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New York Times London Bureau Chief John Burns On The Latest Violence In Egypt

Monday, July 8, 2013

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HH: To unpack the situation is John Fisher Burns, New York Times London Bureau correspondent. John Burns, your reaction on hearing this news today?

JB: Well, it’s everything we feared, isn’t it, because this could so easily prove to be just, if you will, the opening fusillade, terrible as it is. It could get very much worse than this.

HH: There are examples in the past of both, of a couple of things, of people being returned to power after a coup, Hugo Chavez and taking vengeance, and of attempts by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes to suppress other governments such as Tiananmen Square, or even if we go back to 1919, the Brits in India. How does it turn out generally when the military acts like this?

JB: Well, there are certainly no solutions in the army opening fire. From what I know of the situation, reports by New York Times correspondents and others who were there or near to the barracks where this took place today, it’s not absolutely clear, yet, what happened. It’s very confused, as you know, The Morsi supporters, supporters of the ousted president, said the army simply opened fire in a murderous fashion. The army’s version, of course, supported by some eyewitnesses, is that there were people among the pro-Morsi protesters with weapons, possibly militant groups, very militant groups, which seeking to provoke a confrontation, opened fire and that the army responded to this. It’s too early to tell which account is true. But in a sense, it’s not any longer that material. If, even if we’re to believe the army’s account, it suggests that they’re going to have to do more of this kind of thing if they’re going to gain control of the situation.

HH: And John Burns, that’s what I thought would be your response, because what actually happened there will never become the reality for the various factions. The various factions will construct their own reality of what happened there, correct?

JB: That’s a very sage, very sage thing to say. It seems to me that what we’ve seen today simply underlines just how deep the divisions right across the Arab world are. This stone that has been lifted, the stone of authoritarian, very often, I’m sad to say, Western-backed government, once lifted, and in this case, Hosni Mubarak, you begin to understand just how fractured these countries are. Of course, Saddam Hussein, a different kind of character altogether, before they hanged him, told American officers well, now you see, he says, in the face of the chaos that ensues in Iraq, what happens when you lift the iron hand. In other words, that’s why I ruled the way I did. Of course, he was a mass murderer, so we don’t give that too much credence. But what it does suggest to me, at least, is that we in the Western world, who have been, after supporting authoritarian governments across much of the Muslim world for a very long time for our own benefit, and then declaring that they should all move rapidly to democracy, have completely misunderstood the likelihood that these societies, and I’m speaking here not only of Egypt, but Syria, Libya, Iraq itself, very unlikely that they could make a swift transition to a civil society with a democratic political process. That’s something that takes decades or longer to emerge.

HH: Now John Burns, the first sort of jihadist destination in modern times was Afghanistan. But once the United States invaded Iraq, jihadists flooded in to make war on the West in Iraq. They also did that to a lesser extent in Libya, to make war on Qaddafi. They’re doing it in great numbers in Syria. Do you expect jihadist Islamists now to flow towards Egypt in an effort to rally around…

JB: Well, absolutely. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been the fountainhead of Islamic militancy in the Middle East, has its roots in Egypt. Zawahiri, Ayman Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the at least nominal leader of al Qaeda, is an Egyptian. He comes out of the Muslim Brotherhood. He did time in jail in connection with the assassination of the former president, Anwar Sadat, for all that. So absolutely, it would be an astonishing thing if these circumstances did not attract jihadist groups. And Egyptians have been quite prominent in jihadist groups that have been so active elsewhere across the Middle East. So yes, we’re going to see more of that. And whether the army will be able to restore order, whether the army-appointed interim government, will have much say in any of this, it seems to me at the moment, quite doubtful.

HH: And so surveying the entire Arab world, in Algeria, there was that brutal civil war that ran for a decade until the army finally crushed the Islamists. Does Egypt have the hidden infrastructure, and I refer everyone to the book The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright….

JB: Yes, indeed.

