On the Egyptian Democratic Transition – Review of David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of the Soldiers”


Once upon a time a US Democratic administration dedicated itself to a policy of freedom and prosperity around the world. In Egypt it placed its bets on young men who would reform the country’s corrupt social and political order and bring back greatness to the land, always described with the hackneyed phrase of “ancient”. The time was the summer of 1952 and the young men, almost all younger than 40, had thrown out the the young king, just 32, who had ruled for 16 years, growing fat, ridiculous and old beyond his age. A few weeks after the coup the New York Times sent its star reporter and chief London correspondent to Cairo to get a read on where Egypt is going. Clifton Daniel was no stranger to the country, having lived there and reported on the region and the turbulent events in Egypt after World War II. Daniel, an urbane mandarin and future husband to the US President’s daughter, knew everyone of note, and had even dined with King Farouk who criticized his table manners. In the late summer of 1952 he connected with many of his Egyptian friends including the young men of the liberal elite, politicians, diplomats, and a host of other academics and intellectuals. All seem to support the coup and hope that the men in uniform would reform the political system and establish Egyptian democracy on a firmer ground. The Times had reasons to expect Daniel to write a definitive article, or even a book, on the new Egypt. He never did. A quarter century later, recently retired as editor of the Times, he gave an extended talk to journalism students at Columbia University. A older woman in the audience asked him where he would go to report today if he could pick any spot. He did not hesitate; the Middle East and Egypt. Many of the men who supported the coup in 1952 reflected on what it had brought the country decades later and still insisted that their support was no error. “It was either the army or the Brotherhood”, many insisted.

The events of 2011 serve as an antipode to those of 1952. The 1952 coup turned into a revolution, while the revolution of 2011 turned into a coup. Improved communications and a radically changed America meant that an entirely different situation existed in 2011 than in 1952 for US reporters. Communism, the major concern in 1952 was dead in 2011, replaced by terrorism as the major threat. The US had changed radically as well; its President was a black man, the marriage of his parents would have been illegal in most of the US in 1952. The US continues to see itself as a force for freedom and prosperity, but with some hesitation and uncertainty, the result of failed wars and a creeping imperial order.  And the New York Times continues to send its star reporters to the region, especially Egypt. The man who happened to start his tenure on the threshold of these events has now written his version of them. David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of Soldiers” is a gripping book, cinematic and fast-paced as befits a first hand account of seismic shifts in a big country. The book is also a hard-boiled bildungsroman of a newly arrived reporter excited at the events he witnesses but ultimately growing jaded about the ways of the (and here is that word again) “ancient” land. Although that alone is worth the price of the book, there is much more to it than the disillusionment of David. Foreign correspondents will sometimes write the first draft of historical events based on eyewitness accounts. On occasions they will also deliver a nuanced understanding of the land they report on. The book is clearly an attempt at both, succeeding in the first task more clearly than in the second. The fearless and dedicated reporter in him will go anywhere and report on any event even at considerable personal risk. But Egypt leaves him at times surprised and perplexed. Any failure in the task of bridging understanding is less the fault of Kirkpatrick than in the rigid constraints imposed on him by his own culture, and more importantly the Egyptians’ culture. Late in the book he notes that his employer banned the use of the word “secular” about any Egyptian. This is a regrettable form of cultural determinism more than matched by the unfortunate habit among Egyptians of regarding any outside reporter not aping their favorite views as either a spy or an idiot. In reporting the events Kirkpatrick had to cut through the fog of tear gas. In reporting the intent behind the events the fog of misunderstandings proves much harder to wave away. The book has to be read and evaluated on the merits of three threads that run through it; the first hand accounts of the events, the representations of the back room maneuvers among many Egyptian and non-Egyptian actors that the reporter had access to by virtue of his position, and finally the broader lesson that these events leave with us. It is a tall order. Comparable to trying to understand plate tectonics using data from a single or a few earthquakes.

