Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East

Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East

by David D. Kirkpatrick


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A candid narrative of how and why the Arab Spring sparked, then failed, and the truth about America's role in that failure and the subsequent military coup that put Sisi in power—from the Middle East correspondent of the New York Times.

In 2011, Egyptians of all sects, ages, and social classes shook off millennia of autocracy, then elected a Muslim Brother as president. The 2013 military coup replaced him with a new strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has cracked down on any dissent or opposition with a degree of ferocity Mubarak never dared. New York Times correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick arrived in Egypt with his family less than six months before the uprising first broke out in 2011, looking for a change from life in Washington, D.C. As revolution and violence engulfed the country, he received an unexpected and immersive education in the Arab world.

For centuries, Egypt has set in motion every major trend in politics and culture across the Middle East, from independence and Arab nationalism to Islamic modernism, political Islam, and the jihadist thought that led to Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Arab Spring revolts of 2011 spread from Cairo, and now Americans understandably look with cynical exasperation at the disastrous Egyptian experiment with democracy. They fail to understand the dynamic of the uprising, the hidden story of its failure, and Washington's part in that tragedy. In this candid narrative, Kirkpatrick lives through Cairo's hopeful days and crushing disappointments alongside the diverse population of his new city: the liberal yuppies who first gathered in Tahrir Square; the persecuted Coptic Christians standing guard around Muslims at prayer during the protests; and the women of a grassroots feminism movement that tried to seize its moment. Juxtaposing his on-the-ground experience in Cairo with new reporting on the conflicts within the Obama administration, Kirkpatrick traces how authoritarianism was allowed to reclaim Egypt after thirty months of turmoil.

Into the Hands of the Soldiers is a heartbreaking story with a simple message: The failings of decades of autocracy are the reason for the chaos we see today across the Arab world. Because autocracy is the problem, more autocracy is unlikely to provide a durable solution. Egypt, home to one in four Arabs, is always a bellwether. Understanding its recent history is essential to understanding everything taking place across the region today—from the terrorist attacks in the North Sinai and Egypt's new partnership with Israel to the bedlam in Syria and Libya.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735220621
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/07/2018
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 297,261
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

David D. Kirkpatrick is a prize-winning international New York Times correspondent based in London. From 2011 through 2015 he was the Cairo bureau chief. He has also been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a contributing editor for New York magazine. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt


Whoever Drinks the Water

Driving east from Tunis may be the best way to take in the miracle of the Nile. The road follows the Mediterranean coast for about seventeen hundred miles. Almost every inch of it is brown twelve months a year-rock and sand baking in the sun. Then you cross an invisible line at the edge of the Nile Valley. Everywhere is an eruption of green. Not even the congestion of Cairo can contain the riot of vegetation.

For millennia, no other territory in the Middle East produced such a bounty. Where the yearly flooding of the Euphrates was violent and destructive, the cycles of the Nile were gentle and predictable. A truism holds that the histories of Egypt and Iraq follow their rivers. Medieval sultans dug a well, known today as the Nile-o-meter, on Rawda Island in Cairo, to measure the water level. The annual rise determined how generous the crops would be that year, and the sultans taxed the peasants accordingly. Farming was that easy. The Nile Valley became the breadbasket of the Arab world. Egyptians swelled with pride in their river. Whoever drinks the water of the Nile will return again to Egypt, the old saying goes.

Egyptians also like to say that they have been rallying around grand national projects since the Pharaohs built the temples of Thebes. After taking power in 1952, President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to build a great dam at Aswan, near the Sudanese border, to harness the Nile for hydroelectric power. Abdel Nasser promised a dam "more magnificent and seventeen times greater than the Pyramids."

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced in 1955 that the United States and the United Kingdom would provide $70 million in assistance for construction of the dam. But he did not like Abdel Nasser's denunciations of colonialism, or his refusal to ally exclusively with Washington. After seven months, Dulles withdrew the offer. Abdel Nasser turned to Moscow.