HH: …for what, more on what John Burns was just talking about. But I simply don’t know, and he didn’t cover it in the book, whether the infrastructure exists today to conceal and nurture a long-running Islamist insurgency as it did in Algeria, or as it currently is being done in Syria. What do you think, John Burns?

JB: Well, the first thing to say is that the circumstances in Algeria, I have to cast my mind back to how many years ago that was, I think in the early 1990s…

HH: Yeah.

JB: …were rather similar. There were Islamists in Algeria that were on the way, literally on the way in the vote count, to winning an election in Algeria. And the army moved in, and what ensued was a civil war with the most terrible, terrible bloodshed that took something like a decade to resolve. And even now, it’s not completely resolved. On the other hand, you’d have to say that the circumstances in Algeria were much more promising for an insurgency, for a civil war, in effect, than they are in Egypt, first would be is a matter of the terrain. Egypt is a very, there are not too many hiding places in Egypt. Egypt, as you know, is a very large proportion of the territory of Egypt, is flat, is desert, is arid, not an easy place to fight any kind of a war, as allied forces found in the 1940s.

HH: The Algerian war began in December of ’91, and concluded with an amnesty as the end of 2000, I believe, and hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have been injured or involved in it, maybe as many as 150,000 dead. But that’s everyone’s worst nightmare, John Burns. Egypt has this long tradition, I think we were talking about it two weeks ago…

JB: We were.

HH: …this long tradition that predates Islam. It’s a nation-state with an enormous pride in history. Do you think that will militate against the fracturing that we’re talking about?

JB: I do, in fact. I think that if there is a state in the Middle East that may be able, somehow, to find an accommodation, it’s likely to be first of all, Egypt, because it does have, as we all know, a very long civilization. It has a very bid middle class, well-educated middle class. And you’d have to hope that they will find the Islamists and the secularists, in effect, will find an accommodation. And you might say what people used to say in South Africa when I was there during the apartheid years. There’ll have to be a settlement, because the alternative is too appalling to contemplate. It is too appalling to contemplate what would happen in Egypt if they do not find an accommodation here. And that would be enormously destabilizing for the Middle East. And you can hardly imagine a situation which would be more injurious and more threatening by the way to the security of the state of Israel, which has depended so heavily…

HH: Sure.

JB: …on the 1978 accords with Egypt.

HH: Last question, John Burns. I know that your country is celebrating, almost around the clock since yesterday’s big Wimbledon win for Andy. And David Cameron was there, and I’m sure everyone’s enjoying their wonderful moment of great pride.

JB: We are indeed.

HH: But nevertheless, Egypt is really, its ties with Great Britain are so deep and so prolonged. Does the Cameron government, is it consulting with the Egyptian military? You know, the Obama administration simply seems to have five or six opinions on this. What does the Cameron government think?

JB: Well, the Cameron government’s position on what has happened over the last ten days is very similar to the American one, and is characterized principally, I think, by first of all, a feeling that the Morsi government was an unsustainable thing not just from the Western point of view, but from the point of view of any hope for peace in Egypt, on the one hand. On the other hand, of course, that you, no Western government can put itself in a position of celebrating an army military takeover. I think the reality is that the United Kingdom government at least until the disastrous events in Cairo today, felt that there was possibly some kind of a solution in the army coming in and appointing an interim government headed by respected civilians and so forth. They’ll be reassessing that now, but I have to say that in this, as in so much else across the world, and particularly in the Middle East, the British voice is a rather weak one. The American voice is the one, if any voice is going to have an influence here, the American voice will be that. But my feeling is, I’m reluctant to say this, but that we really don’t have, in the West, much influence over any of this.

HH: Yeah, I think that’s right.

JB: These are seismic events. They will run their own course. There will be significant, perhaps very large bloodshed, and it may take a very long time, and I’m not talking about six months or a year. It may take many years to resolve.

HH :John Burns from London, thanks for staying up late with us.

End of interview.

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