New York Times Cairo Bureau Chief, David Kirkpatrick on rising violence in Egypt
HH: I begin this hour with David Kirkpatrick, who is the New York Times’ Cairo Bureau Chief. He joins us from Egypt tonight. David, welcome, thank you for joining us, what is the situation in Egypt tonight?
DK: It’s ugly. It is really ugly. Tonight, we have seen for the first time since the beginning of the revolution, and I think perhaps for the first time since the revolution that brought Nasser to power in the early 1950s, open factional fighting, political factions fighting in the streets of the capitol around the presidential palace. Islamists armed with clubs and rocks and their fists, Molotov cocktails battling secular protestors similarly armed. I’ve never seen anything like it. I just emerged from the fighting right now, and I’m frankly sort of awestruck and depressed.
HH: Did you see anyone being seriously injured in the course of those conflicts, David Kirkpatrick? Or is it sort of the faux violence that we associate with some Western protests?
DK: No, no. I saw many people wounded, some with birdshot, some with rocks to the head, a steady stream of ambulances leaving. The Ministry of Health says more than 211 have been injured. Each side, the secular protest leaders and the Islamists say that one of theirs has been killed, but the Health Ministry hasn’t confirmed that, yet. So that’s speculative. And I’m almost, it would almost be irresponsible to report it, except that everyone here believes it. And so it’s become, this notion of martyrdom on either side, has become a part of the fight now.
HH: Earlier today, I read Elbaradei had announced that this was the end of any possible legitimacy for the Morsi government as violence had been taken up by the Islamists. Is that a widely shared point of view? Or is that simple Elbaradei?
DK: That view is widely shared among the secular protestors here. You know, this is a very complicated situation politically, and an instance where each side has got a valid point. You know the old joke just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after me? You know, the Brotherhood has bought into some scary conspiracy theories, that the secular political forces are, would rather sacrifice democracy than to see them win, will obstruct the new constitution at all cost, and that elements of the old government, including the still-operating Mubarak-appointed courts, are out to get them. And they’re not wrong, to be honest. I mean, there are so-called liberals here who would rather sacrifice democracy than to see the Islamists win, and there are Mubarak loyalists on the courts that are determined to sabotage the political process. At the same time, the Islamists in the face of this have used these conspiracy theories to justify basically trying to strong arm through a very flawed constitution. And so the other side says you know, wait a second, you’re just telling us that might makes right, that because you at the moment control the state, because you’re more popular, more politically powerful, you could just muscle this thing through. You’re going to suspend democracy for the moment in order to establish, you say, democracy in the long term. Now obviously, that is problematic to any of your Western listeners. You know, we sort of, we know how that ends.
DK: I mean, suspending democracy to save it.
HH: So tell me about the military, because all eyes are on whether or not tanks are in the street tonight. Have they attempted to participate on either side or the other?
DK: No, the military has said they’re staying out of it. Their axiom through the revolution was we will not take up arms against the Egyptian people. Sometimes, they slip from that. But their eye, throughout this whole endeavor, has been on their prestige in the eyes of the Egyptian people. They are still respected by most Egyptians, and that’s why. And they don’t want to get into, if it’s one set of Egyptians fighting another, they don’t want any part of it. There are…yeah, go ahead.
HH: I’m talking with David Kirkpatrick from Cairo. So David, give us a sense of where these battles are occurring. Is it just a few square blocks in Cairo at Tahrir Square? Or is it across the country?
DK: Well, there’s been violence across the country in recent weeks. I’ve been in the combat around the presidential palace tonight, so I haven’t had a chance to check. But it’s a pretty wide swathe of a pretty fancy neighborhood tonight that is engulfed in these battles. I talked to one young man who couldn’t get back to his building, because the battle was raging right outside. So it’s blocks and blocks in the area around the presidential palace, which is new and different. You know, we’ve seen clashes in Tahrir, but Tahrir Square has been kind of the set aside arena for that sort of thing. It hasn’t spilled out into these sort of bourgeois, affluent areas. And I should say that some people here are, you know, they take a step back and they’re astonished, because last, you know, a couple of years ago when Mubarak was in charge, you would get shot for this kind of thing anywhere near the presidential palace.
