On the Egyptian Democratic Transition – Review of David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of the Soldiers”Posted: August 9, 2018
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