MH370 and the Secrets of the Deep, Dark Southern Indian Ocean

The world's most isolated ocean has a long history of making things disappear.

In 1900, Jules Verne published The Castaway of the Flag, an adventure novel in the shipwreck fantasy subgenre. To put his Swiss Family Robinson in an excessively remote spot beyond hope of rescue, he plonked them on New Switzerland, an imaginary island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Then, as now, the region's main features were its remoteness and isolation -- capable of hiding an entire island, or simply vanishing a Boeing 777 in its untrafficked vastness.

On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the missing Malaysia Airlines fight, which took off March 8 from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing and hasn't been heard from since, "ended in the Southern Indian Ocean." The loss of MH370 has for the first time turned the entire world's attention to this region: Big enough to contain Russia twice, the southern Indian Ocean has been condemned to obscurity by its emptiness and inhospitality. The ongoing search for the wreckage -- none of the 239 people on board is believed to have survived -- is frustrated by the extreme remoteness and the harsh climate of the presumed crash zone, in the words of Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott, "as close to nowhere as it's possible to be."

Whoever or whatever caused the plane to crash here could not have found a more desolate locale. The southern Indian Ocean is "out of normal shipping lanes, out of any commercial flight patterns, with few fishing boats, and there are no islands," a U.S. government official familiar with the search effort told CNN. Of all the world's large bodies of water, this may be the one least explored; to be lost at sea out there is nearly as lethal as being stranded in outer space.

Distance is hampering the search effort. The planes taking part in the search fly out from Perth, Australia, the closest city to a debris field floating in the ocean that may be MH370's wreckage. But it's still roughly 1,600 miles away, and the 8-hour round-trip flight from Perth limits the time available for actual reconnaissance.

Not that there are other options besides Perth: There simply isn't anything closer by -- let alone inhabited lands. The closest spit of land is the French archipelago of Kerguelen, uninhabited but for a rotating staff of what must be the world's most bored meteorologists. In the 19th century, the French government even decided against establishing a penal colony on the Delaware-sized island because it would be too cruel on the inmates. The only way off the Kerguelen is via a freighter, which takes 10 days to reach the nearest airport. (Kerguelen is also known, aptly, as Desolation Islands.)

The southern Indian Ocean is not only remote, but it has worse weather than just about any other place on the planet. Storms have hampered the search by grounding flights, reducing the usefulness of the handful of vessels in the area (including an Australian Navy ship and a Chinese icebreaker), and further dispersing and submerging much of the debris floating on the surface.

Storms are the rule rather than the exception in this part of the world, plagued by the Roaring Forties -- the never-ending winds that howl around 40 degrees latitude south. The weather, combined with the fact that this zone, just north of Antarctica, is the only place where water can flow around the globe without hitting land, means that the waves are among the highest in the world. (Surfing is inadvisable.) That these are some of the deepest parts of the Indian Ocean, with a rugged and volcanic ocean floor, decreases the likelihood that the black boxes would be retrievable. All of which adds up to an almost impossible race against time: Those black boxes have limited battery life and will likely stop transmitting around April 7.

The mystery of Flight 370 will be added to the slim corpus of stories set in the southern Indian Ocean. Apart from Verne's delightful fiction (the shipwrecked family brings order and progress to the uninhabited island), one very real horror story keeps floating to the surface. In the 17th century, the Dutch ship Batavia was stranded on the Houtman Abrolhos, a collection of reefs and islands off the western Australian coast. A group of mutineers instigated a reign of terror over the survivors, killing more than 100 before they themselves were executed by the officers arriving in a relief vessel. Despite the infamy thus bestowed on the Abrolhos, these same reefs later proved the undoing of the Zeewijk, a Dutch East India Company ship that crashed there in 1727. Eighty-two of the initial 208 men stranded on the islands managed to reach the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in a craft they built from the Zeewijk's wreckage -- the first boat ever built in Australia.

The Dutch persisted in this dangerous route because they chose to ride the winds of the Roaring Forties due east across the Indian Ocean rather than take the straighter, slower route closer to India to their colonies in the East Indies. If they overshot their trajectory, the ships would crash into the rocks and reefs off western Australia. The original ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman, was said to have perished in a violent storm in these parts.

Over time, sailors learned to keep away from the southern Indian Ocean, the furthest place from anywhere that anyone could ever dread to find themselves -- except if one had the good fortune to land on the shores of New Switzerland. What was the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 doing here, thousands of miles off course, disastrously far from any runway, its nose pointed towards Antarctica? Until it gives up the answer, the southern Indian Ocean remains part of the mystery.

Paul Kane/Getty Images


Sisi 2014!

Egypt’s top general is a shoo-in to win the race for president. Then the hard part begins.

