Morsi's Ouster In Egypt: A 'Bookend' For The Arab Spring

Jul 22, 2013
Originally published on July 22, 2013 12:17 pm

After covering the Egyptian revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, David Kirkpatrick has now been reporting on the military's ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kirkpatrick, The New York Times' Cairo bureau chief, arrived in Egypt in January 2011, and days later flew to Tunisia to cover the revolution that launched the Arab Spring.

The recent toppling of Morsi, he says, feels like a bookend moment in the region to that period that began 2 1/2 years ago. Remembering back to the Arab Spring, he says that he "really felt like my life was changed forever when I was standing in the square outside the Interior Ministry in Tunisia."

"You could feel just ripples of confidence and freedom, for lack of a better word, moving through the crowd, and then those ripples moved onto Cairo, and to Tripoli and around the region," Kirkpatrick tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

He believed then that everything had changed. "Now suddenly it's all changing back," he says. "Or is it?"

The debate over whether Morsi's ouster was a military coup, a popular revolution, or both, is a heated one. Across the political spectrum, however, Kirkpatrick says that Morsi's ouster has unleashed a hyper-nationalist euphoria that has swept up even liberals and leftists who spent years struggling against the country's previous military-backed governments, and that that fervor can be alarming.

"I'll put it bluntly," says Kirkpatrick. "It's how I imagine Europe in the first part of the 20th century might have felt during the rise of fascism. ... It may not last. It may be just a momentary national hysteria, but at the moment there is a surreal-seeming enthusiasm for the military ... even by people who just a few months ago were calling for the end of military rule."


Interview Highlights

On whether shortages of gas and electricity during Morsi's rule were caused intentionally to undermine him

"It was visible for a long time that President Morsi was not in full control of his government, that he was sort of perched on top of the machinery, of the old regime — the bureaucracies of the old regime, the security forces of the old regime — and he was gradually trying to change that. ... But there was always an element of at least foot dragging in every part of the bureaucracy and open revolt among the security forces. ...

"[For example], the gas lines, they were enormous in the weeks before the revolt. They were epic. People were waiting out all night to try to fill up a tank of gas. The electricity was going out every day in my neighborhood. I was preparing to shell out ... $10,000 to buy a new generator for my family. All of that [inefficiency] is gone. Was it deliberate conspiracy? I have no idea, but it doesn't really require a deliberate conspiracy. All it requires is a little bit of foot dragging, of willful inefficiency."

On Morsi's competence as president

"What is the Morsi government? There's Morsi and a small group of people around him, and for sure, they were not terrific. They made a lot of mistakes. They weren't particularly well-qualified. ... The Muslim Brotherhood — the movement that he came from — was sort of surprised to get power all of a sudden and sort of cobbled together a team as best they could. So those people, I'm not saying they were terrific — I'm not even saying they were competent — but they also weren't in control.

"You know, a lot of the people who were making decisions on a day-to-day basis below him throughout the bureaucracy hated him, and I think they sort of passively or actively resisted him throughout, and so, you know, after a year perched uneasily ... on top of this government it basically swallowed him up."

On what forces might have been behind Morsi's ouster

"When the generals stepped in to remove President Mubarak at the end of those 18 days of protest in Tahrir Square, they did it with a relatively anonymous communiqué from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This time was different. This time it was a televised press conference. It was Gen. [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi standing alone looking rakish almost in a short-sleeved shirt and a black beret, surrounded by civilian leaders seated behind him. ...

"So right there it changed him, and it changed the perception of the event, and it thrust him into the public spotlight. And he's followed that up with a number of carefully choreographed public speeches and presentations — you know, footage on private and state-run television of the military intervening to protect the people, set against kind of heroic, operatic scores. So I don't know. It may be that in addition to everything we might say about what the military's interests were and what their role was in the Egyptian state, it may be that Gen. Sisi sees an opportunity here for himself."

On the aborted conversation of what pluralism would look like in an Islamic democracy

"One of the most fascinating things we saw over these two years since the Arab Spring broke out — as the Islamic movement around the region stepped closer to power, found themselves actually for the first time winning elections and making decisions — a new debate broke out within the Islamic political movement about what did it really want? What would an Islamic democracy look like? How could it make peace with pluralism?

"And you saw the movement itself changing. You saw people who had shunned the ballot box, embracing the ballot box because they saw new opportunities there. ... You saw new debates within the Muslim Brotherhood about whether their movement ought to go back to its roots and just do preaching and social work, and separate out the politics. In another direction, you know, what should be the role of Christians in an Islamic-dominated democracy, and what does that mean? ... This notion that any one person could speak for Islam in politics was crumbling. You know, that debate itself was ending that idea which to my mind is itself an opening for democracy. This event closes that down. That debate inside Egypt is over for the moment."

