Over the last four years, the ban on flights to Sharm el-Sheikh became part of a diplomatic dance between Britain and Egypt. For Egyptians, it was almost a taboo subject. Every time I mentioned British-Egyptian relations to officials in Cairo they all wondered audibly, as if from a textbook “Where are the British tourists? Where are the flights?”
The good news is those flights have finally resumed. But why now? What has suddenly changed?
The suspension followed the bombing of a Russian airliner by Isis, killing all 224 people on board, caused the sudden opening of a political rift that had been quietly brewing between the two nations for a long time. Egyptian officials struggled with the fact that the issue had long been ignored as serious matter by British counterparts. In fact the decision to suspend flights was taken in November 2015, just as president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sat in a London hotel room preparing to see the then prime minister, David Cameron, the following morning. The meeting, and the press conference that followed, was the most awkward diplomatic encounters I have ever witnessed.
Sources in the hotel where the Egyptian president was staying told me at the time that Sisi had contemplated cancelling the meeting and returning immediately to Cairo to protest Cameron's decision, which he took as a personal insult. He only reconsidered after receiving advice from his diplomats and national security aides.
Sisi's initial reaction was provoked largely by the devastating effect he knew it would have on Egyptian tourism. According to the Foreign Office, 900,000 UK visitors travelled to Egypt in 2015 before the plane bombing. In the winter season of 2015-16, 500,000 holidaymakers were predicted to visit Sharm el-Sheikh and nearby resorts, but the industry was obliterated overnight.
Since then, Egypt’s government has learned its lesson the hard way. Officials have admitted that Sharm el-Sheikh airport fell well short of international security standards. In a reciprocal calming of tensions, British security teams have since worked with their Egyptian counterparts to improve the nations border security. Theresa May, who was the home secretary, was tasked with implementing the flight ban but also overviewing security checks and measures at Egyptian airports.
Relations between the two nations seemed to be improving. But when the government resumed flights to Tunisia in 2017 – two years after the bloody attack in Sousse, which killed 30 British tourists – Egyptian officials were furious. According to insiders who spoke to me at that time, the Egyptian embassy in London contacted the Foreign Office to protest the “discriminatory treatment” and asked why the ban on flights to Egypt was still in place. The answer came that it was for the prime minister to take a decision on Egypt, not the Foreign Office. According to one Egyptian diplomat, "personal considerations" were driving May, and she “was not willing to touch” the issue again, or move her position on the ban.
Hopes inside the Egyptian government were high following the arrival of Boris Johnson as new Tory leader and prime minister – and understandably so. Unlike May, Boris Johnson has a warm relationship with Sisi – and he's also well aware of the potential for significant post-Brexit trade in Egypt and the wider Middle East. He has a vested interest in keeping Sisi onside, despite murmurings back in Britain over his poor human rights record.
The two leaders have met twice since Johnson entered Downing Street, most recently on the margins of the UN general assembly in September, where the prime minister praised Sisi despite reports of the arrest of almost 2,000 activists and a crackdown on media outlets (including the BBC) during protests just days before their meeting.
Egyptian officials see Johnson as a British version of Trump, a western leader who is willing to overlook human rights issues when it suits him. The lifting of the ban on flights to Sharm el-Sheikh is a sign that they might be right: Johnson is taking the first step in an attempt to reset relations, and he believes that the pair share enough in common – such as an intense opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood – on which to rebuild relations.
At home there will be little appetite for such a partnership, especially as protesters against Sisi have been returning to the streets in Cairo. But Johnson, like Trump, Johnson seems willing to look the other way.