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hung up his military uniform today, launching a process that will inevitably end in his election as Egypt's next president. Following a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Sisi declared that he has retired from the army and would enter the political arena. "I humbly announce my intention to run for the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt," he said in colloquial Arabic in a speech aired on state television. "I consider myself -- as I have always been -- a soldier dedicated to serve the nation, in any position ordered by the people." 

For many observers, Sisi's rise to power represents a dangerous return to the status quo ante of Egyptian politics. Time and again over the last eight months, for example, the Washington Post's editorial page has hammered away at the army chief for the government's human rights abuses and denial of democratic freedoms. The generals, according to the folks on 15th St., are leading Egypt in reverse -- essentially re-establishing the old political order at the expense of the high ideals of the 2011 uprising.

It was just three years ago that Hosni Mubarak fell, but reams have already been written about Egypt's lost revolution. These analyses are accurate -- Egypt is not going to be a democracy any time soon. However, Cairo is also not the barren political environment that critics imagine, in which autocrats enforce their rule solely with tear gas and the truncheons. The country's trajectory is clearly authoritarian, but its politics are likely to be hotly contested, even under a President Sisi. 

To the casual observer, Sisi must seem like the only political force in Egypt. A cult of personality followed closely on the heels of the army chief's emergence last summer: The military-friendly media framed Sisi as "Egypt's savior," and stories quickly emerged of Egyptian brides with the field marshal's visage painted on their fingernails, Sisi chocolates, sandwiches, and pajamas, as well as the standard Middle Eastern strongman-poster-on-every-public-building phenomenon.

But Sisi-mania actually revealed the potential fragility of the army chief's political position. After all, if the field marshal was as broadly championed as the government would like everyone to believe, there would be no need for ostentatious professions of faith to him. Even recent popular votes don't necessarily suggest overwhelming support: Although it is true that 98 percent of voters gave their approval to a new constitution in the January referendum -- a vote widely seen as a proxy to test support for Sisi -- but only 38.6 percent of eligible voters actually went to the polls.

The very fact that the interim government has moved aggressively to suppress dissent suggests that Egyptian leaders are vulnerable to political challenges. This coercion has not been limited to the Muslim Brotherhood -- which, despite denials to the contrary, has employed language implicitly and explicitly encouraging violent resistance -- but is also being used against journalists, academics, and activists who have dared challenge the manufactured consent of the Defense Ministry and its allies. In other words, the Egyptian government is doing pretty much what it has always done: It is using intimidation and punishment to clear the field of those who refuse to toe the line. 

But what, exactly, are the most serious political challenges to Egypt's new rulers? The obvious sources are the Muslim Brothers and the faltering economy, which if not addressed could engender the same sort of demands for bread and jobs that weakened Mubarak. For the Brotherhood, the best political strategy is to marshal its resources from Doha, Istanbul, London, and Washington, while continuing its street protests to delegitimize the government. The prevailing theory that the field marshal's popularity will give him the political cushion he needs to make tough decisions about Egypt's future has it wrong: Rather, President Sisi is likely to immediately confront a ready-made opposition, reducing his margin for error.

The economy, however, is the biggest worry for Sisi, and an issue that opponents of the new political order will surely leverage to their advantage. The 2013 demonstrations against then-President Mohamed Morsi were closely related to the sharply deteriorating economy, and billions of dollars in Gulf largesse has done little to mitigate the grievances of regular Egyptians. Sisi will try mightily to avoid the pitfalls that helped bring down his predecessor, but while he may cut a dashing figure, there will still be a dearth of foreign direct investment, scarce tourists, rolling blackouts, high unemployment, and stunning rates of poverty. Egypt's new ruler may even have to cope with another bread shortage, as the Ukrainian crisis could result in a sharp spike in global wheat prices -- a commodity that Egypt imports more of than any other country. 

Figures close to the new regime, however, may prove far more dangerous to Sisi than the Muslim Brothers. Mubarak-era oligarchs are looking to make a comeback: Foreign Policy recently reported that the infamous Mubarak crony and billionaire Hussein Salem is negotiating a return to Egypt, as is former Minister of Industry and Trade Rachid Mohamed Rachid, both of whom have been living in exile since Mubarak's fall. Other business figures connected to the old regime who had decamped to the safety and comfort of Dubai, Beirut, and London are also believed to be quietly exploring the possibility that Sisi's rise has made Egypt hospitable for them once again.

There is no doubt about a confluence of interest between Sisi and the business community -- both want stability, and both believe that dismantling the Brotherhood is central to that aim. And Sisi can't just ignore these figures, as they could provide the money and investment that Egypt badly needs. But in turn, these Mubarak-era businessmen have demands of their own: They would like to go back to doing business the way they did in the mid-2000s, during the heyday of Egypt's era of neo-liberal reforms. 