The dam became a monument to Stalinist engineering. Its construction displaced one hundred twenty thousand Nubians, the dark-skinned Egyptians indigenous to the area. The lake formed by the dam nearly demolished the breathtaking Pharaonic temples at Abu Simbel; UNESCO saved them by paying Western European contractors to relocate the complex, stone by stone, on drier ground. The finished dam stopped the flow of silt and nutrients that had kept much of the Nile Valley so fertile for centuries. The depletion of the water devastated the farmlands downstream and the fishing around the mouth of the Nile. The slowing of the current led to an explosion in waterborne diseases like schistosomiasis.

To fight the disease, Abdel Nasser's successors launched a massive campaign of inoculations. But government health workers reused unsterilized needles. That set off a hepatitis C epidemic that raged on for decades. About one in five Egyptians was infected with "virus C," as Egyptians called it, in imported English. Barbers spread the disease by reusing blades, so sensible Egyptian men carried their own personal shears to haircuts, and I did as well.

The adage about drinking the Nile water lives on today as black humor. The river is so filthy that your first stop would be a hospital. Yet Egyptian schoolchildren are still taught to celebrate Abdel Nasser's High Dam as an unalloyed triumph. I think of the dam whenever I get a haircut: a parable of centralized planning and unaccountable power.

I had the luck to be an American journalist living in Cairo during the thirty months when Egyptians broke free of the autocracy that ruled them. Their escape set off revolts from Benghazi to Baghdad. But the old authoritarian order had only hidden underground, not shattered. It returned to take revenge. A reinvigorated autocracy did its best to blot out the memory of those thirty months of freedom. Let me tell you the story.


City of Contradictions

August 14, 2010-January 1, 2011

My introduction to Egypt was an iftar-the ritual meal at dusk to break the Ramadan fast-on a gritty day in August 2010.

My family and I had moved that week into a one-story villa in Maadi, a leafy district about six miles up the Nile from the New York Times bureau on the island of Zamalek. Both neighborhoods-Maadi and Zamalek-are full of Western expats and Egyptian old money. I had a twenty-minute drive to work if the streets were empty. Usually the lawless traffic made the trip more than an hour. Mercedes sedans and Land Rovers veered around donkey carts stacked with carrots or garlic. Families of four or five crammed onto the backs of Korean motorcycles, and mothers rode sidesaddle with infants in their arms. My wife, Laura, and I had hauled our one-year-old's car seat all the way from Washington. We felt so fussy.

I was drawn to Egypt in part by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I knew the roots of Al Qaeda and its ideology ran back to Egypt. Also, I had turned forty in 2010. I wanted a change from Washington, where I had reported for the previous six years. That was about the extent of my preparation for my posting in Cairo.

I was thrilled with the job. Egypt, home to a quarter of all Arabs, had set every major trend in religion, culture, and politics across the Arab world for more than half a century. Egypt commanded the largest Arab army and held together the region. It kept the peace with Israel. After Israel, Cairo had received more United States aid over the decades than any other country-over $70 billion, at a rate of $1.5 billion a year at the time I arrived. Whatever happened in Egypt was in a way an American story.

The skinny apparatchik in charge of the international news media had welcomed me to Egypt just a few days earlier. He told me that the Foreign Ministry had recalled him from the San Francisco consulate to apply his public relations expertise to the upcoming reelection of President Hosni Mubarak, who was then eighty-two and seeking his seventh five-year term in office. But the genial bureaucrat, Attiya Shakran, talked mostly about how sorry he was to leave San Francisco. Expect laziness and dysfunction from Egyptians, he told me. IBM in Egypt stood for Inshallah, Bokra, Malesh-God willing, tomorrow, sorry!

About three dozen people had gathered for the iftar in a private dining room high in the Sofitel hotel on the tip of Zamalek, with a sweeping view of the river. U.S. ambassador Margaret Scobey opened the event by recalling the iftar President Thomas Jefferson had hosted at the White House. She reprised the main themes that President Barack Obama had laid out in a speech in Cairo the previous year, about "a new beginning" for American relations with the Muslim world. But she left out the indelicate parts, like Obama's Quranic admonition to "speak always the truth," or his nod to the universal right "to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed."

My table felt like a scene in a World War I movie where warring generals meet for tea during a break in the battle. The embassy had invited some of Egypt's most notable dissidents and they were seated with me. One was a shaggy-haired, foul-mouthed blogger known for publicizing videos of police abuse and sexual harassment; the security services had recently shut down his website. Another was an Egyptian political scientist at the American University in Cairo who specialized in the defects of Arab authoritarianism. And a third was a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Mubarak kept the organization in a legal limbo, refusing to either fulfill or reject its license application, which meant that at any moment his police could jail its researcher, Heba Morayef.

