“It Was a Lovely, Lovely Time”

What Egypt felt like during the Arab Spring, and how it all went wrong.

Egyptian women hold their national flag and a poster bearing portraits of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2017.
Egyptian women hold their national flag and a poster bearing portraits of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2017. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to David D. Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for the New York Times and the author of the new book Into The Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East. Currently based in London, Kirkpatrick reported extensively throughout the Middle East for the Times, especially in Egypt, where he lived with his family during the fall of Hosni Mubarak. His book is a portrait of Egypt during the Arab Spring, as well as an examination of the ways that Egypt’s depressing path over the past several years has both initiated and mirrored the path of the region as a whole.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss exactly where the Egyptian revolution went off the rails, the ways in which American presidents have differed in their approach to the Middle East, and how the Obama administration helped undermine the Arab Spring.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: Why, throughout history, has Egypt been such an important country to the Middle East?

David D. Kirkpatrick: Well, 1 in 4 Arabic speakers live in Egypt. So, Egypt is by far the giant of the region, and for a long time, it was the most advanced country, the largest economy, the most influential historically. The Nile is an extraordinary thing in a desert region like that, and then on top of that, over the last hundred years or so, you add the Suez Canal, which makes it a gateway for commerce. So for Arab culture, for history, for geopolitics, it’s an extraordinarily influential place.

When did you get a sense that Hosni Mubarak’s rule was teetering and he really could fall?

There was a moment several days into the [2011 Arab Spring] protests when an anonymous spokesman for the military came out on state television, and said that we will not harm civilians, we are going to respect the legitimate demands of the people. And it was a heck of a thing because Hosni Mubarak was nominally still president and yet his military had clearly broken with him. And I thought to myself, well, it’s over, he’s toast. But my editors prevailed on me that things might be more complicated, as indeed they were. We couldn’t yet be sure that it wasn’t some sort of hoax, that the military wasn’t waiting for orders, that this wasn’t some sort of a ruse, and indeed, he hung on for roughly another 10 days after that before he was finally gone. But in retrospect, after that moment, when the military publicly broke with him, when they endorsed what they referred to as the demands of the people and they did so evidently without telling him, he was dead. He was over.

The reason I’m dwelling on that is because the sequence of events has become somewhat mythologized. After that point, once it was really pretty clear that Mubarak was on his way out, President Obama for the first time began to say he ought to go. But the truth is, the American government didn’t really, in any meaningful way, break with Mubarak until it was absolutely clear that he was no longer viable.

You write that you struggled not to sound “starry-eyed” about Tahrir Square and the uprising against Mubarak. Can you talk about the challenge of being a journalist when something like that is going on?

The thing of it is that what happened in Tahrir Square in 2011 really was kind of a miracle, and there’s almost no way to sugarcoat that. It was just an extraordinary thing because what defined that moment was a sense of solidarity bringing together people who have almost nothing in common. So what you saw in Tahrir Square as it really got going was not only young people but also old people, and not only rich people but also poor people, and not only Islamists but also Christians.

They were setting up communal kitchens, they were distributing food, they were running checkpoints, and unlike the Egyptian police, who were so routinely abusive, their checkpoints were very polite. They apologized as they patted you down, and yet they made sure that no one brought in any weapons. At night, they had poetry readings. It was a lovely, lovely time, and it’s hard even now to describe that without sounding like you’re falling for something.

After Mubarak fell, when did you first get a sense that things were going to go in a direction that culminate where they are today—with Egypt under a pretty brutal military dictatorship?

After Egypt had held several successful parliamentary elections and their first free presidential election, and then held a fair and free referendum to establish a new constitution, I thought they really had a chance. And not just me, the American Embassy did too. I remember very vividly attending an off-the-record briefing at the embassy in March of 2013 and they were saying that they thought military intervention was “extraordinarily unlikely.” So I was skeptical, as late as June of 2013 if I’m honest, that the Egyptian people would allow their hard-won democracy to be squashed, and in that, I was totally wrong.

Why do you think they did let that happen, if in fact they did and it wasn’t sort of forced upon them?

If in fact they did. That’s the interesting question. You know, as those 30 months of freedom went on, there was a phenomenon that’s a little bit abstract but I came to think of it like this: Everybody in Egypt said they wanted democracy. They said they wanted pluralism. They looked at the governments of the West and they wanted that kind of a government. Not because they thought it was Western, but because they thought that’s what they deserved.