In the years of living madly between 2011 and 2014 Egypt seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Kirkpatrick was there in every major news event to report first hand. We come away with sympathy for a man who craved to do his job, however dangerous, while still trying to maintain a semi-orderly normal life with family, friends and colleagues. At dangerous moments his concern is often for his colleagues or interpreters, whom he sees sharing in the dangers but unlikely to share in the glory, and who will be in Egypt to experience the fallout long after he has gone onto other assignments. This concern adds texture to his reporting beyond what was already published in his dispatches. It is impossible not to feel sympathy, admiration, and perhaps a bit of envy, for the experiences he reports with sparse and rapid prose. He is eager to report on the events without becoming part of them or, when the bullets fly, a victim of them. The task is made harder by the Egyptians; some clearly wish to enlist a major Western paper as a witness for their cause, while others are certain that the reporters for these papers are misguided dupes or ill-intentioned meddlers. The degree of venom heaped on such publications, and on individual reporters, is a reflection of the polarized pathology of Egypt at the moment and also of how the events in Egypt became an element in the larger Western discourse about its attitudes and values. Still we have to be grateful for the record Kirkpatrick leaves us, even if at times one is aware of its limitations or of alternate versions. His first hand accounts are vastly superior to many other reporters in Egypt at the time, when some of them were so taken by the thrill of the barricades and the camaraderie with Egyptian actors, some of whom have suspect causes, that their dispatches become indistinguishable from agitprop.

Some things in Egypt never change, like the sun and the sand. Many of the actors in Kirkpatrick’s reporting are back on the stage to reprise roles they had previously played. One of the stars of his reporting is the police, who seem to delight, indeed take pride, in their culture of persistent impunity. In February 1968 a clutch of young boys from a private school in Heliopolis demonstrated against the light verdict for the officers responsible for the 1967 debacle. With voices not yet changed they screeched “Feen Al Qanoun” (Where is the law?). They were arrested and taken to the police station for the customary beating. One by one the boys were led into the captain’s office and made to recite their refrain. A young conscript, barely out of his teens, slapped each one around declaring “Ha Howa Al Qanoun” (This is the law). When done, each boy was asked a question “enta eh?” (what are you?) to which the expected answer is “Ana Masry” (I am an Egyptian). Kirkpatrick describes nearly identical events, only now more brutal. The Egyptian state, decades after Nasser, kept his fist but lost his smile, energy and charm. In his retelling of how Egyptian leaders view their fellow citizens we hear echoes of Nasser’s famous sad refrain “letting Egyptians participate in politics is like letting children play in traffic”. Even the title of the book echoes a phrase first made popular by Aziz Al Masry, head of the Egyptian army in the 1930s and a spiritual father to the Free Officers “The country is held together by the hand of the Army”. A seasoning in Egyptian history would have made the events of these years, however unpalatable, easily predictable. Kirkpatrick seems slightly aware that he too is a participant in the drama, his role having been played by many eminent actors before him. Egyptians crave outsiders to witness their spats and are keen to enlist them to favor one side or another. There is some comfort in that the author has done considerably better in his allotted role than many others before him. Kirkpatrick describes in vivid terms the chasm between different classes of Egyptian, symbolized by his two Arabic tutors. The reality is that every Egyptian contains a bit of each; a flammable combination of pride and a sense of inferiority and lost greatness. The narrative of loss is as old as Egypt; how the great land has declined and fallen. Westerners have sometimes contributed to that narrative, and Kirkpatrick does as well. But the remedies that the Egyptians and the outsiders recommend vary greatly. The Egyptians invariably look for the great man who will lead the country from the current intermediate period of chaos and into a new kingdom of greatness. The outsiders cannot fathom such an attitude and are invariably flummoxed by its manifestation. The disillusionment of David owes a great deal to that seemingly unchanged fact of this, yes again, ancient land.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is the access Kirkpatrick had, as a star reporter for a major Western paper, to the inside players in the Egyptian serial drama of 2011 to 2014. Egyptian officials and powerful players were always eager to reach out and shape the narrative, even while cursing out the reporter as naive, bumbling or worse. US diplomats and government officials did as well, displaying an astounding combination of keen insights, deep understanding, wishful thinking and utter cluelessness. It almost never occurs to American officials that there is little the US can do about or to Egypt. After all, how can that be with a $70 Billion investment in Egypt’s military and the clear and unmistakable indications that its officers listen and heed the advice of the US?  A young Obama assistant, Ben Rhodes, gives flesh to these thoughts in carefully worded leaks to Kirkpatrick. But Rhodes knows little of Egypt, and in his constant banging about the clearly dead Egyptian democratic transition appears like the foolish characters in the Monty Python skit about a dead parrot. Older men and women, such as Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Joe Biden and Robert Gates have deeper knowledge and keener instincts. Yet Egypt disappoints them as well. Twenty five centuries ago a Greek warned that everything is backwards in Egypt. But neither he, nor the men and women who followed him took heed of that advice. In fact, even when fully in control of Egypt, well-meaning outsiders found it difficult to impose their will on the Egyptians. As both Augustus Caesar and Lord Cromer noted, the Egyptians often say “Yes” when they mean “No” and at times say “No” when they are sure that “Yes” is the right answer. The Egyptian air is thick with talks of meddling outside hands and conspiracies. Kirkpatrick provides a blow-by-blow of the various outside actors in the Egyptian drama, from top leaders to walk-on extras. From America, Obama is too distant in the narrative, even if his government officials are deeply involved. His ultimate detachment reflects a new reality; the US is a lesser player in Egypt than many other regional actors, such as the Gulf countries. Many will take the account in the book as proof that the US is not serious about democracy in Egypt. But the fact remains that the US can be no more serious about it than the Egyptians. In the first election since 1938 where the government did not tilt the scales, they narrowly elected a fool for president, rigged up an electoral system to give majorities to minorities, hold no one accountable, provide no checks and balances, and write constitutions in the manner of minor litigants at a traffic court. It is unfair to ask the US to support such a ramshackle structure. A solid Egyptian democracy, built on decent laws and ideas, needs no outside support. An Egyptian democracy needing an American ambassador to do shuttle diplomacy between political actors will collapse regardless of the words and actions of the most well meaning outsiders.

