Aug 9th 2018
Into the Hands of the Soldiers:
Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East.
By David Kirkpatrick
Viking; 384 pages; $28
Bloomsbury Publishing; £21
IN 2005 a middle-aged Egyptian army officer
arrived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. While taking classes at the US Army War
College, the officer, a devout Muslim, sometimes led Friday prayers at the
local mosque. During campus debates he took exception to those who claimed that
political Islam was incompatible with democracy. In his final paper he argued
that Arab democracies must include Islamists, even “radical ones”.
So when the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s
main Islamist movement, won the country’s first free and fair elections in
2011-12, the officer, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, seemed keen to work with the group.
He was appointed defence minister and quickly gained the trust of the new president,
Muhammad Morsi, a Brotherhood leader. Mr Sisi would show up at meetings with
his sleeves rolled up and hands wet, as though he had been washing himself for
prayer. Yet, less than two years later, he ousted Mr Morsi, slaughtered
hundreds of his followers and imprisoned what was left of the Brotherhood’s
Egypt, where a quarter of Arabs live, has
always been something of an enigma. Despite the public’s disenchantment with
Hosni Mubarak, the long-term dictator, few predicted the revolution of 2011
that laid the groundwork for Mr Morsi’s election and Mr Sisi’s subsequent coup.
“Nothing is going to happen in Egypt,” editors at the New York Times told David
Kirkpatrick when he took over the paper’s Cairo bureau at the start of 2011.
Weeks later Mr Mubarak was toppled and the political order was thrown into
disarray. In the years that followed, soldiers, Islamists, liberals and the old
elite jostled for power. None could be trusted.
In his new book, “Into the Hands of the
Soldiers”, Mr Kirkpatrick describes these tumultuous times in compelling
detail. The author is honest about how hard it was to interpret events, grasp
the motives of people such as Mr Sisi and Mr Morsi and predict the direction in
which Egypt was heading. “I brought with me the standard Western assumptions,”
he admits. “Almost all of it was wrong.” But Mr Kirkpatrick, who dodged bullets
and official harassment, deciphered the mystery. The same cannot be said of the
foreign powers, especially America, that watched as Egypt’s democracy crumbled.
The Islamist Riddle
The Brotherhood was Egypt’s biggest puzzle.
“For a supposedly secret society, they were easy to spot,” writes Mr
Kirkpatrick. Often middle-aged and middle-class, they kept their beards trimmed
and wore chinos and button-down shirts. But, before the revolution, their
intentions were difficult to discern. When Hassan al-Banna founded the group in
1928 he was fuzzy on whether it should be militant or peaceful, political or
spiritual, democratic or authoritarian. Egypt’s dictators by turns persecuted,
embraced and tolerated the Brotherhood. America, which lavishes military aid on
Egypt, followed their lead.
Opponents of the Brotherhood warned foreign
journalists that the group wanted to “Islamise” Egypt. But to Mr
Kirkpatrick—and your reviewer, a former Cairo correspondent—the Brothers said
all the right things. They advocated the separation of mosque and state, free
expression and equality for women and non-Muslims. These views were more
liberal than those of mainstream Egyptians. Moreover, to avoid a backlash, the
group said during the uprising that it would not seek more than a third of
parliamentary seats; later it said it would not field a presidential candidate
in the polls following the revolution.
But when those elections came around, the
Brotherhood contested most of the seats, winning nearly half and also the
presidency. After his victory, Mr Morsi installed Brothers in powerful
positions. Months later he issued a decree holding himself above judicial
review and pushed through a constitution opposed by liberals. “We thought we
were losing our country,” one young Egyptian told The Economist. Millions took
to the streets in 2013 calling for Mr Morsi to go. Egypt’s so-called liberals
saw those protests as a rerun of the 2011 revolution—another organic uprising;
another chance for democracy, as they defined it.
They were nothing of the sort. Egypt’s
liberals were not taking back the country—the army was. A slow-motion coup had
been in the works since Mr Morsi was elected. Egypt’s generals did not even
want to recognise his victory. Mubarak-era judges duly dissolved the
parliament. The president’s own foreign minister, a non-Islamist, admitted to
poisoning other governments against him, while the intelligence services worked
covertly to bring the Brotherhood down. The United Arab Emirates, whose
authoritarian rulers fear democracy, especially if it has an Islamic tint,
funnelled millions of dollars to the supposedly grassroots opposition to Mr
Morsi. Much of it went through Mr Sisi’s defence ministry.
The coup befuddled America. As Mr Morsi
teetered, “Washington did not speak with a single, credible voice,” writes Mr
Kirkpatrick. Barack Obama, then America’s president, opposed the takeover and
leant on Mr Morsi to make concessions to save his skin. (Mr Morsi did invite
the opposition for talks—they declined.) But many American officials seemed
resigned to, or even encouraged, a military power-grab. Chuck Hagel, then
secretary of defence, told Mr Sisi: “I don’t live in Cairo, you do. You do have
to protect your security, protect your country.” John Kerry, then secretary of
state, said later that the generals “were restoring democracy”.
American officials couldn’t get their facts
right. James Mattis, then the commander of American forces in the region,
blamed the Brotherhood alone for Egypt’s troubles. He later claimed that the
constitution backed by Mr Morsi had been “rejected immediately by over 60% of
the people”. In fact, about two-thirds of voters approved the charter, which is
similar to the one Egypt has now. Mr Mattis and Michael Flynn, then head of the
Defence Intelligence Agency, lumped the Brotherhood in with the jihadists of
al-Qaeda and Islamic State, even though the Brothers repeatedly condemned those
groups and opposed violence. Both men were given top jobs by Donald Trump.
It is true that the roots of al-Qaeda and
other jihadist groups can be traced back to Egyptian jails, which began filling
with resentful Islamists in the 1960s. Now the jails are bursting again, so
much so that new ones have had to be built. The Islamists have been joined by
liberals, who quickly soured on Mr Sisi’s inept and draconian rule. Egypt now
holds about 30,000 political prisoners, including many journalists. Your
reviewer was berated by the foreign ministry for, among other things, referring
to Mr Sisi’s takeover as a coup (a label America refused to apply). Mr
Kirkpatrick had it worse. Talk-show hosts denounced him on air as an enemy of
The coup also fuelled a jihadist insurgency
in Sinai that continues to torment Egypt. Yet American officials, citing
renewed “stability”, argued that the Brotherhood’s overthrow was the least bad
option. The alternative “wasn’t Jeffersonian democracy”, Mr Kerry tells the
author. “Over whatever number of years we have put about $80bn into Egypt. Most
of the time, this is the kind of government they had—almost all of the time.
And the reality is, no matter how much I wish it was different, it ain’t going
to be different tomorrow.”
Today’s American administration does not
even wish it were different. To them, Mr Sisi has said all the right things. He
wants to moderate Islam and reform the economy. He calls Mr Trump “a unique
personality that is capable of doing the impossible”. Mr Trump, in turn,
celebrates Mr Sisi’s tough leadership and calls him “a fantastic guy”. Like so
many others, the American president seems unconcerned that autocracy is again
breeding misery and extremism in Egypt.