But they were afraid that some other group, some other constituency, was going to rig the system, was going to hog all the power and run things the way Mubarak had run things. So the Islamists were afraid of the old regime, the liberals were afraid of the Islamists, and for a while, the military was afraid of the people in the street. And those fears kept things in balance for a while, but then as the politics began to set in, as it began to be like two different factions fighting for power, the civilians became divided.

Your book presents a pretty intriguing portrait of Mohammed Morsi, the man who was elected president in 2012 from the Muslim Brotherhood, as a very flawed leader and person. Do you think that someone who was more competent could have taken Egypt on a different course, or whether a military rule was inevitable?

I don’t think it was inevitable. I don’t think anything about this was inevitable. I know that the person who is now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was telling American officials but also his Egyptian confidants, well into the Morsi presidency that he was happy to have a Muslim Brother as the fairly elected president of Egypt.

Could a more competent president have pulled it off? He was not the most competent possible president. It’s easy to imagine a wilier or more strategic leader, or even a better politician, in that role. I found it frankly sort of winning that he was such an amateur. When you think that Egypt is going through this historic change, there’s something sort of sweet about the fact that they’ve cast aside the old order and drafted a civilian with no experience, from out of nowhere, to run the government. The downside, of course, was he didn’t really know how to run the government.

What were his biggest mistakes?

Well, bar none, his biggest mistake was in November of 2012. He felt that the constitutional court was poised to wipe away a draft constitution and the assembly that had drafted it, and to forestall that, he sent his spokesman out on television to read a proclamation that his rulings were above the court’s. So it looked to all the world like he had made himself a dictator. It looked even to me at the time like he had made himself the dictator. Now, he was only asking to have this authority for a period of weeks, until the constitution was passed, and in his defense, the courts really seemed to be out to get him. I mean, he was probably right about that. But his tactic, this unilateral self-aggregation of power, was ham-fisted and in retrospect, stupid.

And what was the ultimate breaking point that you think caused Sisi and the military to take the country back over?

I think that’s when it began. I’m not sure we’re going to find a single moment, but if you look at it from Sisi’s point of view, during those final months, the Persian Gulf states were saying, “Please take out Morsi, we’ve got a lot of money and we’ll bankroll this thing if you do.” The liberals inside Egypt were so afraid of the Islamists, they were saying, “Please take out Morsi, we will help justify this to the world and call it a revolution if you do.” The businessmen of the old elite inside Egypt were saying, “We feel like our livelihoods are at stake here. Our enterprises are at stake here. We think you should take out Morsi.”

So a lot of people were saying, “Come on, Sisi, just do this.” Nobody was really saying there’s going to be a price if you do. And under those circumstances, you know, maybe George Washington, there may be someone out there who would say, you know what, I’m going to turn down this easy opportunity to take all the power in my country. But that person was not Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

In your book, there’s certainly a cynicism to Obama, but he comes across as less cynical than the American military, which wanted to deal with Sisi, less cynical than his defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, and even his secretary of state, John Kerry. Do you think that’s a fair characterization, and did that surprise you at all? It seems like Obama was sort of more willing to try to make things work with Morsi and less enthusiastic about the coup.

It’s certainly true that Obama was more willing to make things work with Morsi. You know, you’re using the word cynical, and I’m not sure that’s the one that I would use. Some of the people who were most sympathetic to the coup were in their own way ideological. If you look at the current secretary of defense, James Mattis, he was convinced no matter what anyone told him that the Muslim Brotherhood was effectively al-Qaida. And if you take that as your outlook, then you’re being idealistic when you say the military should remove this menace. So I’m not sure it’s a case of cynicism. But certainly down to the wire, as things got complicated in Egypt, Obama thought that the best outcome was to avoid Morsi’s removal and try to keep the political process going, and there were people around him that had long ago given up on that, and I believe were probably signaling to the Egyptians that they had long ago given up on that.

Right, although Obama wasn’t willing to go to the mat for it.

No. After the military removed Morsi, I have in the book an account of a meeting on July 4, 2013, in the White House, and Obama comes into the room and says right at the outset, “Well, obviously we can’t call this a coup,” because that would have necessitated cutting off aid to the Egyptian military. And then someone else reopens the question and says, you know, “You could call it a coup without actually demanding that they reinstate Morsi.” And that gets Obama’s interest. He thinks about it. And it’s, you know, there’s some back and forth. Even Gen. [Martin] Dempsey from the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the time, “Look, aren’t we going to lose creditability if we don’t call what is obviously a coup a coup?” But in the final hour, Obama clearly chose the more pragmatic route, which was also the more popular route inside his government, which was to not call it a coup and thus recognize it.

