ON 17 December 2010, a Tunisian fruit pedlar named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze, beginning, not only a revolution against the Tunisian government, but also the so-called Arab Spring, protest movements against autocratic regimes throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
David Kirkpatrick, a journalist working for the New York Times, covered the events in Tunisia before moving, with his family, to Cairo to report on the people’s protests in Egypt.
In this book, Kirkpatrick, an eyewitness of many of the events that he describes, provides a gripping account of the tumultuous days in Egypt from 2011 to 2017 and how the promise of democracy and freedom for the Egyptian people tragically declined into violence and oppression.
In the first few chapters, Kirkpatrick describes his departure from Tunis to Cairo in January 2011, and his link with the pro-democracy protesters camping out in Tahrir Square. There, he witnessed the police opening fire and killing many of the demonstrators. But people power prevailed.
On 11 February, with continuing mass demonstrations and the withdrawal of US support, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign. As Kirkpatrick remarks, “After nearly 30 years, a pharaoh had fallen.”
After a brief posting in Libya, where he covered the demise of Colonel Gaddafi (Qaddafi), Kirkpatrick returned to Egypt, reporting on the election of Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as President in June 2012.
Stability was short-lived, however. With considerable political acumen, Kirkpatrick describes how, on 3 July 2013, General Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi, with military support, removed Morsi from office. The US, afraid of losing its most stable ally in that region, refused to label Morsi’s fall a “coup”, although “everyone knew that it was.”
Kirkpatrick emphasises how, despite official statements to the contrary, the takeover by Sisi “was violent and bloody”. At the Rabaa Square protest of 14 August 2013, for example, hundreds of peaceful, unarmed protesters were gunned down by the military.
Successive chapters describe how Sisi, “the new Qaddafi”, held presidential elections in 2014 — elections characterised by gross “irregularities” and the arrest of serious challengers — in which he was declared the winner with 98 per cent of the vote. The same happened again in the elections of 2018.
Throughout the book the reader is given Insights into the geo-politics of the Middle East: Kirkpatrick considers the machinations of the Muslim Brotherhood; US support for Egypt, which helped to establish Egyptian ties with Israel (“enemies held in a fragile peace”), and the authoritarianism of the “deep state” established by Sisi.
While writing the book, Kirkpatrick was attacked, and his family were harassed. He describes how he was tried for libel and faced imprisonment, after being falsely accused of misquoting a judge. In 2015, owing to his accurate reporting of atrocities, he was denounced by the pro-government media as “an enemy of Egypt” and a “terrorist sympathiser”. Facing such dangers, in 2017, he visited Egypt for a final time.
Kirkpatrick raises several controversial questions: Is Islam inherently violent, and is sharia incompatible with democracy? But, most importantly, he asks how and why the Arab Spring failed. Frustratingly, Kirkpatrick only hints at answers to such questions.
This book, a captivating narrative of recent Arab history, sprinkled with personal stories, insights, and humour, is strongly recommended for anyone who has an interest in the Middle East.
Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance consultant on Islam currently living in Iraq.
Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and chaos in Egypt and the Middle East
David D. Kirkpatrick
Church Times Bookshop £22.50