On the U.S. position with the new Egyptian government, since U.S. law bars financial support to a government that came about through a military coup

"The U.S. diplomatic presence is sort of hovering over this whole affair. There's been quite a bit of kibitzing by American diplomats behind the scenes in the drama leading up to the turnover, and since then. And, of course, many in Egypt are very cognizant of the debate in the U.S. and the similar debate in Egypt over whether or not it's a coup or a revolution.

"I think right now ... the semantics are up in the air. All indications are that the American funding for Egypt is not up in the air. In many ways, the U.S. government has sent a very clear signal that it is inclined to keep funding the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year if it's at all possible. It looks like they will contort themselves however they need to contort themselves linguistically in order to keep that relationship going."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After covering the Egyptian revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, my guest, David Kirkpatrick, is now reporting on the military's ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Kirkpatrick is the New York Times Cairo bureau chief. He arrived in Egypt in January of 2011 and days later flew to Tunisia to cover the revolution that became the start of the Arab Spring.

Kirkpatrick is a former Washington correspondent for the New York Times and also covered the American conservative movement. He's briefly in the U.S., and we're grateful he set aside some time to talk with us about this new turning point in Egypt. David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Do you think people in Egypt are kind of giving up on elected democracy? They elected Morsi, and now they've undone their own election.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, boy, is that a complicated question. It does feel like a kind of a bookend moment. I really felt like my life was changed forever when I was standing in the square outside the Interior Ministry in Tunisia, and you could feel just ripples of confidence and freedom, for lack of a better word, moving through the crowd.

And then those ripples moved on to Cairo and to Tripoli and around the region, and I thought, well, this is - you know, everything has changed. And now suddenly it's all - it's all changing back, or is it? You know, even the premise of your question is not yet for sure. Was this something that was done by the people of Egypt, or were the people of Egypt enlisted as supporting roles in a military coup that was planned months before?

It's all very hard to figure out at this time, but certainly it is discouraging.

GROSS: Well, what's the argument for the possibility that it was a military coup planned months earlier that enlisted the support of the people?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, when you begin to look back now and connect the dots, you see that almost as soon as the Egyptian generals stepped fully out of politics, which was last August, when they let President Morsi actually govern, making all the decisions as a real president, almost as soon as that happened, within a couple months, they began to reinsert themselves very gently, to say, you know, things seem to be a little tense here, we'd like to bring people together as mediators, and they would say that more and more insistently.

We'll bring the factions together. We'll try to work something out. And Morsi kept pushing them back. But now it turns out that as those months went on and the spring approached, they were putting out feelers and they were having contact with the opposition, and they may have been actively encouraging people to think that, you know, if you really get a big crowd out in the streets, if you really get a big demonstration, that's what we need to move back in.

So it's the cause and effect, you know. Surely those crowds could not have been stirred up by a conspiracy. You know, big crowds went to the street on June 30 to demand that President Morsi call early elections or leave power. I would so those crowds were probably more than two million people out of a population of 80 million.

But then the alacrity with which the generals moved to remove Morsi was really something. You know, they issued an ultimatum the next day, giving him a 48-hour deadline. You know, there were negotiations back and forth between President Morsi and the generals over that period, where according to his people, you know, he agreed to some rather serious power-sharing arrangements, and then he was told those were inadequate.

The bar kept changing, and then 48 hours later the tanks were rolling through the streets and he was locked up in his own presidential guard palace. So it's a complicated story.

GROSS: One of the things you wrote about is how under Morsi there'd been electricity shortages, long gas lines. There didn't seem to be enough police in the streets, but as soon as Morsi was forced out and the military took over, more electricity, no gas lines, police on the streets. So what kind of speculation is that leading to about how the military may have worked to undermine the Morsi government or how other interests may have worked to undermine the Morsi government?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it was visible for a long time that President Morsi was not in full control of his government, that he was sort of perched on top of the machinery of the old regime, the bureaucracies of the old regime, the security forces of the old regime. And he was gradually trying to change that. He was trying to coerce them or cajole them into working with him instead of against him.

But there was always an element of at least foot-dragging in every part of the bureaucracy and open revolt among the security forces. You know, so as far as the gas lines, the gas lines, they were enormous in the weeks before the revolt. They were epic. The people were waiting out all night to try to fill up a tank of gas.