Kirkpatrick attempts to understand what the events he witnessed mean for Egypt and its future. This is the weakest part of the book, in part because he was denied access to many major sectors of Egyptian society and their views. The fault is largely with these sections of the society who locked him out as hopelessly biased. Many will read his thoughts as forgiving of, even favoring, the Islamists and their intentions. His sympathies are largely in the right places, such as reporting on the travails of women and the Copts, and in some cases with the right people, such as Mozn Hassan or Hossam Bahgat. In other cases, he fails to discern the motives or the seriousness of his native informants. Some of the throwaway comments in the book will give fodder to his critics. For example, he mentions that there was more freedom of speech during President Morsi’s tenure. It is true, but mostly as a reflection of his ineptitude at suppressing it than his belief in its value. He insists that more Copts were killed during Sisi’s tenure than during Morsi’s. This is also true, but only because they were targeted specifically because of their broad sympathies. Yet such matters are minor compared to a larger point Kirkpatrick makes which Egyptians should engage, however painful it might be. He asks an implicit question, “What about the blood?”.  The events of 2011 to 2014 are bloody enough, but are bookended with two horrific massacres when the state turned against some of its people. The deaths at Maspero in 2011 are a precursor to those at Rab’a, although in very different ways. No one seems eager to understand how either event came about. Many Egyptians will insist that Egypt is different, that it lacks the blood letting capacity of a Syria or an Algeria. On a percentage basis, this is clearly true. But it is an observation designed to obscure their failure to engage their history from a moral perspective. Obama quoted Nelson Mandela to urge Morsi to be more inclusive. Morsi’s followers called him their Mandela without even a hint at adopting Mandela’s moral and historic stance. The word “martyr” flows easily from Egyptian tongues, but what are these unfortunate victims standing witness to? Every faction in Egypt celebrates its martyrs as leading the way to a happier future. The Army, the police, the Islamists, the Copts, the revolutionaries and even Kirkpatrick in a moment of weakness, insist that the sacrifices of martyrs will not go in vain. But what if the way forward is not through spectacular sacrifice but a more mundane process of compromise? What if the witnesses that the country needs are not those who die for a cause, but a wider collection of voices who live to see their predictions proven wrong, their favored biases made less certain and their fears remain unrealized? Egyptians would do well to engage accounts such as these in the book, however limited in focus and duration, and regardless of world views and biases they might represent, as corrections to their certainties and realities. At end of reading this book one comes away with the realization that Egypt has not so much slipped back into the hands of soldiers, as the soldiers of Egypt having become again hostages to its sorrows. Perhaps the way out of this moment is for the people to focus less on the actions of their soldiers than on the causes of their sorrows.

