In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. All praise and thanks belong to God, the Lord of the Worlds. May peace and prayers be upon Prophet Muhammad.
Why did the Arab Spring fail? How did it fail in Egypt? Who was responsible? Secular activists? Muslim politicians? Rogue generals? What happens next? Does democracy have a future in the heart of the Muslim world?
Journalist David Kirkpatrick addresses some of those questions in his newly published book, "Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East.” As the Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times from 2011 to 2015, Kirkpatrick had a front row seat to the explosion (and implosion) of the Arab Spring.
Part autopsy, part eulogy, Kirkpatrick’s book examines and memorializes the Egyptian revolution. He recounts the protests that overthrew President Mubarak, the transition that led to President Morsi, and the coup that installed President Sisi, as well as the critical events that happened in-between and behind-the-scenes.
Although Kirkpatrick writes about Egyptian society with the fish-out-of-water perspective of an American dropped in a strange and foreign land, he mostly avoids the condescending pitfalls of an orientalist critique. In fact, he outright acknowledges the limits and biases of his own perspective as a white American man with politically liberal views.
Nuanced and respectful, Kirkpatrick shares highlights of his (sometimes harrowing) experiences with various Egyptians. Street protesters. Liberal activists. Mubarak supporters. Muslim Brotherhood members. Coptic Christians. Salafi Muslims. Feminist writers. Soccer hooligans. Victims of sexual harassment. Biased judges. Scheming generals. Armed vigilantes. Political detainees.
He shines a critical light on everyone without necessarily condemning anyone.
For example, Dr. Mohamed Morsi comes off as a man of good intentions who failed to meet the challenge of serving as Egypt's first democratically elected president. As Kirkpatrick documents, the engineer-turned-politician undercut his moments of promise with strategic blunders.
He electrified a crowd during his first presidential remarks, but delivered rambling speeches at other critical moments. He forced Mubarak-era generals into retirement, but replaced them with another general who later ousted him. He built a politically and religiously diverse cabinet, but failed to keep those diverse actors at the table. He staked his presidency on the premise of constitutional legitimacy, but briefly and controversially declared himself above the law to ensure passage of a new constitution.
Most fatally: he won the presidency, but failed to win the loyalty, or to take control, of the government actors who undermined him. Bureaucrats disrupted public services. Police officers allowed crime to flourish. Judges overturned his party's election victories. Generals plotted against him in plain sight.
Overall, Kirkpatrick delivers the impression that Morsi spent his presidency playing a game of political checkers—and playing the game poorly—while his opponents played a ruthless game of chess—and cheated quite effectively.
The man who overthrew him, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, receives a similarly nuanced portrayal: publicly measured and reasonable, privately calculating and ruthless, ultimately messianic and paternalistic.
A man of contradictions, Sisi seems to care about the preservation of Egyptian stability, yet he oversaw the massacre of hundreds of Egyptian protesters. An observant Muslim, he once argued for the theory that Islam is compatible with democracy, yet he launched the coup that violently crushed that democratic experiment.
Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also goes under Kirkpatrick's microscope. He returned to Egypt after years abroad, joined the protests against Mubarak, and toyed with running for president before declining to do so. He wasn't nearly as popular at home as he was abroad. El-Baradei eventually joined the coup against Morsi, but withdrew his support when the military massacred Morsi supporters at Rabaa Square.
If Morsi represented the hope of an Islamic democracy, El-Baradei represented the competing hope for a liberal democracy. But both hopes seemed to die with the coup that El-Baradei supported.
Readers with preexisting opinions about Egyptian politics will likely view Morsi, Sisi, and El-Baradei as either wholly heroic or wholly villainous, but Kirkpatrick gives them and other Egyptian figures a fair shake. If anyone comes off badly, it's not because Kirkpatrick condemns them. Their own actions do.