The electricity was going out every day in my neighborhood. I was preparing to shell out, you know, $10,000 to buy a new generator for my family. All of that is gone. Was it deliberate conspiracy? I have no idea. But it doesn't really require a deliberate conspiracy. All it requires is a little bit of foot-dragging, of willful inefficiency

You know, Egypt was and is pretty close to broke. There's a genuine financial crisis, you know, and not a lot of supplies of oil and natural gas that they need for these things. So it's not that hard for a little bit of goofing around to create those kinds of shortage. For sure they're gone.

And the police, you know, the police were never a great police force. They were always sort of unaccountable, brutal, not particularly effective. But before they were kind of willfully absent. They would sort of shrug. They wouldn't answer 911 calls. Now they're out in the street and they're smiling, they're cheering. They've put up new stickers on their trucks that say The Police of the People.

So they're really - at the very least they're more enthusiastic, if not more effective.

GROSS: Is there an argument that the Morsi government was just like so incompetent that that was the cause of the gas lines and the electricity shortages and the police problems?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, what is the Morsi government? You know, there's Morsi and a small group of people around him, and for sure they were not terrific. You know, they made a lot of mistakes. They weren't particularly well-qualified. The Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that he came from, was sort of surprised to get power all of a sudden and sort of cobbled together a team as best they could.

So those people, I'm not saying they were terrific. I'm not even saying they were competent. But they also weren't in control. You know, a lot of the people who were making decisions on a day-to-day basis below him, throughout the bureaucracy, hated him. You know, and I think they sort of passively or actively resisted him throughout.

And so, you know, after a year kind of perched uneasily, as I said before, on top of this government, it basically swallowed him up.

GROSS: You wrote that there's a hypernationalist euphoria that's been unleashed in Egypt by the toppling of Morsi and that it swept up even liberals and leftists who spent years struggling against the country's previous military-backed governments. What do you mean by a hypernationalist euphoria?

KIRKPATRICK: I'll put it bluntly. It's how I imagine Europe in the first part of the 20th century might have felt during the rise of fascism. There is...

GROSS: Really?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. I mean right now - it may not last. It may be just a momentary national hysteria, but at the moment there is a surreal-seeming enthusiasm for the military, cheering for the military, cheering for the police, even by people who just a few months ago were calling for the end of military rule.

You know, one of the young organizers behind the petition drive that became the nub of the spark for the protest against Morsi, there's a video of him in a protest against military rule getting his chest stomped on, with his face bleeding, by a soldier. He was trying to protect a woman who became known as the blue bra woman because she was stripped and kicked and beaten on videotaped footage by those soldiers during one of those demonstrations against military rule.

And now this same gentleman, who there he is with a soldier's boot right over his chest in that video, is leading a petition drive that calls for Mr. Morsi's ouster and calls for Mr. Morsi's ouster by asking the military to intervene. It's just bizarre. And along with that, I should say, the thing that's the most discouraging is, you know, not just suddenly they love the military and have forgotten its faults, not just they love the police and they've forgotten all of the grievances that led to the original revolution, but there is a very unseemly enthusiasm for locking up the members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now the Muslim Brotherhood, you know, is a group that was illegal and underground for years, that many people have had suspicions of, but it also is the sponsor of what until a few months ago was the ruling party, the party that dominated parliamentary elections and that won the presidential elections.

So most Egyptians voted for them, and in power they behaved like a basic, regular, civilian government. They met in the Oval Office with President Obama. They were just basically a bunch of civilians.

And now a zeal has swept through Egypt that the Brotherhood in fact is, if you listen to them, a kind a foreign power, a foreign terrorist organization and weirdly at the same time a tool of the United States, that they're creatures who are predisposed towards violence, that they need to be expunged.

Hundreds of them have been locked up. Amnesty International reports that some of them have been tortured. And last week when they were having a - the Muslim Brotherhood was having a sit-in outside the facility where they believe President Morsi has been detained, before dawn the soldiers and the police came out, and after some kind of an altercation, I don't know how it started, but they chased down the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in protestors through the streets, and they killed more than 50 of them.

They pursued them over a number of blocks, shooting all the while, and left more than 50 of them dead. And yet a lot of Egyptian liberals, people who are previously known for their distaste for authoritarianism, blame the Brotherhood, you know, say well they must have provoked it. They may have done this on purpose. They're trying to win international sympathies. You know, it's a surreal situation.