On the other side of the table were American diplomats and Mubarak officials, all chatting amiably with the dissenters and me. Was I familiar with the figs and soup traditionally served first after a day of fasting, to reawaken digestion? Had I tried kushari, the beloved staple of Egyptian cuisine? (Rice and pasta mixed with lentils and garbanzo beans, flavored by three different sauces at once-vinegar and garlic, tomato, and hot pepper.) Or how about roasted pigeon? It was a delicacy here. We made small talk about politics in Washington and Cairo.

So many contradictions hung out in the open in the late summer of 2010. Facebook pages borrowed Silicon Valley marketing techniques to agitate against Mubarak and attracted an audience running into tens of thousands. A left-leaning activist group calling themselves the April 6 Youth Movement, after the date of a wildcat strike at a textile plant, claimed more than seventy thousand online members. But a newspaper columnist who questioned the president's health was sentenced to jail for destabilizing the country. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was illegal, but eighty-eight of its members served openly in Parliament. They made up 20 percent of the otherwise docile chamber and constituted Mubarak's only real opposition. Egyptian papers covered the sayings and doings of the Brotherhood's "general guide," a sixty-eight-year-old veterinarian, in the same way the New York tabloids might cover the city's Catholic archbishop (or, for that matter, the way the Egyptian papers covered the pope of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, whose members made up about 10 or 15 percent of the population).

Conservatives in the Brotherhood's leadership-including an obscure engineering professor from the Nile Delta named Mohamed Morsi-had recently forced off its governing board their movement's most charismatic moderate, a physician named Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. But in the summer of 2010 the Brotherhood was collecting signatures for the presidential candidacy of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Noble Prize-winning diplomat who had become the Arab world's best-known liberal. Strange bedfellows. Of course, Mubarak would never allow ElBaradei to run. The state newspapers were busily besmirching him with bogus reports that he had abetted the American invasion of Iraq. One paper published pictures of ElBaradei's daughter in a bikini-a shocking indecency to most Egyptians. ElBaradei's aides found audio surveillance bugs in his office that summer, and the government made almost no attempt to deny or censor reports that intelligence agencies-the mukhabarat-were behind it. I was the only one surprised.

No one saw any chance that the character of the regime might change any time soon. That is why government officials and prominent dissidents could dine together so comfortably. Yet the daily dysfunction of the state boggled my mind. Fiefdoms within the government bureaucracy sparred publicly with one another. Judges protested that the police threatened their independence. Diplomats rolled their eyes at their geriatric president. And the military and interior ministries more or less openly competed with one another for influence and power. In 1986, several thousand police conscripts had staged an armed insurrection. Army troops fought them with gunfire in city streets and hotel lobbies. Now the gossip buzzing around the embassy iftar was about how much animosity the military commanders felt toward the president's son and heir apparent, forty-six-year-old Gamal Mubarak. He stood to become the first Egyptian head of state from outside the military in fifty-eight years, since Abdel Nasser's Free Officers overthrew the British-backed monarchy.

Gamal-or Jimmy, as hip Egyptians called him-had gotten rich as an investment banker in London and Cairo. Then his father installed him atop the ruling party and began grooming him for high office. Everybody was doing it. Hafez al-Assad had bequeathed power over Syria to his son. His fellow dictators in Tunisia and Libya were in the process of passing on their jobs to members of their families. Plenty of Arab states were straight-up hereditary monarchies (Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and four of its Persian Gulf neighbors). So why not Gamal? He was pitching himself as the leader for a new generation: the three out of four Egyptians under forty, and the two out of three under thirty-five.

I was seated next to a close friend of Gamal's, Tamim Khallaf. He was a diplomat who had gone to college with the researcher for Human Rights Watch. Now he had been seconded by his ministry to help tutor Gamal. Khallaf told me that he had watched the 2008 American presidential election from a fellowship at Harvard, and when he learned I had covered the race he was full of questions. What had happened to Hillary Clinton? Had Sarah Palin hurt John McCain?

