CAIRO — In an eerie coincidence, the EgyptAir jetliner that plunged into the Mediterranean on Thursday was once the target of political vandals who wrote in Arabic on its underside, “We will bring this plane down.”
Three EgyptAir security officials said the threatening graffiti, which appeared about two years ago, had been the work of aviation workers at Cairo Airport. Playing on the phonetic similarity between the last two letters in the plane’s registration, SU-GCC, and the surname of Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, some workers also wrote “traitor” and “murderer.”
The officials, who were interviewed separately and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the airline’s security procedures because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the graffiti had been linked to the domestic Egyptian political situation at the time rather than to a militant threat. Similar graffiti against Mr. Sisi, a former general, was scrawled across Cairo after the military ousted the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.
Since then, the airline has put into effect a variety of new security measures in response to Egypt’s political turmoil, jihadist violence and other aviation disasters like the crash of a Russian plane that killed 224 people in October. EgyptAir has fired employees for their political leanings, stepped up crew searches and added extra unarmed in-flight security guards. Three such guards died in Thursday’s crash of Flight 804.
Whether those moves were sufficient remained an open question on Saturday as experts pored over data emitted by the plane in its final minutes for clues as to what had brought it down. The French air accident investigation authority confirmed that the data showed that several smoke alarms had been activated while the plane plunged toward the sea.
But they cautioned that the signals, sent by a monitoring system on board the Airbus A320 jetliner, did not offer enough information to conclude what had caused the crash.
“These are not messages that enable us to interpret anything,” said Sébastien Barthe, a spokesman for France’s Bureau of Investigations and Analysis. “If there is smoke, it means that there is potentially a fire somewhere, but it doesn’t tell us where the fire is, and it doesn’t help us establish whether it is something malevolent or something technical.”
In an audio message released Saturday, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the official spokesman of the Islamic State and the head of a unit dedicated to external attacks, denounced the American-led military campaign against the group but did not mention the EgyptAir crash.
EgyptAir’s security procedures last came under scrutiny in March when a passenger on a domestic flight pretended to be wearing an explosive vest and forced the plane to land in Cyprus. The crisis was resolved within hours when the man, later determined to be psychologically troubled, surrendered. The Egyptian authorities were quick to post surveillance videos that they said showed he had been searched before boarding the flight.
Among the 66 people on Thursday’s flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris were three EgyptAir in-flight security personnel — one more than the normal team of two for reasons that were not entirely clear.
EgyptAir security guards differ in several respects from the undercover air marshals who travel on American airlines. The Egyptian guards are unarmed and wear an understated uniform consisting of a dark blazer and a white shirt. When called on, they help crew members deal with unruly passengers. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and earn a moderate wage of about $400 a month.
Normally, one security officer sits in the first economy row, behind business class, and the other is at the rear of the aircraft, two members of an EgyptAir crew said. During stopovers at foreign airports, the security officers are usually responsible for searching the workers who clean the plane and checking the credentials of all crew members or employees who board. They do not monitor the baggage handlers who load the plane’s hold.
Security officials said those procedures would have applied to the EgyptAir plane during short layovers it made at two African airports — in Tunis and the Eritrean capital, Asmara — in the days before the crash. But the procedure is different in Paris because European airports do not permit EgyptAir security officials to search local cleaning workers, a source of disgruntlement among Egyptian officials who feel they are being discriminated against.
Colleagues described the security guards who died in Thursday’s crash — Walid Ouda, Mohammed Farag and Mahmoud el Sayed — as professionals who had exhibited no signs of unusual behavior. They described Mr. Farag as a lighthearted man who was often teased by friends for not having married, while Mr. Ouda cut a more taciturn figure and was polite to a fault.
Friends and relatives also presented a uniformly untroubled picture of the pilot, Capt. Mohamed Shoukair, 36, and his co-pilot, Mohamed Mamdouh Assem, 24. An EgyptAir pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said he had worked with both and described them as professional aviators who had not exhibited any mental or social problems. At 24 years old, Mr. Assem was the average age of many co-pilots at the airline, he said.
EgyptAir crew members have been subjected to much stricter security measures since the crash of the Russian jetliner in October, said the pilot, who described the procedures before that crash as lax. The new procedures include personal searches that have prevented crew members from smuggling cigarettes or currency, he said.
The graffiti about Mr. Sisi occurred several times for about two years after Mr. Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was removed as president in July 2013. At the time, it was taken as a sign of the country’s bitter political divide rather than a directed threat against the plane.
Nonetheless, over that period, EgyptAir fired a number of employees, mostly members of the ground staff, who were presumed to be sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, security officials said. Similar purges took place in other companies in Egypt at the time.
More recently, fears of terrorism have tightened security at regional airports, including Tunis, where the Airbus A320 had traveled just before its trip to Paris, the pilot said. Foreign flight crews face new restrictions on their movement and are now prevented, for example, from leaving the plane to buy items in the duty-free shop, he said.
EgyptAir flights headed to Europe also face added scrutiny under a European Union program known as SAFA, or Safety Assessment of Foreign Aircraft, which allows for spot inspections of airplanes at European airports and penalties for violations.
Although Egyptian society has been divided in the turmoil that followed the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, there has been a tangible sense of national solidarity since Thursday’s crash. Images of grieving relatives have dominated news coverage. As the official crash investigation starts, many Egyptians have reacted furiously to any suggestion that the airline crew bore any responsibility.
Ezzat Shoukair, a cousin of the captain, said he was distressed by some of the coverage.
“Don’t listen to the lies people have been saying since the crash,” he said, starting to weep as he spoke. “We just want to know where his body is. Otherwise, where will those who miss him go when they want to visit him?”
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a cousin of the captain of EgyptAir Flight 804. The cousin, Ezzat Shoukair, is a man.
(via NY Times)