HH: I go to Cairo now where I’m joined by the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick. David, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.
DK: It’s a pleasure to be here.
HH: David, since early 2011, Egypt has gone through a series of convulsions. And this morning’s story, Egyptians Adapt As Cairo Is Redefined By A String Of Bomb Attacks that you have in the New York Times, you know, made me look again at what has been going on for the last four plus years. And it sounds like the new normal is chaos there. What is the situation in Cairo these days?
DK: Well, the city is a chaotic city. You know, it’s 20 million people, and there’s never been the rule of law, and that pervades the traffic, that pervades everything about street life. So that’s the backdrop. What’s changed is the level of security, you really, in 2010, when I first moved to Egypt, you really felt safe almost anywhere. Bombings and political violence were almost unheard of. After the uprising that removed Mubarak, the next year, there was almost constant street protests, but they were peaceful demonstrations. You know, there were a lot of crowds, a lot of shouting. The worst thing that happened was stone throwing. You know, the protestors throw stones, and believe it or not, the police would often throw them back. Now, we’re into a new era that is, I think, pretty ominous. There have been bombings, you know, I’m not going to say weekly, but maybe bi-weekly. For a while, it was more common than that. And sometimes, they’re small. Sometimes, they blow up a storefront or a bank. But sometimes, they’re pretty big like the one yesterday at 2am. And it’s gotten to the point where the people of Cairo have acclimated to that, and just kind of take it in stride.
HH: Now the violence began when then-General Sisi took control of the government from President Morsi, and there were a series of shootings. I think your article said a thousand people were killed in a series of military put-downs of demonstrations. And since that time, we’ve had huge violence in the Sanai, right? I mean, there’s basically armed insurrection in the Sanai Desert in some places.
DK: Yeah, and there’s a patch in the north Sanai that I think is effectively outside of the control of the central government. There’s a real insurgency there.
HH: You see, and that, I don’t know that Americans have any understanding of either the centrality of Egypt and the volcanic nature of what’s going on there, but I was unaware that bombings had become sort of a feature. Nothing like Iraqi years, right?
DK: No, no, no. In Iraq, you know, this is a very important difference. In Iraq, they set off bombs to kill a lot of people, to kill masses of civilians on a sectarian basis. So far in Egypt, the bombs are very polite, really, in the scheme of bombings. They set off explosions when people are asleep, they blow up empty businesses, they blow up police headquarters. But they so far have tried not to kill masses of civilians. For somebody like me, a Western expatriate living in Egypt, it seems recently to have taken an ominous turn, because we saw for the first time a couple of weeks ago the Islamic State affiliate here kidnapping a foreigner, a Croatian worker for a French oil company and executing him. But that was really the first time we’ve started to see the militants turning on any kind of civilians. And for Egyptians, you know, even that is okay. They’re going after the foreigners, but it’s not us, yet. So it’s not anything like the kind of mass casualties we see on a regular basis in Baghdad.
HH: So what has happened vis-à-vis the Brotherhood and the Islamic State? Sisi went to the religious mullahs at the university on the first day of the new year and said it’s time for Islam to reform, big speech, got a lot of attention in the West, a lot of applause in the West. What’s happened since then in Egyptian sort of elite religious culture and on the street?
DK: You know, you’re bringing up quite a complicated and fraught subject. So Sisi is trying to control the Islamic discourse. His government is trying to dictate the sermons that are delivered every Friday in every mosque in the country, and that’s not a new thing. He’s trying to do it through the al-Azhar Institute, which is the religious establishment that’s been basically a part of the executive authority since Nasser. So he’s working with the establishment clergy, the state-funded clergy to try to shape from the top down how Islam is taught and understood here. And he hopes that that will eradicate some of the violent or radical tendencies, or even just oppositional tendencies in that Islamic discourse. He, that’s not an American way to go about reforming religion. We tend to think about reforming a religious discourse or any other discourse through rational debate and open conversation. He’s not trying that, and so I personally am curious about whether he’s going to have that much of a real impact. In the past, that kind of top down approach to changing the religious discourse has in fact just driven the alternative or oppositional currents further underground, and into those kinds of radicalism that we’re now seeing in the Sanai.
HH: Now David Kirkpatrick, one of the most influential books that I’ve read in the last many years is Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. And it charts the rise of the Brothers in Egypt, and the cycle of repression, violence-repression-violence. Are we just in another iteration of that cycle? I saw the other day that there were some arrests of about an alleged attempt of a coup against Sisi. Are we pre-Sadat assassination times right now? Or are we in a Mubarak period of extended stability?