Mattis has a reputation now as this scholar warrior who sits in his library when he’s not working and reads all this stuff on warfare and is considered by a lot of liberals to be the most heroic figure in the Trump administration. The portrait in your book is a little bit more simple-minded, sort of almost shockingly simple-minded.

You know, I agree with you. I’ve found the portrait that is emerging from the media now to be at odds with his attitude specifically toward the Middle East and political Islam. His statements during the interregnum, when he was no longer in the military and not yet in the White House, he spoke quite a bit publicly about his thoughts on those subjects and it’s very clear that he considers Islam itself to be troubled and somewhat problematic. [His thinking is] a little bit of a more sophisticated form of the kind of thinking that we also saw from Gen. Mike Flynn, the former national security adviser.

How much of an impact did the Egyptian revolution and then the coup a couple years later have on the rest of the region? And do you think that if things had gone differently in Egypt, we might be seeing a happier story in various places in the Middle East?

From where I stood, it seemed like the coup in Egypt cast a pretty long shadow. It’s hard to remember now, but as of June of 2013, it still looked like things might turn out OK in Syria, and it looked quite a bit like things might turn out OK in Libya, and all in all, you could still speak seriously of an Arab Spring, of a democratic opening. After the tide turned in Egypt, jihadis everywhere gave out a giant “I told you so.” We told you that you couldn’t trust elections, we told you that you couldn’t trust the West. We told you they would never let Arabs and Muslims govern themselves.

And at the same time, the authoritarians all over the region, whether they’re Bashar al-Assad of Syria or the Gulf monarchs, had a new spring in their step as well. So in many ways, the coup really returned the region to the kinds of dynamics that we saw before the Arab Spring, where it looked like your choices were extremists on the one side or autocrats on the other.

And that’s the “heads I win, tails you lose” that the autocrats in the region want.

Yeah, that’s the bogeyman for them. It’s, you know, it’s us or al-Qaida. That’s what Mubarak was telling American officials for decades. And for a while, for those 30 months between 2011 and 2013, it looked like there might have been another way.

In terms of practical policy differences, do you see a noticeable difference from Obama to Trump?

You have to separate the president from the rest of the government. I mean, the differences between Obama and Trump are vast, of course, on the level of rhetoric and even on policy, but then you get into the larger question of just how much can one president steer the ship, if you know what I mean. It’s got a momentum all its own. There’s a lot of historic policy and bureaucracy that is quite difficult to shift.

On the other hand, rhetoric has its own weight. If the American president is saying, “We support the principle of self-rule,” that makes a difference. If an American president is saying, “Look, it really bothers us that you’re locking up your human rights activists and not allowing free elections,” that has a kind of weight in the region all its own. And then, of course, we get to the Iran deal.

But in terms of Egypt?

Oh, in terms of Egypt, yeah, it makes a difference. If you ask liberal Egyptians, they will say, yeah, sure, we always knew the American government was cynical. We always knew the American government was going to back Mubarak, but at the same time, when there was a different kind of president, it gave us a margin to operate. You know, the gap between America’s rhetoric and its pragmatism gave us a little bit more leverage that we could use to get somebody out of jail or to stop some torture or to press for some greater free speech rights. If you look back at President George W. Bush, he actually put quite a bit of pressure on Egypt to open up, and in retrospect, whether because of American pressure or not, the last years of Mubarak were a golden age of freedom of expression in Egypt and even political participation.

How would you define Egypt today? Is there anything about Sisi that you think differentiates him from other strongmen in the region or around the world?

Well, the question about Sisi is how strong a strongman is he? He is broadcasting quite a bit of anxiety. He does not seem very confident in his own rule. As soon as someone barely sticks their head above the parapet as a possible challenger at any level, he locks that person up. He’s even locked up other generals who he thought might be questioning him, and he’s changing positions—like his defense minister or his head of general intelligence—in a kind of a nervous way. You know, he recently gave a speech where he was complaining a little bit about some of the hashtags that people are using to criticize him on Twitter. And his insistence on winning both elections with more than 90 percent of the vote: He doesn’t seem very confident in his own staying power, and that makes him distinctive.