- - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

CAIRO — The “suicide belt” proved a fake and the diverted EgyptAir flight landed safely in Cyprus, but an abortive hijacking Tuesday is raising fresh questions about the safety of Egypt’s airports, just months after security flaws were blamed for failing to stop a terrorist attack on a Russian airliner that marked the deadliest air disaster of 2015.

Officials said Seif Eddin Mastafa, a 58-year-old Egyptian national believed to suffer from mental problems, was taken into custody in Cyprus after releasing the passengers and crew of the flight unharmed. Among his demands in the hourslong standoff before he surrendered was a request to speak to his Cypriot ex-wife and a call for the release of all female prisoners in Egyptian prisons.

On board what was supposed to be a 30-minute flight from Alexandria to Cairo were dozens of foreign passengers, including eight Americans.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told reporters in Larnaca that “from the start, it was clear this wasn’t an act of terrorism,” but the incident will only amplify calls for Cairo to re-examine its security protocols right after officials rejected a Russian offer to help boost security at Egyptian airports.

Last week, a month after Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Cairo had accepted Russian security recommendations for its airports, Russian Transportation Minister Maxim Sokolov announced that he would station security specialists at Egyptian airports.

The move was touted as a crucial step toward lifting Moscow’s ban on Russian flights to the North African country. Moscow imposed the ban after the Oct. 31 crash of a St. Petersburg-bound airliner in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 224 people. The Islamic State terrorist group said its agents planted the bomb that downed the plane.

A day after Mr. Sokolov made his announcement, the head of the state-owned corporation that operates airports in Cairo, Luxor and the Red Sea resorts rejected the plan.

“The idea is completely unacceptable because it violates Egypt’s sovereignty,” Egyptian Airports Co. Chairman Adel Mahgoub said last week.

The turnabout reflects how Egypt is struggling to adopt world-class standards for security in its airports despite the high-profile incidents that have tarnished the country’s image as a tourist destination, said Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiri, a security researcher at the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

“We have a real problem in the flight safety procedures, and this [requires] several measures such as hiring some international companies on a regular basis to evaluate security situations,” said Mr. Kamel Al-Beheiri.

Some of the resistance stems from Egyptian officials who are ideologically opposed to ceding control to former imperialistic powers.

“We will not leave room for international powers to perform our role and to determine our fate and the fate of our countries, their peoples and their armies,” said one Egyptian security official who asked not to be named.

Mr. Kamel Al-Beheiri said that explanation doesn’t account for other lapses in Egypt’s airports.

Calls for tougher security

Despite insisting it is at the forefront of battling Islamic terrorism, Egypt has been slow to bring more advanced security technology into its airports, add air marshals to flights or streamline the country’s bloated airport bureaucracy, Mr. Kamel Al-Beheiri said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security called for many of those measures after the Russian flight was downed. Egyptian authorities at the time said they would work toward adopting measures to achieve the best international standards of airport security.

Still, many Egyptian officials were dismayed when the government hired Control Risks, a British consulting firm, for a $700,000 study of security at Egyptian airports after the Russian disaster. Anticipating criticism for turning to foreign analysts, the Egyptian officials made it clear that the British firm would not be replacing local screeners and security agents.

Control Risks’ report has never been made public. But last week, after it privately submitted its findings to the Egyptian government, British-based carriers Monarch and EasyJet extended their suspensions of flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, a major Red Sea resort.

“We planned to operate flights from May 29 from London Stansted, but as the government’s advice has not changed we have now taken the decision to cancel the remaining flights for the rest of this summer to and from Sharm el-Sheikh,” said an EasyJet spokesman.

About 3 million Russians a year visit Egypt’s pyramids and beaches, according to the Egyptian Tourism Ministry. The British figure is close to 1 million. Together, the two countries represent 70 percent of Egypt’s vital tourism industry, which was already hurt by the turmoil after the 2011 revolution and terrorist attacks in the past two years.

American air carriers haven’t flown directly to Egypt for years because of terrorism and security concerns.

Control Risks did not investigate security at the Alexandria International Airport, where Tuesday’s hijacker was able to board while wearing what looked like an explosives-laden belt concealed around his waist.

Photographs on Egyptian state television showed a middle-aged man on a plane wearing glasses and displaying a white belt with bulging pockets and protruding wires.

After the incident was resolved, Egyptian Tourism Minister Yehia Rashed said staff on the state-owned EgyptAir Flight MS181 took precautions that demonstrated how the country was raising its security protocols.

“We congratulate the EgyptAir captain and his crew for landing the plane safely and for putting the safety of the passengers as a priority, in a highly professional manner and in accordance with international aviation standards,” Mr. Rashed said.

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