DK: You know, I don’t know, and I don’t want to get into the business of making predictions. But we are beginning to see more radicalization among the Muslim Brotherhood. And what I mean by that is the Muslim Brotherhood, as it existed when I arrived here in 2010, was a non-violent organization that operated like a political party and sought to get its members elected into the Mubarak-controlled parliament. It was almost a partner to the Mubarak government. It was effectively a loyal opposition. We’re beginning to see young people inside the Muslim Brotherhood dissent from their leaders and say this has gone too far, it’s self-defense for us to begin attacking police officers. It’s self-defense to begin attack police officers’ wives. It’s self-defense to start attacking judges and prosecutors. You know, they’re using the language of retribution, but they’re stretching it into real aggression. And I think it’s very worrisome. I mean, this is still a different current than the kind of al Qaeda-style jihadist that we just talked about in the north Sanai. But what’s scary to me as somebody who lives here is the potential convergence, that this talk of violence among the young Muslim Brotherhood types is going to merge with that other strand of jihadist violence.
HH: Now in the original…
DK: Now we’re beginning to see, yeah, go ahead.
HH: In the original uprising against Mubarak, there was quite a lot of democratic movement of people who did not want Islamization, even some of the Egyptian Copts were involved in that, though they tended not to be. And I want to ask you about the Copts. Where are those people now? What do they think is going on in Egypt? Putting the Sanai insurgency aside, but within Cairo itself? Hold that. We’ll be right back with David Kirkpatrick from Egypt. This is so important for America to understand Egypt. It’s such a lynchpin.
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HH: David, when we went to break, I was asking you want is the general sense of the level of stability, because not in the Sanai, where we know there’s an insurgency, but how are the Copts reacting? What happened to the small d democrats who were quite secular? And is there an Islamization underway like we saw in Turkey that’s going to run up against the secular absolutists?
DK: Well, your secular, small d democrats, your liberals who were opposed to Mubarak, they’ve been crushed as well. The Sisi government has outlawed a number of the main activist groups like April 6, the more secular or liberal activist groups, and those people are, they’re afraid, they’re in jail, they’re keeping quiet. There’s no room for political dissent here. I just a minute ago said goodbye to a Coptic Christian friend of mine who’s one of those small d activists, and they’re quite demoralized. Many Coptic Christians were active participants in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, and were seeking for a more accountable government along with their Muslim neighbors. Now, I think we see a real generational divide within the Coptic Church. I think a portion of the hierarchy is grateful to have a new military strongman that will protect them from the Muslim majority. Some of the young people are still thinking why don’t we have a really accountable government with the rule of law and individual liberties like we see in the West? What’s to stop us from having that here in Egypt? And I think that divide within the Coptic Church is something that’s going to take a few years to work itself out.
HH: And what is the stature of the military, which has traditionally been held in high esteem by a great portion of the Egyptian people. Is that still there?
DK: Yeah, I mean, you know, the polls say it may have slipped a little bit, but you know, polls are not the greatest indication. I mean, if you think about the United States, we hold our military in a very, very high regard. I certainly am personally very proud of the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces. I do not at all want the Joint Chiefs of Staff to abolish the United States Congress or take over the presidency. So I think it’s possible that Egyptians might have more than one feeling about their military. And holding it in a high regard does not necessarily mean that they want it to run all of politics and the economy.
HH: And to close out our time, tell me a little bit about what, whither Morsi and his supporters. Is there a movement around him demanding his freedom? Is he missed? Or is he considered a misfire and a missed opportunity?
DK: You know, if we’re honest, there is a movement around him organized by the Muslim Brotherhood calling for his release, and saying that he is the legitimate president of Egypt. But when you speak to those people candidly, almost none of them actually want him to be president again. I think most Islamists blame him for mismanaging the government and for the plight that they’re now in.
HH: So could he have pulled it off, David Kirkpatrick, if he hadn’t…you know, I don’t want to recreate in three minutes the history of that year, but everything went wrong, and he attacked the judiciary, and there were worries that he was bringing Brotherhood heavies into the military. Did he just blow everything?
DK: You know, I have no idea. That’s definitely too big a question to answer in a radio program. You know, his supporters now say he was doomed from the start, that the deep state or the military actually was always out to get him. Could a smarter politician have pulled something off, a more moderate politician, somebody like the moderates who, the Islamists who came to power and then left power in Tunisia? I don’t know.
HH: All right, last question. How worried is the average Egyptian about that Sanai insurgency and the radical Islamization that has proven so disastrous in places like Baghdad and Anbar Province, etc?
DK: I think what they’re worried about is a secondary effect of that, which is the economy. Right now, the lack of security is decimating the tourist industry, which is crucially important here, and it’s driving away foreign investment. The stock market is down. The currency is down. It’s expected to go down further. And those are the things that are really bothering Egyptians every day, and that’s when they hear another bombing, if they’re smart, that’s what they’re worried about.
HH: David Kirkpatrick, thanks for staying up late with me, great piece in today’s New York Times on the situation in Cairo. Everyone ought to go read it and check out David’s work. Follow him on Twitter as well. Thank you, David.
End of interview.