A Reporter Looks At Where Egypt May Be Headed

Originally published on July 19, 2012 12:03 pm

Reporter David Kirkpatrick covered Washington's political scene for many years for The New York Times. But early last year, he decided that he was ready for a change of scenery. Kirkpatrick volunteered to move to Egypt to become the Times' Cairo bureau chief — and boy, was his timing good.

"I was on duty in Egypt beginning Jan. 9, 2011," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Jan. 10, I arrived in Tunisia, where someone had killed himself burning himself alive. And on Jan. 14, four days later, the president of Tunisia fled. And then the whole region was up in flames."

Kirkpatrick describes the past 18 months as a "complete adrenaline rush." After Tunisia, he went back to Egypt, where he reported from Cairo's Tahrir Square and then from across the country. Most recently, he has been covering the election of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who was sworn in as Egypt's first democratically elected president two weeks ago.

On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Kirkpatrick discusses what Morsi's election means for the U.S. and Israel and talks about his own experiences in Egypt.

"I've ended up doing things that I never thought I could do, whether they're as simple as living for a week without running water after the fall of Tripoli, sleeping a lot less than I thought I could and making a lot of decisions a lot faster than I thought I could," he says.

"All of that is pretty mundane. The truth is that I'm still too close to it and too far into it to know what it's going to mean for me," he adds. "It's much more fun than I thought it would be. I knew it would be interesting, but I had no idea that I would have a ringside seat on this kind of transformative moment in the history of the world."


Interview Highlights

On women's rights

"Women's rights in Egypt today are in a pretty crummy situation as it is. So, it's not like this is a particularly liberal cultural climate that might move into reverse gear. It's an extraordinarily traditional culture, especially outside of the small Westernized elite in Cairo. ... So, in a sense, it's not like they've got a lot to lose. If I were to guess about where the Brotherhood is going on these questions, they've said a lot of positive things about equal opportunity for women and allowing women to have opportunities and participate fully in the nation. Their ideology is conservative, much like the ideology of religious conservatives in this country in that they think the normal order of things is for women to stay home and take care of their children where that's possible. In Egypt today, it's not that possible, because many women have to work outside of the home for income. So one wonders if when [the Muslim Brotherhood is] in charge of the state, they'll start baking those traditional messages into the cultural ministries or education ministries, but certainly they've given no intention right now that they have any plan to do that."

On Egypt's military

"They're proud of the election of President Morsi, and they consider it evidence that they have completed their promise to hand over full power. Now, this is absurd. It's completely and totally false in a kind of 1984/Through the Looking Glass way, because on the eve of his election, they also dissolved the Parliament and issued a decree claiming for themselves not only all legislative authority but all authority over the budget. So they've left him all but powerless. So we're in a kind of bizarre alternate universe in Egypt right now where the nominal president isn't really the president, and you can tell because the state media is constantly trying to undercut him whenever he tries to challenge the ruling generals."

On the term "Facebook revolution"

"I hate this Facebook revolution stuff. I really strongly object to it. You can sit at your computer all day long, and you're never going to get anything done in terms of bringing down a government. What happens is when people got up and went into the streets. So Facebook and Twitter have some advantages as organizing tools — they're definitely an advance over putting up a flier or putting up a pamphlet — but they're similar to that. It's a change in kind. To put the technology in the forefront and not the individuals really misses the point. And in Egypt, some people suspect that when the West characterizes it as a 'Facebook revolution,' what they're really trying to do is put the Western brand name that we know front and center — that we're projecting our own Western ideas onto it and inserting ourselves into the picture, which they don't like. That said, these things are pretty nifty, and especially in Tunisia and Libya, Facebook continues to play an important role as a source of news."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, David Kirkpatrick, has been the New York Times Cairo bureau chief since January 2011, the start of the Arab spring. We're going to talk about the new president of Egypt, that country's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned during the Mubarak era.

And we'll talk about what his election may mean for Egypt, Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. And we'll hear about some of Kirkpatrick's experiences covering the Arab spring. Kirkpatrick is a former Washington correspondent for the New York Times and also covered the conservative movement in America.

David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You have been through so much since the last time we've talked. We've talked several times on the show about Washington, the conservative movement, John McCain's political history, and there you were covering the Arab Spring after that. Were you recruited, or did you volunteer to become a foreign correspondent?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: I volunteered, and now I probably am the luckiest journalist working today. I arrived - I was on duty in Egypt beginning in January, I think January 9, 2011. January 10 I arrived in Tunisia, where someone had killed himself by burning himself alive. And on January 14, four days later, the president of Tunisia fled, and then the whole region was up in flames.

GROSS: Wow, so you really get there like the day before the official start of the Arab spring.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, almost literally.

GROSS: And obviously you had no idea what you were in store for when you took the position of Cairo bureau chief.

KIRKPATRICK: None at all. I was ready for a change, and the Times is very nice about letting you - letting people who don't have any experience in the region raise their hands for this kind of job. My first story in the region, I had just landed. No one back at headquarters had any confidence whatsoever in my ability to be a foreign correspondent.

(LAUGHTER)

KIRKPATRICK: And really, I didn't know that much about whether I could do it either. And I happened into the little town of Hammamet, which is something like the East Hampton of Tunis. It's where the rich and famous and the president's family all kept their summer homes.

And I had learned from a website that some people were planning to have a demonstration there, and I managed to get a cab to take me there, and by the time I arrived, a small group of policemen were huddled around their police station with their backs to it, surrounded by an angry mob. Every bank in the city had been broken into and set on flames.

And the policemen were trying to persuade the mob surrounding their station to leave them alone and just go find the homes of the family of the president and attack them instead.

