Flt. 990 Casts a Shadow on U.S.-Egypt Ties

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Leaking to the press is second nature in Washington, but it's unheard-of in Cairo — and that may be jeopardizing America's key strategic relationship in the Arab world. As National Transportation Safety Board officials worked with their Egyptian counterparts in Cairo to solve the EgyptAir 990 mystery, the Egyptian press Monday took aim at the latest round of leaked revelations concerning the contents of the doomed plane's voice-data recorder. Although the two sides are cooperating closely at the top, press coverage of NTSB leaks — and the Egyptian pooh-poohing of such conjecture — has made life difficult for both Washington and Cairo. "There's a lot at stake here because both sides need to preserve their strategic relationship," says TIME Cairo bureau chief Scott MacLeod. "The Egyptians are very resentful of the stream of leaks to the media, which have pointed the blame at the Egyptian pilot. In Cairo, nothing would be leaked to the media until the case was closed."

But while shooting down speculation remains a valid exercise while the jury's still out, Cairo will certainly be uncomfortable with any conclusion that points a finger at a crew member. "If it emerges that the copilot is to blame, that could hurt Egypt's authoritarian government, which likes to project the image that it keeps the trains running on time," says MacLeod. "It could also affect tourism and the country's image abroad. So there's likely to be further tension in U.S.-Egyptian relations unless the investigation's conclusion is based on ironclad evidence." After all, given the conspiracy theorizing that has swept Egypt in response to the Washington leaks, Cairo may be hard-pressed to accept a conclusion based on circumstantial evidence without appearing to be caving in to the U.S.