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Egypt's nightmare: The Russian plane crash is a disaster for all Egyptians

Egyptian tourism workers wait for a bus in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Egyptian tourism workers wait for a bus in Sharm el-Sheikh.
David Degner/Getty

The guidebooks for the Valley of the Kings, a network of 3,000-year-old royal tombs on the western shore of the Nile near Egypt's antiquity-era capital, still tell you to get there at dawn to avoid the crowds. When I went in 2011, a few months after the popular revolution that felled dictator Hosni Mubarak, we arrived mid-morning and found it quite literally empty. The tombs' stewards offered to let us climb over the barricades and touch the ancient sarcophagi for five Egyptian pounds, or about 60 cents. They hated to compromise the site's preservation, one explained, but since the revolution tourism had dried up, and their livelihoods with it. Their families had to eat.

Since then, Egypt's once-great tourism industry has not recovered. International tourist arrivals numbered 14.9 million in 2010 but only 9.8 million in 2011, and have about stayed there, with 9.9 million last year. The country's unemployment rate has grown from about 9 percent before the revolution to a steady 12 or 13 percent since. But even with the decline, Egypt is still heavily reliant on tourism: Its total contribution to the economy was 11.5 percent of all employment and 12.6 percent of GDP last year, as well as 20 percent of foreign currency revenues.

This week's disaster in Sinai, where a Russian flight from the tourist town of Sharm el-Sheikh went down, killing 224 people, is a tragedy for the victims and their family members. It is also a tragedy for Egypt and its long-suffering population of 82 million: The crash, whether it is determined to be a result of terrorism or an accident, already seems likely to damage Egypt's already-frail tourism industry in ways that even the revolution and its violence did not. It seems bound to set back Egypt's economy and thus exacerbate the political deterioration that has made this once-inspiring revolution a nightmare for so many of its citizens.

This was supposed to be a good year for Egyptian tourism, and thus for the many families who rely on it. Tourism officials were just this summer declaring it one of the best in years, with revenue and occupancy rates finally rising again. The boom was especially pronounced in the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Beautiful, cosmopolitan, and physically removed from the rest of Egypt, it attracts international and especially European tourists, who fill its resorts and beaches; occupancy rates passed 70 percent in June.

Much of this tourism revival has been Russian. About one in three foreign tourists in Egypt has been Russian, with 3.1 million arriving just last year, bringing in $2.5 billion. Russian tourists have been visiting Egypt for years, and even with their own country's economic downturn, Egyptian resorts are relatively affordable and nearby.

The eagerness of Russian tourists and the relative isolation of Sharm, then, seemed like two things that might bring Egypt a long-overdue reprieve. It wouldn't fix everything, of course, but maybe more families would be able to provide for themselves; maybe some of the young men out wandering the streets could find work. The military dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi might have fewer excuses for cracking down. A bit more normalcy and political stability can't solve a problem like Sisi, but they can help at the margins, and at least they can slow the economic decline that was making it all worse.

Russian tourism to southern Sinai was a rare bright spot in Egypt's faint recovery, but that also made it a vulnerability. The crash of Metrojet Flight 9628, whether caused by ISIS or another terrorist group or just an accident or mechanical failure, hit that vulnerability squarely, and many thousands of Egyptians will feel it. It's as if it were perfectly designed to bring more suffering to Egypt.

It has created chaos for Sharm el-Sheikh's tourists, as airlines cancel and divert flights and many struggle to get home. It has shattered the southern Sinai's image as a safe and easy destination, though we don't even yet know whether the crash was terrorism. And it has especially hit the Russian tourist market, with Vladimir Putin now suggesting terrorism is a possibility and canceling flights there. Because many Russian families will only take one trip abroad per year, many may question whether Egypt is worth the risk of a canceled flight and book elsewhere.

If Russian tourism to Egypt declines even a little, and if Sharm el-Sheikh's resorts see even a moderate decline in bookings, both of which are already looking likely, it would be a serious blow not just to Sharm and not just to tourism employees but to all of Egypt. Because the Egyptian economy is so reliant on tourism, and because much of its tourism industry has funneled down to this one set of nationals arriving at this one destination, the shockwaves from this could be felt nationally. After nearly five years of post-revolution economic hardship, more unemployment and more poverty are humanitarian and political disasters as well.

The crash is also a political embarrassment for Sisi's regime. No one should cry any tears for the coup leader and dictator, but like many authoritarians his two main promises have been security and nationalistic pride. Even if the crash turns out not to have been terrorism, it has still hurt his image on both. It seems depressingly likely that he will compensate, as he has in the past, not by softening his grip but by finding other "enemies," such as journalists or activists or peaceful Islamists, to punish in a show of force.

Watching Egypt over the nearly five years since its revolution, it had seemed that fate had found every possible way to punish this nation and its people. Everything that could have gone wrong did; Egyptians, after fighting so hard for their ideals in 2011, have suffered over and over for it. Impossibly, fate seems to have found a way to punish Egyptians even further, with an event that seems fine-tuned — and maybe it even was, much like Tunisia's terror attacks on tourists, although that's not yet clear — to maximally hurt regular Egyptians. Whatever we learn of Metrojet Flight 9628, it seems safe to conclude that it will become yet another setback for a people who have already endured so many.