GROSS: OK, so you made the comparison to Egypt now and pre-fascist Europe. Do you think that what's happening in Egypt now is leading toward fascism? Like, what are your concerns?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I'm just a newspaper reporter, so I'm not really supposed to have concerns one way or the other. But it feels, as I said, like a moment of national hysteria. And if we were hoping that the revolution started in 2011 was going to end in civilian democracy, you know, and public accountability for people in high office and the kind of clean-up of corruption that could follow from that, all of that has just taken a big step back because the military is back in power.

I don't know what's going to happen next week. I don't know if this particular momentary enthusiasm for military intervention is going to pass. I suspect that it will wear off, and the people who were demanding accountability of the government will again be demanding accountability. And the revolution, or whatever you want to call it, will continue.

But at the same time, a certain amount of the damage has already been done. When the generals knock two presidents out of office in the space of three years, that means that the next president is always going to be looking over his shoulder. And so are the people who elected him.

You know, you can't - the military just can't effectively back out now and say this is a genuine civilian government. They will always be a kind of looming presence in the background.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's the New York Times Cairo bureau chief, and he's on a brief trip to the United States. Let's take a short break here, David, and then we'll talk some more about what you're observing in Egypt. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. And he came to the region just before the Arab spring, and now we're talking about what's happened after the second time that the military helped overthrow a leader of Egypt.

So we're talking about how the military basically pushed out President Morsi. Who is the military? What interests do they represent? Is it the same military that served Mubarak?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, it is the same military that served Mubarak, but it's quite a complicated picture because when you look back over Egyptian history, you've got to ask was Mubarak serving the military, or was the military serving Mubarak. You know, the Egyptian autocrats since Nasser have held on to power in part by managing competing interests within their own governments, of which the military is one.

So Mubarak's government was a notch more civilian, I think you can say, than President Nasser or President Sadat, but he did that by keeping them quite comfortable. They were autonomous. They had various commercial enterprises. The generals would retire and move on to cushy jobs on corporate boards or running various businesses or being governors of provinces.

The funny thing is that the Muslim Brotherhood, when they came to power, they sponsored and pushed through a constitution that preserved most of that, all of that autonomy, really, and all of that privilege. So the military as an institution was quite well-protected. You know, you might say if you are a supporter of the recent change in power, you would say, well, yes, that's true, the military was fully protected, they're never going to get as good a deal as they had under Morsi. But they're patriots. They saw that the polarization and the ineptitude in the Egyptian government right now was running the country into a ditch, and they had to step in. Maybe that's right. Maybe it's a darker story, and they foresaw a period of time when civilian government was actually going to threaten their privileges.

Maybe there's a level of ego involved. You know, the general who executed this turnover, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, since that time has made rather a splashy media debut. You know, the first time in 2011 when the generals stepped in to remove President Mubarak at the end of those 18 days of protest in Tahrir Square, they did it with a relatively anonymous communique from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

This time was different. This time it was a televised press conference. It was General Sisi standing alone, looking rakish, almost, in a short-sleeved shirt and a black beret, surrounded by civilian leaders seated behind him, who included the sheikh of al-Azhar, the most important Muslim cleric in Egypt, also the Coptic pope and a number of representatives of different civilian factions.

So right there it was - it changed, it changed him, and it changed the perception of the event, and it thrust him into the public spotlight, and he's followed that up with a number of carefully choreographed public speeches and presentations, you know, footage on private and state-run television of the military intervening to protect the people set against kind of heroic operatic scores.

So I don't know. It may be that in addition to everything we might say about what the military's interests were and what their role was in the Egyptian state, it may be that General Sisi also sees an opportunity here for himself.

GROSS: So you're making it seem like some of those photo ops, he's surrounded by, you know, diverse - leaders of diverse interest groups. So he seems to be representing many groups, as opposed to just representing the military.

KIRKPATRICK: Well , what the - the rhetoric of the armed forces right now is that unlike any faction, the armed forces uniquely represents all the people. We are here speaking for the will of the people. This is not a matter of popular sovereignty. It's not that there's going to be an election, and we will submit to the decisions made through those elected bodies.

We are the manifestation of the public will itself. I guess you can tell that feels a little bit creepy to me.

GROSS: And does the public feel - yes, you just said it felt a little creepy to you. But what about in the Egyptian public? Because the military helped depose Mubarak, has the military earned a lot of goodwill in Egypt? Do a lot of Egyptian people trust the military more than they trusted their own elected leader?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, that was true before Mubarak was ousted, after he was ousted, even through the following period. The military kept power more or less for some 18 months after they moved Mubarak, and they got less and less popular over that period, but they retained a pretty high level of respect.

