David Kirkpatrick covered the Arab Spring for the New York Times as coup followed coup in Cairo.
In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze. His death sparked a conflagration that raged from North Africa to the Levant and all the way to the Gulf.
On 11 February 2011, mass demonstrations and the collapse of US support forced Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, out of office. After nearly 30 years, a pharaoh had fallen.
Libya would be launched into chaos, Syria would be hurled into a grinding civil war, Isis would emerge as a force to be reckoned with. But in the end, the Arab spring melted like a mirage in the cruel desert sun. With the exception of Tunisia the Middle East is now less free, not more. Egypt would again be led by a man in uniform. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
From 2011 to 2015, David Kirkpatrick was the New York Times Cairo bureau chief. His book, Into the Hands of the Soldiers, gives a first-hand account of the failure of democracy to take root in Egypt and the region. Kirkpatrick meticulously chronicles Mubarak’s downfall and the coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi – Egypt’s first freely elected leader and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – barely a year after he took office in 2012.
Recalling the heady days of early 2011, Kirkpatrick writes of the protesters: “They were all so heroic, so ingenious, but also so familiar. Of course we fell for them. We all did, even Obama.”
Not exactly, not everyone.
While the president was betting on the kids, his administration stood divided. Hillary Clinton was telling the press: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable.” Joe Biden, Obama’s vice-president, and Robert Gates, the defense secretary, urged caution.
America’s allies were stunned. For them, Egypt without Mubarak was uncharted territory. Or worse.
To Gulf state autocrats, the uprisings posed a threat. As America armed Afghanistan’s mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, sowing the seeds of al-Qaida, Israel had turned a blind eye toward a nascent Islamic movement for more than a decade, only to watch it blossom into Hamas, the Brotherhood’s violent Palestinian offshoot.
In the aftermath of 9/11, “democracy” and “the Brotherhood” were oxymoronic to many. Middle East watchers and opponents of the Brotherhood argued that a line could be drawn between the movement’s teachings and al-Qaida. For some, the 2011 protests were about pent-up rage at a system rife with corruption. For others, Morsi’s election was a mere interlude before the army reasserted control.
Kirkpatrick emphasizes that among those who lent a hand in Morsi’s downfall were some who sought to depose Mubarak. The two impulses were not mutually exclusive. At crunch time, Egypt’s liberals could not abide a democratically elected Islamist as president.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a winner of the Nobel Prize, backed the anti-Mubarak demonstrators. With equal gusto, he came to support the coup that toppled Morsi in July 2013.
In Washington, John Kerry, Obama’s second secretary of state, unabashedly told Pakistani television Egypt’s generals “were restoring democracy”. Indeed, the Obama administration refused to label Morsi’s fall a “coup”. They feared that doing so would result in an aid cut-off mandated by an anti-coup law. Still, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.
Yet Kirkpatrick tells of a massacre site where a jubilant crowd congratulated the powers that be. As Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s spymaster, said to CNN: “Everyone believes in democracy … But when? Only when they have the culture of democracy.”
Like Godot, that desired “culture” may never arrive. Just last month, an Egyptian court sentenced 75 pro-Morsi protesters to death for their role in post-coup violence.
Into the Hands of the Soldiers vividly depicts the perils faced by Kirkpatrick and his family. In summer 2013, Cairo morphed into an urban war zone, checkpoints and bullets a steady source of life-threatening danger. Kirkpatrick was attacked, his family harassed. Before that he was tried for libel, after accurately reporting a recorded interview with an Egyptian judge. Fake news, indeed.
Kirkpatrick grapples thoughtfully with events he witnessed. At one point he writes: “We set ourselves up for disappointment … Who stole the revolution? That image of the revolution was as much about western narcissism as it was about Egypt.”
In the same vein, he describes the arc of Samira Ibrahim, an activist who in 2011 challenged the interim government’s imposition of virginity tests upon assault victims. But Ibrahim was no Jeffersonian democrat or Václav Havel. Far from it.
Basking in the glow of fame, Ibrahim commended the 9/11 attacks, prayed that “America burn again every year” and freely quoted Hitler. An invitation extended by the US government was hastily retracted.
Yes, it’s complicated. Before the 2013 coup, a Pew survey portrayed an Egypt where a majority of Muslims voiced support for a democracy. The content of that “democracy” was, however, limited.
The same survey reported that two in five Egyptian Muslims situationally approved of suicide bombings, and nearly three-quarters supported Sharia law as the basis of their legal system. Indeed, Egypt was the only country surveyed where more than a 10th of the Muslim population agreed that it was a good thing non-Muslims could not freely practice their faith.
In 2017, Kirkpatrick visited Egypt for a final time. On his departure, he matter-of-factly observes: “I left Cairo early the next day with no plans to return.” You can’t blame him.
- Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George HW Bush 1988 campaign’s Middle East policy group