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New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns On Pakistan And Egypt

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HH: It is pretty difficult to understate how important events in Egypt are going to be to the future of the world. And I also have to bring to your attention, as I did just briefly last hour, that bombings in Pakistan killed dozens of people across the country, even as the British Prime Minister is making a visit there. To cover both of those events, we call over to London and are always thankful when John Burns, the London Bureau Chief of the New York Times, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, can join us. John Burns, thank you for joining us tonight, staying up a little bit late in London.

JB: It is, Hugh, but it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

HH: Let me begin with the bombings in Pakistan, concurrent with the visit of the British Prime Minister there. That country’s never stable, but do you think it’s growing increasingly unstable? Or is there actually some hope there with the new prime minister?

JB: No, I don’t think there’s much hope with the new prime minister, because he’s also an old prime minister who served two very unsuccessful, I’d be inclined to say disastrous terms previously, and there’s absolutely no sign that he and his party have changed in any degree. Corrupt, inefficient, venal. It would wonderful to say otherwise, but it’s very easy to see what you need to get, yet hard to see how Pakistan’s problems are, in fact, going to be solved at the ballot box.

HH: And given that backdrop, then we turn to Egypt, where yesterday’s demonstrations, you were an old hand in the Middle East. Have you ever seen anything like that yesterday?

JB: No, it is extraordinary, and in a sense, it’s very encouraging, isn’t it, to see that people are prepared, with some risk to themselves, to mass as they have done again in Cairo in support of their demands. That said, I think it’s all very predictable. It was very predictable when Mubarak was forced out, that the Muslim Brotherhood would emerge as the winner of the elections, certainly a party with plurality. It also was predictable that the Muslim Brotherhood, in its long history, has never shown itself to be a party of compromise. It’s an absolutist party holding, as it claims, a sort of divine right. So I think it was quite predictable that it would exceed the people’s tolerance in its first year, with the results that we’re seeing in the streets of Cairo tonight.

HH: But do you have hope? The Economist and Francis Fukuyama have this theory that the middle class around the world is just saying no mas, and they’re stepping up everywhere to stop the theocrats, to stop the extremists, to stop the corporate cronyism. Do you have hope that Egypt can find the middle path that has eluded Pakistan, that is so tentatively in place in Iraq? Or is this going to be just the beginning of a Pakistan-like swirl of disastrous governments in Egypt?

JB: It’s very hard to say. I’m inclined to think that something that is fundamentally different is that Egypt, after all, has a very, very ancient culture, tremendous amount of pride. Pakistan is, after all, a country which is only a little bit over 60 years now, has almost never in its brief history been a stable polity. And I think that Egypt has, in that respect, quite a lot going for it. But of course, there’s much else that suggests that there is going to be continuing chaos. And I would think it will be some time before a stable government can be established, at least a stable, civil government. There is, of course, as we know tonight, the risk of yet another military takeover, and that cannot be a long term solution.

HH: Now John Burns, you’ve seen a lot in your various postings around the world, and of course, you went through the horrific years in Iraq, and you have served in Afghanistan for your paper as well. Right now, we have Syria in the middle of this brutal, terribly, deadly civil war, Libya melting down, Iran with maybe a different kind of election, I don’t know, but Egypt on the brink. Have you ever felt that the center is not holding as effective so thoroughly as the center is not holding now?

JB: No, and something else that I feel, and this is for me something of a change. I’ve always felt that the stabilizing, the principal stabilizing force in international affairs is the United States, and that the U.S. has a tremendous capacity to influence matters for the better. I don’t actually feel that that is likely to be the case in the affairs of the Middle East, because I think what is happening is absolutely seismic, and is beyond the influence of Western governments. There may be some things we can do. There are some things we can do to mitigate the miseries that are involved, but I’ve convinced myself, at least, over the last ten years, that any attempt by the West to dictate or lead an outcome is doomed to failure.

HH: You’ll remember during the Mubarak uprising that President Obama sent a former ambassador over with a mixed message, and that blew up in his hands. And this time, he seems to be intent on saying nothing. Is that, in your estimate, John Burns, the best course, to say nothing?

JB: Well, I would hate to think that it were so, because it would be a resignation of American influence in the world’s affairs on a par with virtually nothing we’ve seen now for many decades. But on the other hand, it may be wise on the part of the President if he and his advisors have concluded, as I reluctantly have, that there’s not a great deal that the United States or its allies can do to steer the course of events in Egypt, in Syria, in Iran, or more broadly, across the Middle East. Then, it may be that standing back is the best policy, even if it seems like no policy.

HH: So John Fisher Burns, I’m talking with John Burns from London, the New York Times bureau chief, you’ve got a rolodex of a million contacts across all of these countries. When you talk to your Egyptian friends, what are they doing? What do they think is going to happen there? Are they fleeing the country?

JB: Well, we know that there has been a tremendous outflow of the middle class in Egypt as there has been so widely across the Middle East, which of course is another very negative factor in all of this, because you need a strengthening middle class to have any hope of resolving all of this. But from what I understand, there is a tremendous surge of hope in Egypt tonight, not alone amongst the middle class, but particularly amongst the middle class, that they may get another chance of the kind they felt they had a year ago to construct something other than an Islamist or a military government. They’re clearly going to need help from the military. And who knows whether they’ll be able to pull it off or not? I mean, one thing that does seem quite clear is that the Islamist cause has taken a terrific battering over the past year, because they have not proven themselves to be effective governors.

HH: I hope you’re right about that. Now a word about your profession. The intrepid David Kirkpatrick is doing amazing reporting from Cairo.

JB: Yes, he is, indeed.

HH: And I’m wondering if at a time like this, your juices are flowing, and you wish you were back there as opposed to London.

JB: (laughing) Well, look, any reporter, any foreign correspondent who would say that he would not wish to be in the eye of the storm has really passed his sell-by date, of course.

HH: (laughing)

JB: Of course, I would, and I hope that the time doesn’t come, Hugh, before you yourself go out to grass, and you know, God grant that that’s not in some way hence that I would ever say to you no, I wouldn’t want to be there. Of course I want to be there. You know, to be on the big story is living, and, as they say, everything else is waiting.

HH: Then how do you cover something like this? That’s what I was getting to. I figured you would love to, but what is Kirkpatrick even trying to get his arms around in about a minute and a half, when a country is convulsing?

JB: Well, it’s extremely difficult, and the times, I would hazard at the moment, are quite dangerous. Whenever you have a large mass of people, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the center of a city like that, and a confrontation and violence on a considerable scale, as we saw last night with the looting, the burning and the looting of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, there are risks involved. But Kirkpatrick has done a quite spectacular job, and not alone in the last few days, but now for a couple of years.

HH: Well no, we’ve gotten to talk to him in the past. He’s harder to reach in Egypt than you are in London, but my hat is off to your team, as always, at the New York Times. We may disagree on many things with your domestic political agenda, but boy, do you guys have a foreign operation second to none. John Burns, thanks for staying up with us late tonight.

JB: Well, that’s very good to hear. Thank you.

HH: Well, thank you.

End of interview.


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