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Egypt Veers From Track Record By Raising Terrorism As Possible Cause

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Searchers in the Mediterranean have discovered wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 804. The plane was headed from Paris to Cairo. Sixty-six people were on board. The cause of the crash is still unknown. Terrorism is one obvious suspicion. Egyptian officials said as much almost immediately. And that is surprising because the Egyptian government has not always been so forthcoming, especially when addressing terrorism. Leila Fadel is NPR's international correspondent based who's in Cairo. Leila, thanks very much for being with us.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: What are some of things, maybe you can go over for us, that Egyptian officials have said so far?

FADEL: Well, the minister of civil aviation says that terrorism is one possible cause of the crash. But at this point, it's all speculation. And no one knows exactly what brought down the plane. And notably, no extremist group has claimed it as an attack. So who knows if this was technical failure or something much more nefarious? There's been some conflicting information from Egyptian officials who said the Greeks found the plane and then said to CNN that wasn't true. And now Egyptian officials say the Egyptian navy has found at least parts of the wreckage. So it's a bit confusing right now.

But what is clear is Egyptians are in a state of shock and sadness over this. And the government wants to make sure people aren't afraid to visit over this because tourism is already struggling.

SIMON: You covered the loss of the Russian MetroJet airliner that crashed after it left Sharm el-Sheikh, the resort town in Egypt this past October. Was Egypt's official reaction notably different then?

FADEL: Right. It was very different. That's why so many people are surprised that the Egyptian government has so quickly acknowledged that terrorism is at least a possibility here. Because when that Russian MetroJet broke apart in the sky, the extremist group ISIS claimed they'd blown it up. The U.K. and the U.S. said it was likely a bomb. The Russians said it was a bomb. But Egypt wouldn't even say the word bomb, let alone acknowledge that it was a possibility. And it was about four months later that Egypt's president even alluded to terrorism. And that investigation is still open. And it has not been concluded.

SIMON: We ought to note the backdrop here. This, of course, is a government, Egypt, that was installed with the help of a military coup. And it has committed widespread human rights abuses.

FADEL: Right. Look, this government has said a lot of things that are really not true. They avoided calling the Russian MetroJet incident terrorism. But they're really quick to label protesters, opposition figures, journalists - terrorists who are trying to bring down the state. And a government-appointed body that was commissioned to do a report on the prison says that they were really tasked to whitewash the situation in Egypt's prisons.

And one of the starkest examples of the lack of transparency of this government, or, as some people say, the dishonesty of this government, is the torture and death of the young Ph.D. student from Italy Giulio Regeni in January, which the Italian officials and his mother say was done by the security forces - or implies that it was possibly done by the security forces. So you can understand why a lot of people are skeptical when the Egyptian government makes statements basically.

SIMON: Well, that's this authoritarian government. Sixteen years ago under Hosni Mubarak, another EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic after it left New York. How was that situation different?

FADEL: Well, I mean, critics will say that this is a much more repressive government. But at that time, there was a situation where an EgyptAir flight crashed in 1999. Investigators widely believed it was the result of pilot suicide. The U.S. officially said it was the pilot's fault. But Egypt never acknowledged it. But in this case, things seem to be different - no conspiracy series - conspiracy theories so far and a lot of transparency.

SIMON: NPR's Leila Fadel who covers Egypt - thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.