— Maged Atiya



The Resurrection and Death of Salama Moussa


“Lo, the desert claims the land.Towns are ravaged, Upper Egypt became a wasteland Lo, everyone’s hair has fallen out Lo, great and small say, ‘I wish I were dead’ Lo, children of nobles are dashed against walls Infants are put on high ground Food is lacking Wearers of fine linen are beaten with sticks Ladies suffer like maidservants Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds Men stir up strife unopposed Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with laments See now the land deprived of kingship What the pyramid hid is empty The People are diminished.”

Lamentations of Ipuwer 2200 BCE

“The temples of the gods and goddesses from Elephantine down to the marshes of the Delta had gone to pieces. Their shrines had become desolate, had become mounds overgrown with weeds. Their sanctuaries were as if they had never been. Their halls were a footpath. The land was topsy-turvy and the gods turned their backs upon this land. If an army was sent to Syria to extend the frontiers of Egypt, no success of theirs came at all. If one prayed to a god to seek counsel from him, he would never come at all. If one made supplication  to a goddess similarly, she would never come at all.”

Tutankhamun’s Restoration Stela 1334 BCE

In his reign, for what cause I know not, a blast of God smote us; and unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force they easily overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others.

Manetho 300 BCE

The country feels trapped, cheated, and shortchanged in the battle between an inept, authoritarian state and a theocratic fringe.

Fouad Ajami 1995

Travel across the Arabic-speaking world and a common theme emerges. It is encountered in the pitiful eye of strangers and in the questioning eye of the academic: what has happened to Egypt and the Egyptians?

Samuel Tadros 2018

On August 4 1958 the Egyptian writer Salama Moussa took his last breath. Half a century earlier, as a young man in Europe, he discovered how little he knows about the history of his land, or the culture of the West that he observed with fascination and admiration. The shy and introverted young man was not short on self-confidence or anger. Like his namesake he resolved to come back to his people with commandments on how to live their lives. Over the course of five decades he wrote books at the rate of one a year and published articles at the rate of one a week. He became known, indeed notorious, for the trouble he kicked up, and for his ability, in the words of Wadi’ Filistin, to make enemies and admirers. His hectoring on freedom of thought, sexual freedom, the rights of women, evolution, psychoanalysis, language and secularism came in jumbled but pointed streams. His people listened (when they did) and ignored most of his recommendations. They chose the certainty of what is known to fail over the uncertainty of what might succeed. He did not help matters by his own conduct. He urged strict birth control, but fathered eight children. He advocated sexual freedom and open marriage, but lived a conventional middle class life. He simultaneously urged people to build businesses and the government to control the economy. He railed against religious superstition, but found himself embroiled in matters of church governance. He insisted that Arabic was retarding the growth of his country but wrote exclusively in it. He insisted that freedom of thought was paramount in any cultural project, yet supported the 1952 coup and participated in the Third Arab writers conference a few months before his death, an event that Albert Hourani defined as the moment of death for the liberal age that Moussa had championed for most of his life. Yet all his contradictions did not stop his contemporaries from admiring him or hating him, and on occasions both. The list of those who called him a mentor is long, so is the list of those who found him insufferable. ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad, once a friend, became a bitter enemy and they continued to battle to old age, when a year or so before Moussa’s death ‘Aqqad swore never to argue again with this “despicable communist”. Taha Hussein admired his passion in defense of shared opinions, but was stung by his attacks on Arabic, and his wholesale condemnation of all Egyptian ‘Udaba’ (intellectual) as mere servants of the rulers. His death came roughly half way between two events that symbolized the demise of his project; the conference mentioned above and the January 1 1959 wholesale arrest of many of Egypt’s leftist intellectuals as “communists”. He thundered that the Egyptians deserve a “literature of the people” rather than the fare imposed on them by their intellectuals. But when the people chose, it was not fine literature but religious hectoring and political conspiracies that carried the day. He dreamt of the day when hundreds of outlets would cater to the people without elite intervention. The day has arrived and he would be aghast at what the people choose to consume. Egypt, two generations after his passing, stands in reprimand of all that he dreamt for it. Yet, were he alive today, he would likely insist that all is not lost.