I had a question for him, too. Would his friend Gamal really run for president to succeed his father in 2011? Khallaf practically winked at me. The Mubaraks were treating the presidential palace as a personal plantation.

I would later learn that the chief of military intelligence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was in the midst of tackling the same question. Intelligence in the Arab world sometimes includes spying on a head of state himself, and Sisi had reported to the top generals that summer that the president might hand his office to his son as soon as the elder Mubarak's eighty-third birthday, in May 2011. Sisi predicted to the generals that Egyptians would rise up in revolt. Mubarak would respond by ordering the army to quell the unrest. Then the generals would face some decisions.

The army had crushed bread riots under President Anwar Sadat in 1977 and the police mutiny under Mubarak in 1986. But the military was a barony of its own. It held the heavy weapons, and its obedience to any civilian was still a matter of choice. Would the generals answer the president's call?

As recently as January 2010, at a ceremony for his promotion to chief of military intelligence, Sisi had publicly praised Mubarak as a father to his country. "Egypt's flag will always continue to fly high under his leadership," Sisi had said.

He recommended to the generals just a few months later that they reject Mubarak. Sisi told the generals to declare loyalty to the people, not the president. They should shape their own transition. A modern state might call that treason. But the time was still ripening as we gathered that summer at the iftar.

I had skipped lunch. As soon as the sun went down I dived into the hummus, grape leaves, lamb, couscous, and anything else I could reach. The Muslims around me only picked at the food. They were pacing themselves, they told me, for a long night of festive eating. They had just woken up, and they would nap the next day. Night is day and day is night during Ramadan in Cairo.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Egypt had led the Arab world to independence from the former colonial powers. It became the wellspring of Arab nationalism, political Islam, and global jihad. Everything in the Arab world had seemed to start in Cairo. Anyone in the region who cared about local politics also followed politics in Cairo. The vibrancy, nightlife, and climate lured the princes of the oil-rich Gulf to holiday at the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh or the Marriott in Zamalek. The people of neighboring basket cases like Yemen, Jordan, Libya, or the Palestinian territories looked to Egypt as a big brother. Cairo was the place for education and culture, the big time.


Excerpted from "Into the Hands of the Soldiers"
by .
Copyright © 2018 David D. Kirkpatrick.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Whoever Drinks the Water 1

2 City of Contradictions August 14, 2010-January 23, 2011 3

3 Police Day January 24, 2011-February 11, 2011 24

4 "We Don't Do That Anymore" February 12, 2011-September 11, 2011 53

5 The First Lady and the Blue Bra March 8, 2011-December 20, 2011 64

6 The Theban Legion May 7, 2011-October 9, 2011 83

7 "How the Downfall of a State Can Happen" July 23, 2011-November 25, 2011 95

8 Forefathers November 26, 2011-January 22, 2012 102

9 Parliament Grows a Beard January 23, 2012-May 23, 2012 111

10 Thug Versus Thug May 23, 2012-June 17, 2012 133

11 The Judges Club June 17, 2012-June 30, 2012 140

12 The Night of Power June 30, 2012-November 19, 2012 151

13 A Day in Court July 4, 2012-September 11, 2012 165

14 President and Mrs. Morsi November 19, 2012-November 22, 2012 170

15 Under the Cloak November 22, 2012-December 3, 2012 176

16 A Rumble at the Palace December 3, 2012-December 7, 2012 184

17 Murder, Rape, Christians, and Spies December 8, 2012-March 9, 2013 194

18 The View from the West March 12, 2013-April 24, 2013 206

19 A New Front April 24, 2013-May 1, 2013 215

20 A Dutiful Son May 1, 2013-June 23, 2013 219

21 June 30 May 25, 2013-July 3, 2013 225

22 Coup d'État July 4, 2013 241

23 Killing Themselves July 3, 2013-July 24, 2013 245

24 A Lion July 24, 2013-August 6, 2013 261

25 Clearing the Square August 14, 2013-August 15, 2013 269

26 Jihadis in the White House August 15, 2013 279

27 Retribution August 14, 2013-June 1, 2017 281

28 Deep State August 14, 2013-June 1, 2017 298

Epilogue 331

Acknowledgments 337

Notes 341

Index 359

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