HH: So are the police participating on one side or the other when you talk about clashes between factions, do either of them have better weaponry and a more organized force at their disposal?
DK: I did not first hand see better weaponry on either side. And as best I could tell, honestly, the police were trying vainly and unsuccessfully to break it up, but were not weighing in on either side. That said, the secular protestors believe the police has taken up arms with the Brotherhood. Now some of that is just geometry, right, because the secular protestors are coming in from the outside, and the Brotherhood and the police are both more or less arrayed with their back to the presidential palace, to protect the presidential palace. So you can how that mix up could happen. I don’t believe that the army or the police is siding with the Islamists in this fight. I think they’re pretty much withdrawn or tried to break it up.
HH: Now in the past…
DK: I don’t think either side is better armed.
HH: In the past, it’s been those with the best cadres win, and the most numerous, the most disciplined. Could you tell as between secular revolutionaries and the Brotherhood who has the better, more numerous, better organized cadres?
DK: Well, that would be the Islamists by a long shot. You don’t even, I don’t even need to go out into the streets to see that. I mean in the parliamentary vote here, 75% of the seats went to Islamists of one stripe or another. And the Brotherhood is extremely well organized. They had to live as an illegal, secret society for 80 years. So they know how to follow orders and listen to their hierarchy.
HH: Now Andrew McCarthy, writing at National Review, has tried to channel the secularists by saying they know what the Brotherhood’s agenda is, they understand where they’re going, even if they haven’t gone there yet. How legitimate in your view, David Kirkpatrick, is McCarthy’s concern that the Brotherhood is, as described in Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, they have an agenda and they will move about it?
DK: I don’t think it’s, I think it’s misplaced. You know, there are Islamists here who are known as Salafis. They’re literalists, they favor a return to a kind of almost medieval, Islamic law. They’re a minority. The Brotherhood, they’re politicians. They are not violent by nature, and they have over the last couple of decades evolved more and more into a moderate, conservative but religious, but moderate, regular old political force. I find that a lot of the liberal fears of the Brotherhood are somewhat outside. That said, you know, you don’t know what their ultimate vision of what the good life looks like. But in the short term, I think they just want to win elections.
HH: Now the Copts, I have a good friend who’s a Copt. He’s a doctor who takes care of me, and he has family in Egypt, an extended family. They’re very worried that there will be no place for them in Egypt, and that they will be forced out or brutalized. What do you make of the Copts’ concern, especially given the number of incidents over the past few years of violence against them?
DK: Well, you are right. The Copts are freaking out for sure. Other Christians here tell me that they think the Copts, they’re panic is excessive, but it comes out of a long history of sectarian conflict. As I said, the Muslim Brotherhood are politicians. Last Christmas, they deployed their youth to stand in circles protecting churches around the country in a gesture of good faith. And they’ve done things like that repeatedly, because you know, about 10% of the country is Christian, and they would like those votes, too. They are not, they’re not explicitly at, they say they stand for non-sectarian citizenship. That said, I can’t say that the Copts fears are entirely groundless, because there are, there is a lot of hostility on both sides of that line here.
HH: Last question, David Kirkpatrick, and thanks for staying up late and I know you’re on deadline. Do you expect it to get worse before it gets better in terms of street violence?
DK: I am not going to make any predictions, but I do think that the events of tonight are going to pose a very big challenge to President Morsi and his hopes of rushing through this constitution with a referendum on December 15th. Three of his advisors have quit today, and I think he’s going to face a lot of pressure to try to go slow, or hold some more kind of dialogue.
HH: Egypt in crisis, David Kirkpatrick, Cairo Bureau Chief of the New York Times, thanks for joining us. Hope we can catch up with you in the weeks ahead for additional updates. Thank you very much.
End of interview.