The eulogies came quickly after his passing and continued for decades, with all of them predicting, in one way or another, that he will consigned to obscurity. Immediately after his death, Hussein Fawzy gloomily noted that “When Salama Moussa realizes his rightful place in the country’s history, and when his country prizes him, then I will feel that my country acknowledges the rightful place of free thought, intellectual courage and scientific inquiry”. In a set of reflections on intellectual history of Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz noted that “Salama Moussa was a man of the future, always committed to social justice, industrialization, scientific knowledge and democracy. He stood against all superstitions. I am his student and affected by all his thoughts, except his dedication to the West”. The Lebanese academic Khalil Bitar noted in 2007, with his country’s civil war in the rearview mirror, that Moussa was unlike intellectuals of his generation in “refusing to blame others for the failures of their society, and largely forgotten for insisting that sectarianism is the ruin of all societies, Eastern or Western”. Even Mohamed Hassanein Heikal lamented that “he was an important intellectual but never given his due”. It is hardly surprising that Moussa would be forgotten, given how Egypt has drifted away from his vision in the past six decades. Religion has not become a private pursuit, but a matter of contentious, even lethal, public policy. Women experience the patriarchal oppression with more not less force. Freedom of thought and expression are mythical, less for the heavy hand of the state than the oppressive nature of the society. Almost everything the man has wished for his countrymen has been rejected by them. Yet he is not totally forgotten; every few years one thinker or another brings up his memory, attempts a resurrection before consigning him to forgetfulness again. A retrospective of the man, published by Fikry Andrawous and available only in Arabic, continues to fly off the shelves in Cairo. Young men continue to discover this writings and be profoundly, and largely privately, affected by them. Andrawous dedicates nearly 70 pages to such testimony. A typical one comes from Maged Moustapha Ibrahim. As a young college student in the early 1980s he was stricken with a serious case of boredom by the decrepit intellectual atmosphere around him. One day he came upon the “The Education of Salama Moussa”, and within days he was traveling with a book bag full of Moussa’s writings and reading nothing else. The implicit question in such tales is “what happened to us? what happened to our brain?”. This is the cry of the Egyptians at an “intermediate period”; what historians label centuries of chaos sandwiched between bursts of glory and brilliance.

Living in the intermediate age while empowered by easy communication tools has generated a peculiar sort of non-verbal laments. Dozens of social media and other accounts are dedicated to evidence of how Egypt once looked. The women went about in fetching sun dresses. Men kept their hands off them. The beaches were free and the people frolicked in flimsy swimsuits. The streets were orderly and clean. People from all around the region flocked to Egypt as a beacon and a destination. People fear “state failure”, but Egypt in the current intermediate period is a not a failure. It is a joke. The remedy, all insist, is to reject the current false idols and go back to the true gods. This has always been the recipe for any intermediate age. Psalm 115, pinched by the Jews from an ancient Egyptian hymn, makes the point.

Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?
But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.

For all his errors and peculiarities, Moussa understood one important insight about Egypt, and hammered the point home with his signature inelegance. It is a point made in a very different manner by Freud about the mythical founder of his people in “Moses and Monotheism”. The root of Egypt is the root of Western civilization. If the Egyptians were to take the current salafism to its logical end they would find themselves deeply attached to the West they admire, hate, attack and court its favor. It is perhaps why the peculiar and difficult man experiences a cycle of resurrection and burial, an ancient habit of his kin, the people who ushered in the Axial age and then proceeded to smash it to bits.

— Maged Atiya