Egyptians by and large feel pretty good about their military. Their military is very careful with its public image and careful to nurture that bond with the Egyptian people. And after the removal of Morsi, it soared again. So they're extremely well-liked on the streets of Egypt.

GROSS: This has raised - the deposing of Morsi has raised a lot of questions about what does this mean for Islamist groups, the far extreme of the Islamic groups. You know, some people were saying the election of Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a blow to groups like al-Qaeda and all their affiliates because it shows you don't have to be suicide bombers, that's not really working for you, but look, you know, one of the leaders of the Brotherhood, he's president of Egypt now.

If you join the political process, you'll have a fair shot at representation in your country. So try that instead of, you know, sabotaging suicide bombing. But now Morsi's been deposed. He's being detained in an undisclosed location. Hundreds of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, correct me if I'm wrong about hundreds, have been detained. So what message is this sending?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, it's interesting, the day after it happened, I spoke to a sheikh I know in Benghazi, Libya. Benghazi is a place where there are large numbers of armed Islamist groups with a very conservative ideology, very suspicious of democracy. And this sheikh himself is an ultra-conservative, a Salafi, and he is out there every day trying to persuade these young men with guns look, put down your weapons, come to the battle box, we can do it through elections, it's just going to work out fine.

And he said to me, OK, you know, we see that Morsi made some mistakes here. You know, Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey was smarter. He went slower. But what am I going to say? When I go out to these people, and I say come on, put down your weapons, come to the political process, all they're going to say is Egypt. That's all they have to say. It's over.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick will be back in the second half of the show. He's the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Terry Gross back with David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times. He started his assignment in January 2011, as the Arab Spring was just getting started. He covered the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, and now he's covering the military's ouster of Mohamed Morsi, who was Egypt's first democratically elected president.

When we left off, Kirkpatrick was saying that the election of Mohamed Morsi - a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood - sent the message to radical Islamist groups: you can have a meaningful voice in the political process. But Morsi's removal from office reversed that message.

KIRKPATRICK: One of the most fascinating things that we saw over the last two years since the Arab Spring broke out - as the Islamic movement around the region stepped closer to power, found themselves actually for the first time winning elections and making decisions, a new debate broke out within the Islamic political movement about what did it really want? What would an Islamic democracy look like? How could it make peace with pluralism? And you saw the movement itself changing. You saw people who had shunned the ballot box, embracing the ballot box because they saw new opportunities there; that's true of the Salafis or ultraconservative parties in Egypt.

You saw new debates within the Muslim Brotherhood about whether their movement ought to go back to its roots and just do preaching and social work and separate out the politics in another direction. You know, what should be the role of Christians in an Islamic-dominated democracy, and what does that really mean? All of this I thought was fascinating from my point of view, but also fruitful because this notion that any one person could speak for Islam in politics was crumbling. You know, that debate itself was ending that idea, which to my mind is itself an opening for democracy. This event closes that down. That debate inside Egypt is over for the moment and I think it's going to take a giant step backward around the region.

GROSS: So when you say that debate is over, do you see Egypt heading for secular governments in the future - in the near future?

KIRKPATRICK: I don't know. I don't want to be in the business of making predictions about...

GROSS: No, I understand that. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

KIRKPATRICK: ...Egypt. But right now they've set up a new interim government that includes no Islamists - despite the fact that the last time they had a parliamentary election Islamists won 75 percent of the seats, and the Muslim Brotherhood's party won a plurality of the seats. They've been shut out entirely from the new interim government.

But I guess also what I mean is that in the square in Cairo where the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters have gathered in a long sit-in, you know, where these debates are now unfolding about what they should do next, what had been a fairly open debate about what do we want, what should we want, what does a good society look like, has been shifted back to a debate about survival, you know, how do we, it's very defensive. There's not a lot of room for self-criticism or self-scrutiny when the question is, you know, how are we going to get by under the boot of this new regime?

GROSS: Are there people in Egypt now who are concerned about the possibility of civil war? I mean, from my seat here in Philadelphia, I'm reading about huge, you know, I had been reading about huge anti-Morsi demonstrations. Now I'm reading about huge pro-Morsi, put him back in power, demonstrations. And, you know, if you're weighing one set of huge demonstrations against another set of huge demonstrations, like, who wins, unless it's the military who decides. But if the country is like that divided, are people worried about how those divisions are going to express themselves?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, there is a rhetoric of civil war in Egypt now. There's, it's common to warn that the country is sliding toward civil war. I personally think that an actual civil war is pretty far-fetched. You know, as we were talking about a moment ago, the state that existed under Mubarak did not collapse with the revolution and it was not changed under Morsi. It is largely intact. Egypt has, for better or worse - and from Morsi's point of view right now, it's for worse - the government is still, it's still the government it was. It hasn't gone away. So it is a cohesive government and there's still a relatively cohesive society, you know, unlike many of its neighbors that were cobbled together by colonial powers, you know, between the world wars. Egypt knows that it's a nation stretching back thousands of years and has a really strong sense of citizenship.

