouses such powerful and hostile sentiments in Egypt points to two conclusions. First, 20 years of formal peace with Israel has done next to nothing to improve Egyptian attitudes toward its neighbor.
Second, although Washington is handling the crash inquiry very carefully so as to respect Egyptian sensibilities, such sensitivity cannot contain a brewing crisis. Despite what the State Department likes to calls a "long and close friendship" with Egypt that goes back a quarter century, the gap dividing Egyptians and Americans is huge and perhaps widening. In investigating the crash Washington must follow the truth wherever it leads. And given the larger troubles the investigation has exposed, the U.S. should take a close look at its relationship with Cairo, which has been on autopilot for too long.