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Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East by David D. Kirkpatrick, Viking, US $28.00, Pp 370, August 2018, ISBN 978-0735220621

Egypt is the cultural, educational and political center of the Arabic-speaking world. It led much of the Arab world to independence from former colonial powers. It was also the wellspring of the Arab nationalism soon after the independence of Arab countries. Later, it became the epicenter of the Islamist movement in the Muslim world. More recently, it became one of the springboards of global jihad. Cairo’s vibrancy and nightlife and the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh lured Arab princes to Egypt while small neighboring countries looked to Egypt as a big brother. All this and more lured The New York Times correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick to Egypt in August 2010 when Hosni Mubarak was still in power and everything in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world was quiet — at least on the surface.

Most policy-makers and Arab World experts in Washington had little or no idea that many Arab countries including Egypt were on the verge of imploding. Before Kirkpatrick left Washington for Cairo, experts in Washington had all assured him that nothing interesting was going to happen in Egypt – and rest of the Muslim world. Its docile citizenry would never challenge their corrupt rulers. The ancient Arab heartland was in irreversible decline. But soon after he was settled in Egypt, the Arab World started imploding and the Arab Spring took over large parts of the Arab world including Egypt. History once again proved that people in Washington are largely cut off from reality in the rest of the world.

Kirkpatrick says that he brought with him the standard Western assumptions like ‘Islam fused religion and politics,’ ‘mosque and state could never be separated and so Arabs were all doomed to choose between secular strongmen and religious extremists.’ He writes, “I pictured Egypt and Israel as enemies held in a fragile peace only by American payments to both sides. But the $70 billion in American military aid over decades had made Egypt’s generals into Washington’s best Arab allies. Arab families were tribal. Arab culture anti-modern, Arab women treated almost as chattel. And so on.” Then he adds, “Almost all of it was wrong.”

Kirkpatrick argues that Washington has not learned anything even from the events in recent years. He says that the conclusion that settled over Washington in the aftermath of the Arab Spring was that the people of the region would have been better off if they had never risen up. Washington policy-makers and experts believe that Arabs had failed at democracy, maybe they preferred strongmen. We should thank President Field Martial Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi for restoring order. We should coax him to open the Egyptian economy — Washington’s perennial recommendation. And we should keep sending $1.3 billion a year in Apaches and F-16s to fight the Islamic State in the Sinai — as if Sisi’s takeover itself had not ignited the insurgency. Political Islam was a threat to the West and Sisi was a bulwark against it.

Kirkpatrick says that six years in Egypt convinced him that the uprisings were hardly the source of the chaos. The old order was crumbling, visibly, from the moment he arrived in Cairo, long before the first demonstrator set foot in the Tahrir square. He argues that it felt obvious in 2011 – and became clearer in 2018 – that the failure of the Arab state system was the cause of the uprising, not its consequence. The old autocracies were as fragile as their rulers had feared, but that was because their dependence on corruption and coercion had hollowed them out. So nothing could be more naïve than to think that putting the face of a different soldier in front of a refurbished autocracy would yield a more stable result. The thirty months of imperfect steps toward democracy in Egypt had offered at least a chance of an alternative. Kirkpatrick further argues that Egyptians have as much potential as any people to fulfill the promise of freedom and democracy that brought Tahrir Square to life.

As the correspondent of The New York Times, David D. Kirkpatrick covered Egypt, the most important country in the Arab world, from 2010 to 2016 when the country went through a revolutionary turmoil. He landed in Cairo with standard Western assumptions about both the country and the region. With his keen eyes and deeply analytic mind, he watched the reality on the ground and developed his own perspectives. In Into the Hands of the Soldiers, he shares his knowledge of, and fresh perspectives on, a country that sets directions for the rest of the Arab world. It is an eye-opening account of the most tumultuous years in the modern history of Egypt. It is not easy to write current history as dispassionately as Kirkpatrick has done. It will change the way you think about Egypt and the Arab world.

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