So from my perspective, I think the rhetoric of civil war is just that. It's a way of saying, you know, we're troubled that we feel our society is coming apart at the seams, but it's not like we're about to see one region of the country take up arms against another.

GROSS: Says the fight in Egypt is partly about secular versus Islamic rule, what's at stake for women?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, let's be clear, women have got a raw deal in Egypt no matter who is running the show. You know, it is an extremely patriarchal culture among Christians, among Muslims and among adherents to the movements of political Islam. So there's no scenario here which is emancipation for women and there's not one scenario here that makes things immediately worse for women.

One of the funny things that has emerged from last year with the Muslim Brotherhood in power is a lot of our expectations going in, speaking on behalf of sort of Western journalists, have been upended. We were basically I think - collectively our view was, you know, the good thing is we know the Muslim Brotherhood is pretty competent. They've managed to keep this organization going underground for 80 years, so they know how to make the trains run on time, though get things done. They're mostly professionals with advanced degrees. The bad news is that they have this religious conservative ideology and they may try to impose it on the country.

We were wrong on both accounts. It turns out they weren't that competent. They didn't do a great job and they made a lot of bad decisions. And at the same time, they didn't really do anything that was noticeably Islamic. You know, there were people in the parliament who would say all kinds of crazy things about different sorts of moral issue legislation they'd like to pass. But in point of fact, really not that much to happened that would move the country in a more religiously conservative direction. And so, I don't think on that front anything changed for women, so it's hard to say how the undoing of all that would change things for women.

GROSS: What about Christians? I've been reading that a lot of Christians have been attacked.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. That's for sure. There's been a widely reported uptick in violence against Christians since the ouster of President Morsi. I haven't done any of that reporting myself firsthand, but it's very easy for me to see that people who sympathize with Morsi are inclined to blame Christians around Egypt and that might result in waves of attacks against Christians around Egypt.

GROSS: The United States has been a financial supporter of Egypt. Egypt is such an important player in the Middle East and the United States wants some connection to Egypt, some say, some influence in what Egypt does. And one of the ways to do that is with financial assistance. So the financial assistance continued under Morsi, and now things are a little up in the air in the sense that there is a law that says the United States can't financially support a government that exists as the result of a coup. So I think there's this big semantic debate going on now of, like, was this a coup? If not a coup, what was it? So can you talk a little bit about that debate in Egypt and in the United States? I know you haven't been in the United States, you've been in Egypt.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, they're very connected because the U.S. diplomatic presence is sort of hovering over this whole affair. You know, there's been quite a bit of kibitzing by American diplomats behind the scenes in the drama leading up to the turnover, and since then. And of course, many in Egypt are very cognizant of the debate in the U.S. and the similar debate in Egypt over whether or not it's a coup or a revolution. I think, you know, right now - as you say - the semantics are up in the air. All indications are that the American funding for Egypt is not up in the air. You know, in many ways the U.S. government has sent a very clear signal that it is inclined to keep funding the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year if it's at all possible. You know, it looks like they will contort themselves however they need to contort themselves linguistically in order to keep that relationship going.

That's not to say that they welcome the coup, you know. I don't think they do. It seems like they are working as hard as they can behind the scenes to get all sides to compromise, first, to put off the fact of a change in power. Then to try to have it disguised at least in some sort of legal constitutional legitimacy. You know, they were trying to get - up until the final hours - they were trying to get President Morsi to agree to some really vast sharing of power that would at least keep him as nominal president. And what I'm told now by people in the Brotherhood is that there still being contacted by American diplomats who are trying to persuade them that it's in their interest for President Morsi and the Brotherhood to accept that this is over that, you know, the coup has come and gone in order to find their way back into the political process. And at the same time, they're working fairly hard with the generals and the people who are now in power to say, look, you can't possibly have a stable country if you systematically exclude the largest political parties. They've said this more or less out loud. So, they're still very engaged trying to bring the two sides together.