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“Into the Hands of the Soldiers” also recounts how various international players reacted to the Arab Spring. Kirkpatrick obviously spends considerable time with the Obama Administration, which was deeply divided about how to respond to the Arab Spring.
The book portrays some administration officials as defenders of the status quo: first standing beside Mubarak, then keeping Morsi at arm's length, then enabling Sisi. Count Vice President Biden, Secretary of States Clinton and Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Hagel in that crowd.
Pentagon officials like then-General James Mattis (yes, that James Mattis) and then-General Michael Flynn (yes, that Michael Flynn) come off as outright hostile towards the Egyptian revolution, largely because of their hostility towards Islamic political movements.
Other administration officials—including the newer generation of foreign policy hands, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice and Samantha Power—seem more eager to support Egypt’s democratic transition, a perspective that President Obama embraces in fits and starts.
As a result, Kirkpatrick writes, administration officials sent mixed messages to the Egyptian government.
State Department officials gave Morsi the impression that United States would never stand for a coup, while Pentagon officials may have enabled that very coup by giving Sisi the impression that America would ultimately favor stability over democracy.
Kirkpatrick also examines the behavior of other countries, particularly Israel and the Gulf states.
As expected, Israeli leaders seemed to fear that free elections would allow Arab voters to replace pliable secular dictatorships, which paid lip service to the plight of Palestinians, with independent Islamic democracies, which might forcefully advocate for Palestinian independence.
Meanwhile, some Arab states apparently feared that a successful Islamic democracy movement in Egypt would eventually undermine the stability of their own hereditary monarchies. The book depicts one particular Gulf state as especially hell-bent on undermining Egypt’s democratic experiment.
Although foreign nations played an important role in what happened to Egypt, Kirkpatrick dedicates most of his book to the people who mattered the most in his eyes: the young, idealistic, and relatively liberal Egyptian activists who were on the ground, organizing and protesting from the very beginning.
Indeed, those young activists represent the tragic heroes of Kirkpatrick’s story. They toppled a dictator in the name of democracy, only to lose every democratic election they contested, and then unwittingly support the installation of a new dictator.
By the end of the book, one of the few liberal activists who isn't imprisoned expresses shame and regret for her role in Egypt’s current state of affairs. For better or worse, Kirkpatrick implies, these activists both sparked and extinguished the revolutionary flame in their homeland.
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Different people will obviously have different takeaways from Kirkpatrick’s book.
For neutral students of history, the book offers a wealth of priceless information about the Egyptian revolution.
For Egyptian activists, both secular and religious, the book serves as a eulogy to their efforts, and an autopsy of their mistakes.
For revolutionary activists around the world, the book may represent a cautionary tale, perhaps as depressing as it is inspiring.
For those Arab, Israeli, and American officials who actively undermined the Arab Spring, the book sheds a (presumably unwelcome) light on how they encouraged the victory of dictatorship over democracy.
As for the general public, Kirkpatrick’s writing should put even the most detached reader in the front row seat alongside him, experiencing the ups and downs of a revolution—the energy of a successful protest, the suspense of a historic political campaign, the chaos of a demonstration coming under fire, the tragedy of self-inflicted defeat.
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As for me, I watched the Arab Spring unfold while I attended law school in Washington, DC, alongside idealistic students from around the world, including Egyptians. Reading the book brought back those old feelings of hope and horror that I once shared with my friends.
As an American Muslim who has also experienced the benefits of both Islam and democratic governance, the book reinforced my conviction that Middle Eastern nations will be better off if they allow their citizens to establish representative governments that operate within the framework of mainstream Islamic values, as opposed to a medieval caricature of those values.
As such, I pray that “Into the Hands of the Soldiers” does not represent the end of Egypt’s story, or the end of Middle East’s story. Perhaps one day, God willing, Mr. Kirkpatrick will be able to write a sequel. I’m hoping the title will read, “Back Into the Hands of the People.”
Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a Muslim-American civil rights attorney. The opinions expressed in this review represent solely his own views.