The Failure of Egypt’s Revolution

A protester at an anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration in Alexandria, 2012.

Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East
By David D. Kirkpatrick
370 pp. Viking. $28.

People versus power: This is how most of us remember Egypt’s 2011-13 upheavals. Crowds fight the police under clouds of tear gas on a Nile bridge, bringing down the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Later, they rise to challenge his replacement, the Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi, but are ultimately betrayed and crushed by a revived military regime. Such dramatic street clashes feature heavily in works like the documentary “The Square,” telling a story in which the protagonist is the Egyptian street — or more specifically, the left-leaning activist networks with the most talent in organizing demonstrations. Their courage may have failed to create a democracy, the story goes, but it was only because the forces of reaction were too cunning and too ruthless.

David D. Kirkpatrick’s engrossing account of his time as the New York Times Cairo bureau chief covering the Egyptian revolution, “Into the Hands of the Soldiers,” is a less uplifting but more instructive tale. He brings two new contributions to his retelling. One is The Times’s extraordinary access to decision makers. Kirkpatrick gives an unmatched blow-by-blow of the Obama administration’s Egypt diplomacy, with the Americans’ mixed signals undercutting its impact. Of greater general interest in understanding the final outcome are Kirkpatrick’s extensive interviews with Egyptian officials and with Morsi’s aides. Kirkpatrick’s other key contribution is his willingness to plunge into the messy, sprawling street violence, and show how each side could perceive itself a victim and step up its own provocative tactics in response.

Egypt was Kirkpatrick’s first Mideast posting. He presents himself as a bit naïve, awed by the density of Cairo, fascinated by Islam and veiling. Only months after his arrival, upheaval erupted across the Arab world, and Mubarak’s seemingly iron grip on Egypt was broken by the last people anyone expected to be consequential — the liberal activists, whose networks were tiny compared with the state or the deeply rooted Islamist organizations.

Kirkpatrick was much taken with the idealistic activists, but unlike earlier writers on the revolution, moves quickly through the anti-Mubarak uprising. His narrative takes off with the counterrevolution that followed the election of Morsi. Despite Kirkpatrick’s newness to the region, his bureau was out front in reporting how the military manipulated the activists into laying the groundwork for a coup. Kirkpatrick makes clear his debt to his daring Egyptian colleague, Mayy el Sheikh, and other Times reporters. But he also deserves credit for noting when the idealists he admired began to lose their way.

Kirkpatrick re-examines pivotal events like the December 2012 “battle of the palace” that shaped the mythology of both sides. In the liberal version, Morsi first issued an authoritarian decree granting himself unlimited powers and then, when the people rose in protest, called out Islamist “militias” to beat them down. I covered these events and found Kirkpatrick’s version far more complete.

Morsi had been president for nearly half a year, and had learned that winning elections was not the same thing as governing. The police, who detested him, allowed a wave of crime to shake public confidence in his government. Kirkpatrick had been in close contact with Morsi’s aides as tensions rose. He found the Islamist administration to be confused, unsure how to assert its authority and pathetically desperate to curry favor with the police. Morsi’s decree was most likely an attempt to pre-empt a ruling by Egypt’s Mubarak-era high court that could cripple his presidency — grossly undemocratic for sure, but no more so than the judges’ clear partisanship.

At the height of the crisis, protesters opposed to Morsi surrounded the presidential palace. It was one of those huge confrontations where no individual could see everything. Most protesters were peaceful, though some tossed Molotov cocktails over the walls. The police mainly stood aside. The Islamists called out their own supporters, and civilian fought civilian in a night of street battles. About a dozen died, mostly from gunfire. Kirkpatrick traced the deaths as best as he could and believes the great majority of those killed were Islamists. He recognized that both sides could reasonably see themselves as victims of thuggery.

The battle of the palace convinced liberals that Morsi had to go. They began to look toward the military commander Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to intervene on their behalf. Out of nowhere, a small group of activists offered to organize a nationwide campaign aimed at pushing Morsi out of office, a campaign called Tamarrod (Rebellion). Kirkpatrick recounts the evidence showing that Sisi and his allies, including regional powers like Saudi Arabia, gave Tamarrod crucial support while feigning neutrality.

Many of the activists insisted they didn’t want a coup, but army intervention could mean nothing else. After huge marches on June 30, the military ousted Morsi. The president’s supporters retired to two encampments. Clashes periodically erupted nearby and hundreds of people died, some Islamists killed by the government and some bystanders killed by the Islamists. Television stations called for a crackdown on the Islamist “cockroaches,” and many activists joined in. “I had fallen in love with the young liberals of Egypt. It broke my heart to see them like this,” Kirkpatrick says.


On Aug. 14, the army finally moved on the encampments. Kirkpatrick and el-Sheikh were among the small number of journalists who witnessed the ensuing massacre. They spent hours sheltering from heavy, relentless gunfire, counting the bodies that went by. All told there were probably over 1,000 deaths. But by then, the country was ready to move on. The morning after, Kirkpatrick returned to the site to find a group of happy youths dancing to a pop song praising Sisi and the army.

Egypt wanted stability and Sisi provided it, or at least its vestige. There was no more tolerance for protests. The new regime was even more harsh than Mubarak’s. New demonstrations were crushed and the organizers jailed. Kirkpatrick lingers on the bitter aftermath, as former comrades exchanged recriminations whenever Facebook reminded them of the anniversaries of important marches. “We were so blinded by hatred. … We were non-Jews in Nazi Germany,” one concluded. “We failed the test.” The regime had already come for the Islamists and there was no one left for them.

“Into the Hands of the Soldiers” is a journalist’s eye view, not a comprehensive history. Kirkpatrick ignores or skips quickly through key grievances of the anti-Morsi movement, both the contrived (the Islamists blackmailed the army into rigging elections for them) and the genuine (Islamists were complicit in killings near the protest camps and in post-coup violence against Christians). Nor does he really treat the army’s partisans as having legitimate fears of their own.

Kirkpatrick suggests that if the activists had lived with Morsi’s illiberal but weak rule until he could be voted out, democracy might have had a chance. Their mistake, he says, was “they trusted Sisi.” They chose the greater of two evils. But he doesn’t fully explore the risks of sticking with Morsi. Nor does he analyze how a revolution works, how power can be seized and lost so easily. The closest he comes is a remark that political power is like “fairy-tale magic” that only works if you believe in it. That observation is actually well-rooted in political theory: Revolutions happen when enough people stop blindly accepting that it’s futile to resist the current regime.

The activists’ ability to organize street demonstrations, I would argue, was the kind of “magic” that — for limited periods — could make a revolution (or a coup) possible. However, they never really understood its limits. I remember liberals in 2013 brushing off the threat from Sisi: If he tried to seize power, they’d just make another revolution. They didn’t grasp that you get only so many chances at revolution. A week of civil disorder is thrilling; three years are exhausting. Alliances broken are hard to rebuild. If you throw out too many elected governments, even bad ones, you’ll throw out democracy with them.

Kirkpatrick closes with Donald Trump’s election as president. Obama could never decide how to handle Sisi but Trump’s administration has been unconflicted: He is a strong leader for a region that can’t handle democracy. Perhaps Egypt and the United States are not so different in that. The American president’s nepotism and his paranoia about the “deep state” are familiar to Egyptian activists. “So deliciously third world,” one quipped. However, recognizing a leader’s authoritarian tendencies is easy. The trick is to resist them in ways that don’t erode democratic norms even further.

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