My belief is that the Americans feel like - the American government feels like - no, you know, what they want is stability and you cannot have stability in Egypt while this rift continues. So they want to patch it up as best they can. And ideally, in an ideal world, the most stable government would be one that was both Democratic and inclusive and had a high degree of buy-in. But while they're pushing for that I don't think anybody in Washington right now is seriously contemplating ending the U.S. financial sponsorship of Egypt, just because it's such an important ally in the Middle East.

GROSS: So you've got the semantic debate going on in the U.S. about was this a coup or not. What is it been called in Egypt?

KIRKPATRICK: So those - that is a hot, hot, hot topic. You know, the Islamists say it's a military coup and they say it as loud and as often as they can. The supporters of the turnover get really angry if you say that. They are absolutely adamant that this is a popular revolution and it's a gross misnomer to call it a military coup. That is, raising that question is a good way to get into an argument, if not a fist fight, in Egypt right now.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, The New York Times Cairo bureau chief. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times and is on a brief trip to the United States.

I'd like you to describe a little bit what life is like now in Egypt and how things have changed since Morsi was forced out by the military.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, as we said a minute ago, the gas lines - although there are still some - have gone away. The power blackouts - although there are still some - have diminished. The police are smiling and enthusiastic and back in the streets, although I can't say that they're doing any better job at fighting crime or preserving public order. And outside the area where the Islamists have gathered, you know, things are kind of back to normal. There are a lot of neighborhoods of Cairo where life goes on. I mean, one of the strange things that I've always found hard to explain to my friends back in the states is that even when the television cameras are showing you horrific street fighting on the streets of Cairo, it's quite contained. You know, it happens sort of predictably in localized areas and even a block away from that, you know, life goes on. And that's how it is now. It was in the days after the takeover, I think there's a little extra anxiety about what was going to happen next, but it settled back into a pretty stable stalemate.

GROSS: So let's talk about when the protests against Morsi were at that peak. We're you? Where did you try to situate yourself so you could report on it as best as possible?

KIRKPATRICK: On June 30th, which was the day of the apex of the protests, I think I spent most of that day shuttling between the presidential palace and the Raba mosque nearby where the Islamists had gathered. Because I was, you know, when the day started, the question was, you know, will there be violence? Both sides had been talking extensively about how important it was for them to prepare for defensive violence. You know, we all - everybody was saying, oh, I think the other side is going to attack and we've got to be ready. Which is just a step away from actual incitement. So it felt like there could be some really horrific conflict in the streets. It didn't play out that way, in part, because the crowds were so huge.

You know, the number of protesters opposing Morsi were so large and they were so diverse - there was, you know, women and children and families - so the Islamists kind of kept to themselves and those protesters went about their way. I think it was that night that a particular group of protesters opposed to Morsi made their way to the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fairly spiffy, shiny new headquarters built after they finally made it into legitimate political life after the 2011 revolution, and torched it.

So I spent the end of the night watching the torching of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and watching the police sort of saunter by, check it out, and turn the other way.

GROSS: Hmm. And was it dangerous where you were?

KIRKPATRICK: I didn't feel particularly threatened. It was a little bit dicey in the scene outside the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. You know, there's a lot of emotions there and there's been an uptick in anti-American feeling among the anti-Morsi crowd. You know, it's become - this is hard to believe here, but it's become commonplace in Egypt that President Obama was somehow propping up or supporting President Morsi.

So some people, you know, get a little bit angry at Americans over that.

GROSS: What's feeding that idea?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it begins with a general anti-American sentiment around Egypt that's been there for decades. You know, that the U.S. was backing authoritarians since Sadat and Mubarak. The U.S. is a sort of successor to the British colonial power. So there's a lot of willingness to blame the U.S. and a lot of susceptibility to conspiracy theories involving the U.S.

That, you know, the world's only superpower. Then on top of that, there's the fact that the American government really did have warm relationships with the elected government of President Mohammed Morsi. And even before that, you know, they would - American diplomats and officials were publicly seen having cordial meetings with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood before the elections.

So that sent a signal to Egyptians that the U.S. was willing to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that, you know, historically had been quite hostile to the West and a group that the U.S. had been very suspicious of. So to some Egyptians, they see that and they think, well, how about that? Even the Americans have abandoned their principles and they've decided to get into bed with the Muslim Brotherhood. Well, what do you know?

And that becomes the kernel for the new conspiracy theory that the U.S. is, in fact, backing the Muslim Brotherhood.

GROSS: As opposed to seeing it like you, the people, have elected this man so the United States is going to respect that and do its best to work with him?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's right. That's what the American ambassador tried to say again and again and again. And yet no one seems to listen to her. They can't really believe that. You know, and part of that I understand because the idea of free and fair elections is so new there. That, you know, they had bogus elections before.

