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Talking Egypt With The New York Times’ John Burns

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HH: Morning glory and evening grace, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. We begin today’s program focused on Egypt where violence is extraordinary. A minimum of 150 people have been killed, reports of about 50 policemen among them, some activists, some pro-Morsi demonstrators say 2,500 people have been murdered. The battles continues to rage. The New York Times David Kirkpatrick is in the thick of it. I follow his reports, as you should, at and his tweets. His colleague in London John Fisher Burns joins me now, of course, twice a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from some of the hottest spots around the world. John Burns, this is sort of Tiananmen Square in Arabic.


JB: It is. It’s the worst nightmare come to reality.


HH: Now, in terms of your, you served in Iraq for so many years with the bureau and you know how governments crack down, but did the Iraqi government ever engage in this kind of a massive show of force and outright execution of demonstrators?


JB: Well, they did, of course, against the Kurds famously in the late 1980s when they used gas, chemical weapons, but that killing was, if you will, more discrete in the sense that most of it occurred in prisons and to torture them. There were days when a thousand or two thousand people died according to Western Human Rights reports at the time. But this kind of open revolt was impossible under Saddam Hussein so I think that the analogy is hard to draw.


HH: So, discrete killing versus out in the open hundreds, if not thousands, of people being mowed down, I don’t really know what the United States has an option here. It seems to me that General Sisi is in charge, he is riding the strong and that Egypt will return to a Mubarak like stake—state. Is that was you estimate, John Burns?


JB: Well, Mubarak like, not so like, but certainly to autocracy, and I note that the United States government today and the British government for all they have condemned what has happened have stopped short of abandoning if you will the interim government of General Sisi, the new in effect military ruler of Egypt.


HH: Egyptian security officials said that they have detained [various Muslim Brotherhood leaders] and its chief theologian in the Muslim Brotherhood Abdel-Raheem el bar. Hard-line clerics have also been arrested.  It seems like they are going to do whatever they can to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood.  Is that possible John Burns?


JB: I don’t think that’s possible. I think the Muslim Brotherhood will return to where it was for so many years, the last 30 years which is that most of it will underground, but you can’t eliminate a movement that is so deeply based whether we like it or not, deeply based on the cultural religious traditions of Egyptian society.


HH: Well then stepping back, you’ve been doing this a long time. What do you think happens in the Middle East? I honestly don’t recall, and I’m 57, anytime when there was this much chaos—people used to always used to say it’s always Israel and Palestine—that’s sort of like the side show, the carnival game compared to Libya, Syria and Egypt.


JB: Yeah, I think that this is worse than the worst prognostications that most of us who have covered the region but that’s not to say that it wasn’t, to some extent, foreseeable. I think you can, whether or not it was the United States invasion of Iraq that triggered the push for democracy across the Middle East, it became to be known as the Arab Spring, whether that was simply one of many other factors which, I think, is probably closer to the truth. The fact is that the Western notion that democracy could heal the ills of the Middle East appears to have been substantially bankrupted by what has happened, which is to say that when you throw the fate of these countries into open debate and then open contest in the streets, it seems that those societies simply do not have the mechanisms to make democracy as we understand it work. That’s a very glum conclusion, I, I, grant, because it used to point to as an outcome after a great deal of blood shed, we may not have seen the worst of this by any means yet, after a great deal of blood shed, not alone in Egypt as you know but Syria and elsewhere and this could metastasize. What it seems to point to is that the deep fissures in these societies which, of course, are secretarian, cultural, ethnic, political, economic can only be, if you will, straddled by some kind of autocracy. That’s a very direct conclusion to come to, but we after all in the West supported autocracy across the Middle East for many, many years for our own reasons, and it may well be that the autocracies that emerge from this, the dictatorships, if you will, won’t be much to our taste, but I don’t think we’ll have much to complain about whatever the outcome because we are complicit.


HH: John Burns, I’ve been reading the last volume in the three-volumn history of Winston Churchill, Defender of the Realm, which was begun by Manchester and finished by Paul Reid and, of course, its full of Alexander of the Mediterranean and Montgomery’s march and how Cairo was so central to the war, and the picture that emerges then is of an English protectorate that was modern with secular Western values in an emerging society that was genuinely secular and attached to that, what happened?


JB: It’s true and, of course, there is a large but not necessarily by any means a majority opinion in Egypt that would like to return to something like that, but of course the Muslim brotherhood stands squarely in the path against that. I think when you ask what happened, you’d have to say that the colonial era in Egypt which was another kind of autocracy, was repressive in respect to many indigenous political movements and what we’ve seen is, particularly here, I’m thinking of Islamism, we’ve seen something that was inevitably going to happen, when you took the lid off, when the repression was lifted. And how this can now be put back together again, I don’t know. I think there are many people who think that you may see the emergence of a Nasser-like figure. In fact, General Sisi, responsible for the crackdown in Cairo today, seems to be presenting himself as a Nasser-like figure, but he doesn’t seem, at least to me, and I think to many people who keep an eye on these affairs, it doesn’t seem to be a Nasser. Nasser was, however, bogusly persuaded millions and millions of people across the Middle East, not just Egypt, of the virtues of social democracy of regional unity, Pan-Arabism, he was a socialist and he was unfriendly for the most part to the West. General Sisi doesn’t seem to have many of those options. He’s got to cater to the Egyptian middle-class. He’s got to cater to the United States which supplies 1.5 billion dollars a year in aide, second only in the American aide table to what it supplied to Israel, and we haven’t talked about that, but this is an absolutely crucial element in all this.


HH: I’ve got to ask…


JB: What can’t be restored in Egypt and doesn’t look like it’s going to be for a very long time, the threats to Israel from all of this is dire.


HH: I want to finish by asking you about journalists there. Christopher Hayes of MSNBC re-tweeted a tweet for Sharif Kouddous, two journalists killed today, both shot, Mick Deane, 61, a cameraman with Sky News. Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, 26, reporter for Dubai paper. I’m genuinely worried about your colleague David Kirkpatrick and the rest of your team there. What does the Times tell its people to do in a situation like this?


JB: Well, of course, the watch word is “caution” but there is an inevitable, if you will, dilemma. You can’t cover these events without witnessing them. If you witness them, you are within rifle shot within the reach of missiles and armored personnel, firearm and personnel carriers, [inaudible] you name it, but the times and directions to me, when I was in these wars was always very clear, which is that the survival of our personnel is the absolute priority, and people should not submit themselves to mortal danger if they could possibly avoid it. Trying to, if you will, finesse that is extremely difficult and, unfortunately, many of the people who get killed in these circumstances, who are mostly by the way, not Westerners but most killed in the Middle East in the last 10 years have been natives of the countries concerned. And, very many of those people had taken extensive precautions beginning with flack jackets and staying out of the worst areas and so forth and  in the end it comes down, I’m afraid to say, to a game of chance.


HH: Wow. Well, we’re following your colleagues there and prayers for their safety, John Burns from London. Thank you for joining us for your always valuable perspective. I’ll be right back.



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