A superb new book on the 2011 Egyptian uprising shows how Israel helped thwart democracy there

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Anyone deluded enough to believe that Israel truly wants democracy to spread in the Middle East must read David D. Kirkpatrick’s outstanding first-hand account of the 2011 uprising in Egypt and its ugly aftermath. Kirkpatrick was the New York Times’s main reporter on the scene in Cairo, and readers who remember his superb dispatches from Tahrir Square back then will also be fascinated by his follow-up reporting, which includes interviews with the major Egyptian protagonists and with other key actors like former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama’s influential assistant, Ben Rhodes.

Kirkpatrick’s page-turning account is called Into the Hands of Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East.  It is about much more than Israel’s support for the brutal 2013 coup that overturned Egypt’s nascent (if flawed) democracy and restored a military regime that is today the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history. But at every stage, his thorough history shows that whenever some American officials, like President Obama, tried to promote democracy by threatening to cut off some of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid, Israel and its supporters in Washington lobbied hard against it. 

Kirkpatrick quotes Leon Panetta, at the time the head of the CIA, who says the new Egyptian strongman, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recognized that the American threats were bluffs partly because Sisi was confident the Israel lobby would protect the Egyptian military. 

The [U.S.] Congress knew that in a part of the world where Israel does not have a lot of friends, it does not make a heck of a lot of sense to kick Egypt in the ass, because they are one of the few players in that area that are a friend to Israel.

Israel was not the only reason the U.S. betrayed democracy in Egypt. America’s other allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil kingdoms, also preferred military rule there. Senior U.S. commanders, like Generals James Mattis and Michael Flynn, had personal ties to Sisi and other Egyptian top brass. Kirkpatrick also notes that Hillary Clinton “saw the generals as a source of stability.” But remove Israel from the equation and it is more likely that the minority of moderates in the Obama administration, which included Obama himself, might have prevailed. 

Into the Hands of Soliders

Kirkpatrick spent 6 years reporting from Egypt, and his masterpiece should become the standard account of a historic period that is bitterly contested. He shows how many of the brave, youthful pro-democracy demonstrators who ignited the uprising on January 25, 2011 that brought down President Hosni Mubarak later betrayed their ideals by supporting the 2013 military coup against the elected government of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

He has a cool, thoughtful appraisal of Morsi and the Brotherhood’s 1 year and 3 days in office, recognizing their mistakes, but defending them against the dishonest charges that the military and its supporters used to justify the coup. He points out that that “Western diplomats often complained .  .  .  that Morsi refused to volunteer big concessions. But he made many invitations to negotiate and dialogue. The opposition always declined them.”

Kirkpatrick, along with his assistant, a remarkable young Egyptian woman named Mayy el-Sheikh, were in Cairo’s Rabaa Square after the coup when 100,000 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood staged a peaceful protest in July and August 2013, before the army and police slaughtered as many as 1000 of them. Kirkpatrick notes that despite hysterical claims from other Egyptians, “Neither I nor any other Western journalist I know ever saw weapons at Rabaa during the sit-in, and I visited often.” He adds that more Egyptians died than in the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989.

John Kerry comes off particularly badly in Kirkpatrick’s account, and his reputation should suffer. He disrespected Morsi, showed a shocking ignorance of Egypt, and endorsed the military takeover. In Kerry’s interviews with Kirkpatrick, he shows little or no contrition about his promotion of a regime that today holds between 30,000 and 60,000 political prisoners. 

Egypt today is a time bomb. The economy is stagnating, kept afloat only by billions in aid from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Kirkpatrick shows how the Sisi regime has sunk into mega-corruption, instead of squarely facing Egypt’s chronic economic and social crisis. The savage repression against the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood is turning Islamists to violence, especially among the young. New armed groups stage regular attacks in the Sinai peninsula, and Kirkpatrick reveals that regular Israeli air strikes, undoubtedly coordinated with Sisi’s government, are helping to hold the jihadists at bay. 

Kirkpatrick’s gripping account is mostly measured, as he lets his superb reporting speak for itself. But at the end, he grows eloquent:

Egyptians have as much potential as any people to fulfill the promises of freedom and democracy that brought Tahrir Square to life. I watched thousands give their lives to build a more just and free Egypt. Their sacrifices are no less inspiring because they were defeated. They labored under the burden of more than six decades of unresolved fears and resentments, against powerful cliques like the judges and generals still deeply invested in the status quo. And for those thirty months, longer than anyone had a right to expect, Egyptians nonetheless beat back repeated attempts to restore that old order.”

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Thanks, James North. Insightful.

I read Esam Al-Amin’s articles on Counterpunch in the time and thought they were excellent. . Check his most recent article in the list. He hasn’t written anything in the past three years and I wonder if he’s alive and free to write.

Can’t take seriously anyone who refers to the Muslim Brotherhood as non-violent. That’s ridiculous. That’s propaganda that no one in the Middle East buys, let alone abroad. Can understand arguing that his removal was anti-democratic, though he ruled as a sectarian, and allowed the Copts to be persecuted. He was… Read more »

I haven’t commented in a while (been busy) but figured I’d pop up here. Hopefully the moderators will let this comment through, as a dissenting voice. As I’ve mentioned, the far-right commentators on this blog have delusional ideas about Israel. This summer alone, these delusions resulted in 160 dead soldiers… Read more »