Elections that were either rigged or in addition to being rigged, the ballot counting were rigged by the extensive use of state patronage to try to influence people to go to the polls in favor of state candidates. So there's, you know, until you have someone not only win a democratic election, but lose it and give up power, I can understand that there's a certain amount of suspicion.

You know, people - I totally can understand why people think, well, Morsi won an election but now he's putting all his own governors into the provinces. He's taking over the bread supply. He's taking over these public institutions. He's going to be able to use them to rig and manipulate future elections. So we can't wait. You know, one election is not enough to prove that he's a democratic leader. We still suspect him of planting the seeds of permanent power.

And under those circumstances how could the U.S. be so gullible?

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, the New York Times Cairo bureau chief. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. He's been covering the military's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. Kirkpatrick also covered the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, a revolution that relied on social media to help protesters communicate and organize. What role do you see social media playing now? I mean I read that five anti-Islamists political activists were arrested on charges of using social media to incite violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. What's happening?

KIRKPATRICK: Social media is still critical in Egypt. You know, you've got to factor in the reality that the media media, the old media, the newspapers, the television stations, are doing a terrible job. You know, they're all biased in one way or another and their reporting is just not that great. So Twitter, in particular in Egypt, becomes a really useful source of real-time information.

You know, by following Twitter you can see what's happening at a particular protest or point of conflict. You can figure out where those things are setting off. And it's become an accepted way to disseminate not only, you know, political ideas but official announcements. You know, President Morsi when he was in power, came to distrust the state media. I think they felt, with some reason, the personnel inside the state media apparatus was suspicious of them or against them or not that competent, either.

And so they would try to send their messages straight to the people by putting out important announcements on Twitter first. And I kid you not, the president would tweet things. So it still plays a critical role and it's where a lot of the public debate happens for better or worse.

GROSS: And do you tweet?

KIRKPATRICK: I do tweet.

GROSS: What's a tweet you sent in Egypt that got a really big response?

KIRKPATRICK: Midnight on the night of June 29th, before the big protests when everybody was bracing for the cataclysm, I was leaving the office and I looked at my watch and I saw that it was midnight. And I tweeted: It's midnight in Cairo. Pray for Egypt. And I got an unbelievable response. I got an - it was retweeted all over the place.

GROSS: And what kind of things did people say in response, in addition to retweeting it?

KIRKPATRICK: At that point that's a fairly neutral tweet so it was mostly just appreciative. A more controversial tweet was the morning after the killing of 50 or so members of the Muslim Brotherhood outside the republican guard building where the president is said to be held. When I was there moving around the scene of the violence and talking to witnesses and trying to piece together, as best I could, an account of what went on, I sent out a tweet that used the word massacre.

Which I probably shouldn't have done. You know, there's no reason to call it a massacre. You can just say this was a mass shooting, 50 people were killed, and let people draw their own conclusions. But, you know, 140 characters or less you end up using, sometimes, shorthand.

GROSS: Right.

KIRKPATRICK: And that was controversial because many people in Egypt - as we were saying, many people in Egypt at the moment were extremely inclined to blame the Muslim Brotherhood, to blame the protesters, to say that it was their own fault that they were killed, or that the military was somehow justified in that killing.

And I think subsequent reporting by a lot of journalists and human rights groups has borne that out. And more and more people are now using that term. But I shouldn't have used it that morning. It was - that was inappropriate of me.

GROSS: With Egypt in this period of uncertainty now, what's at stake for the United States?

KIRKPATRICK: Egypt is the cornerstone of the American-backed order in the Middle East. It's the largest Arab state. It's at the corner of three continents. It controls the Suez Canal and it's the border with Egypt, it's the cornerstone of the peace with Egypt. You know, the old saying is you can't make war without Egypt; they have the biggest army in the Arab world.

So whatever happens with Egypt is enormously consequential for the U.S. and it'll have an influence by way of example. You know, as we saw with the Egyptian revolution after Mubarak was overthrown it seemed like suddenly democracy was on the march everywhere around the Middle East. Now that that's turned back, or appears to be turned back, or if it's turned back, I think that could have a similar effect around the broader Middle East.

GROSS: Well, David Kirkpatrick, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Be well. Be safe. Thank you very much and thank you for your excellent reporting.

KIRKPATRICK: It's good to be here.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick is the New York Times Cairo bureau chief. You'll find links to some of his articles about Egypt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.