Here is where it gets complicated. The military commanders, whom Sisi represents first and foremost, are statists who have walled off a large portion of the military's business interests from the rest of the economy. These generals have reaped the profits of a state-run economy: Military industries enjoy subsidized labor -- in the form of conscripts -- and raw materials, which allow them to undercut any challenges from the private sector.

The Egyptian military establishment therefore takes a dim view of anything that could threaten its economic prerogatives. That includes the economic policies of the late Mubarak period, which top military officers directly associate with crony capitalism, corruption, and widespread poverty -- forces that were and continue to be threats to social cohesion. 

Sisi, whose only comment on the economic situation has been to refer to it as "very difficult," is therefore not likely to allow Egypt's business barons the same kind of free rein that they enjoyed under Mubarak. Whatever accommodation between the generals and the private sector currently exists, it may very well be short-lived. No one dares openly challenge the field marshal today -- but what if six months after taking up residence at the Ittihadiya Palace, Sisi is unable to arrest Egypt's economic decline, or some exogenous shock produces a solvency crisis? 

No one expects Egypt's CEOs to take to Tahrir Square, but large numbers of Egyptians might -- and that would give big business an opening to press its own demands on Sisi. If some viable alternative to the field marshal were to emerge, the private sector could also shift or split its support. Members of the business community have not been shy about getting involved in politics: After the 2011 uprising, billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris bankrolled the Free Egyptians Party, while other elements of the Egyptian private sector seemed willing to accommodate themselves to Muslim Brotherhood rule during the early part of Morsi's rule, only to back away once the tide began to turn against him in November 2012.

Egypt's fractious "security establishment," however, may be the force that presents Sisi with his greatest political challenge. Journalists and pundits often use that term to refer collectively to the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, and the General Intelligence Service (GIS) -- but just as there is no single worldview among the military's senior commanders, there is certainly no single "security establishment," given the competing missions and objectives of the big three. 

The world looks different for each of these organizations, and their leaders have regularly engaged in struggles for primacy. The military command tends to view the senior police generals of the Interior Ministry as knuckle-draggers whose job is beneath its own noble work of defending the country. Meanwhile, it is no secret that the Interior Ministry has been working hard for decades to supplant the armed forces as the pillar of the political order, while the GIS is interested in running intelligence operations on everyone.

These rivalries have long helped shape the course of Egyptian politics. When President Anwar Sadat needed to drum up support for his "Corrective Revolution," he promised police commanders that a policeman, not a military officer, would lead the Interior Ministry. More recently, Morsi retired Egypt's entire senior military command in one fell swoop in a bid to secure his authority over the military. To do so, he turned to a commander he believed he could trust -- Sisi himself. 

The late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who served as vice president during the last throes of the Mubarak era, perhaps best exemplifies these political fissures. Despite the fact that he was a military officer, he was never the military's guy at the GIS. Suleiman had not served in uniform for some time, had a competitive relationship with then-Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and was regarded within army ranks as being tainted by the dirty business of politics. Thus Suleiman was not a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled Egypt following Mubarak's fall -- a sign of the military's distrust of his influence. However, likely because he had files on every member of the junta, Suleiman did not end up behind bars with Mubarak, his sons, and the other leading figures of the era.

Sisi no doubt enjoys broad support across the Defense Ministry, within the police force, and in Egypt's intelligence organs. For them, the prospect of his rule promises the restoration of a more stable -- and Brotherhood-free -- political order. The insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula may also help to hold the soldiers, cops, and spooks together under Sisi's banner. 

However, if the conflict against Islamist terrorism grinds on inconclusively or the economy collapses, the latent rivalries between these different institutions could reemerge. Sisi must also be wary of the very dynamics that he helped set in motion: There have been two military coups in the last three years, and Morsi's ouster set a precedent for Egyptians to seek redress for their grievances outside the institutions of the state. While Sisi is a senior military commander, which might stay the hands of potential opponents within the security services, he could still fall victim to Mubarak and Morsi's fate.

Egypt has always been ideologically richer than it is portrayed. In some ways, politics in Sisi's Egypt will look familiar to those who have followed the news since Morsi's ouster, particularly as it concerns the confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state. But it is the coming struggle among those within the ambit of the regime that is most interesting and most important.

After all, it was neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square who actually brought down Mubarak. And it was not the demonstrations last summer that brought the Morsi interregnum to an end. Rather, in both cases, it was the machinations of the men in uniform who brought political change to Egypt. When Sisi trades in his military fatigues for pin stripes, he will immediately be vulnerable to all the forces that befell his predecessors.