Former New York Times Cairo bureau chief Kirkpatrick delivers a sharply detailed firsthand look at Tahrir Square and its aftershocks.
As an opening parable in this morally charged chronicle of practical politics and the consequences of unaccountable centralized power, the author offers the example of the great Aswan Dam, built in the 1950s by President Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt for electricity, with many millions of American dollars behind it. The dam displaced 120,000 people, killed fish, silted the Nile, and led to “an explosion in waterborne diseases.” Yet Nasser’s government and the Western powers alike declared the dam a victory. So it was in 2011, when Egypt shook off one near dictatorship and replaced it with another only to have a military coup replace that strongman and further crack down on dissent. Such victory as there is to declare is hard to discern. Egypt is poor, overpopulated, and riddled with a corrupt bureaucracy, but apart from that, Kirkpatrick writes, it defies the usual characterizations. Israel and Egypt have cooperated, against all expectation, in fighting the Islamic State group; Egyptian women are perhaps more politically engaged than American women; Islamists willing to commit terror are in it for more than the promise of a harem in the afterlife; and so on. Pushing away layers of myth, the author depicts a complex, straining-to-be-modern society that is hampered by autocracy and has long been so. It has also been betrayed and seduced by it, as when Mohamed Morsi talked a game good enough that, by defying the generals, for liberals and leftists, he briefly “appeared to be, as he had promised, their president, too.” He was not, but it seems he was better than the military alternative—a lesson lost on the American government, Kirkpatrick writes, which pushed for democracy on one hand but for order on the other and in the end got neither.
A valuable portrait of a society moving toward fulfilling “the promises of freedom and democracy” of the Arab Spring—but with a way to go still.