Blame Our Guy? Not So Fast, Say Egyptians

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Once it became a cultural matter, the EgyptAir Flight 990 probe was bound to turn controversial. Egypt, furious at the NTSB's intention to turn the inquiry over to the FBI, is sending experts to review the cockpit voice-recorder tape that prompted U.S. investigators to conclude that the crash was the result of a crime. U.S. officials believe that a relief pilot muttered the phrase "Tawakilt ala Allah" ("I put my faith in God" or "I entrust myself to God") before turning off the auto-pilot, putting the plane into a headlong dive and turning off the engine when the captain tried to climb out of the death plunge. A chilling detail was added by a law enforcement source who told the AP that the man prefaced the religious phrase by saying "I made my decision now."

Cairo insists, however that American investigators have been too hasty in pointing a finger at the crew. "People here simply dont buy it," says TIME Cairo reporter Armany Radwan. "That phrase is widely used in a variety of different contexts, and youd have to know a lot about the individual and his own religious habits before concluding that he was deliberately taking down the plane. Its widely believed here that the plane was sabotaged, but not by the crew and that shifting the blame onto the relief pilot is part of a cover-up." Egypt has sent its own investigators to review the evidence, prompting NTSB officials to delay handing over the case to the FBI.

Underlying the furor is the question of who gets blamed for the tragedy. After all, mechanical problems potentially point back to the manufacturer (or, of course, to EgyptAir's maintenance) and sabotage by a third party raises questions about U.S. airport security. But criminal action by a member of the crew is an uncomfortable prospect for a country whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism. While Washington is prepared to go the extra mile to accommodate Egyptian concerns, Egypt has voluntarily turned over jurisdiction, and the U.S is likely to retain it. "There were a number of Americans on board, and the flight originated at JFK," says TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon. "Even just one American on board is enough for the U.S. to claim jurisdiction in a case where terrorism is suspected."