And so I wandered over to the waterfront, and there was horses running free that had belonged to the president's family and people carting out their flatscreen televisions, and the city was up in flames. And I thought: My goodness, is this what a revolution looks like?

GROSS: So was this before or after the very start of the revolution in Tunisia?

KIRKPATRICK: It was about a month after that gentleman in the hinterland had burned himself alive, and it was just a day or so before the president of Tunisia fled to Saudi Arabia.

GROSS: OK, so there you are in the middle of this scene, where horses are running wild. There's violent mobs. People are stealing flatscreen TVs. The police are suggesting, no, no, go attack the president's home. So what did - where did you go next, and what did you to cover this? And we're reminding our listeners that you had just said that no one at the New York Times had any faith yet in your ability to be a foreign correspondent.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, at that time, this was still under the old regime in Tunisia, when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was in charge. And a Western journalist couldn't hire a local fixer or translator because those people would get in trouble if they were honest with you, or they would be part of the secret police.

So I was on my own, and I had a little bit of Arabic but not enough Arabic. And so I would work my way through the crowd with what little Arabic I had until I could find people who were competent to translate in English and could help me figure out what was going on. And that's how I sort of cobbled together the story of how Hammamet fell.

And I believe, if I'm right, by the time I got back to a hotel in Tunis that night, the president was on television, President Ben Ali. He gave an extraordinary speech. He was apologizing almost. He was begging for another chance. And he said, he literally said: I understand, I understand, I understand. And he said things are going to change.

When you have demonstrations, we won't shoot at you anymore. The police won't attack you. And it wasn't clear how people would respond, but by the next day it was evident that the people of Tunisia took that as a green light, and they all flooded out into the streets, thinking: What's that? They're not going to shoot us anymore? All right, well, here we go.

And by that afternoon he was out of the country.

GROSS: So you were at the right place at the right time. Did your reporting on that give you more confidence and give your editors in New York more confidence about your abilities as a foreign correspondent?

KIRKPATRICK: In retrospect, I believe that's the case. At the time, you know, I was too busy to really worry very much about whether or not I was doing a good job. And I had the advantage that they had shut down the airport. So they weren't about to get anybody in there to help me or replace me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Were you the only Western journalist that day in the town of Hammamet that you knew of?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, I was. There was no other Western journalist in the town of Hammamet. It was an extraordinary day. And it was an extraordinary beginning to my stint as the Cairo bureau chief.

GROSS: All right. My guest is David Kirkpatrick, and he's the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. He started the day before the very start of the Arab Spring. Let's talk about Egypt. Tell us about the new president, Mohammed Morsi. He's a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. What does he stand for politically?

KIRKPATRICK: He stands for a lot of different things, and it's hard to pin down exactly what at the moment. In the immediate context he stands for civilian rule because he is in a - locked in a power struggle with Egypt's ruling generals to try to establish the authority of the president and to put them back into the box, so to speak, to get them back into the barracks.

Beyond that, he stands for the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it's unclear what that means. He's made it clear that he intends to execute a platform cooked up by the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood and almost to govern in tandem with the Muslim Brotherhood.

And what they have said, their headline is: What we'd like to do is to focus on Egypt's economy. We want to turn the economy around. We want to make it a modern state. We're looking at Turkey as a model of what kind of Islamic governance we want.

But over the course of his campaign and his career, he's given off a lot of different signals that make it very hard to pin down exactly what he means by that. When he was a leader in the Mubarak-dominated parliament under the Muslim Brotherhood, he said a lot of inflammatory things about the state of Israel and critical of the U.S.

When he began campaigning for president, he said mostly moderate things. When the first round of the presidential race became more complicated, and he was competing against other Islamist candidates, they began talking in more traditionally Islamist terms, about Sharia and Islamic law and Islam as a solution.

But then when he was in a runoff, he pivoted right back to very mainstream statements about women's rights and tolerance and respecting Egypt's Christian minority. So how he'll actually govern is a little bit of a puzzle.

GROSS: Do you have any sense of how women's rights will do under a Mohammed Morsi presidency?

KIRKPATRICK: I don't, but we should begin by stipulating that women's rights in Egypt today are in a pretty crummy situation as it is. So it's not like this is a particularly liberal cultural climate that might move into reverse gear. It's an extraordinarily traditional culture, you know, especially outside of the small Westernized elite in Cairo.

Educational opportunities for women are very limited. Employment opportunities for women are very limited. Arranged marriages are the norm. So in a sense it's not like they've got a lot to lose. If I were to guess about where the Brotherhood is going on these questions, I mean they've said a lot of very positive things about equal opportunity for women, allowing women to have educational opportunities and participate fully in the life of the nation.

Their ideology is conservative, much like the ideology of religious conservatives in this country, in that they think the normal order of things is for women to stay at home and take care of their children where that's possible. In Egypt today it's not that possible because a lot of women have to work outside the home for reasons of income.

So one wonders whether when they're - if they're in charge of the state, they'll start baking some of those traditionalist messages into the cultural ministries or the education ministries. But certainly they've given no intention right now that they have any plans to do that.

GROSS: And what about the Christian minority, which is about 10 percent of the population?

KIRKPATRICK: In Egypt, as it's currently constituted, you could never have a pure and simple sort of everybody has to follow certain Islamic moral codes. It's too deeply baked into the culture and the traditions of their state that they have a recognized Christian minority.

You know, the laws in Egypt are a funny thing. They incorporate into the civil law different sets of customs for Muslims and for Christians. So they have a tradition that Christians will be governed in their personal affairs, in things like marriage and divorce, by specifically Christian laws. And nobody really is thinking about questioning that.

GROSS: So there is a showdown going on now between the newly elected President Mohammed Morsi and the military, which shut down the parliament. And does the military recognize the election of President Morsi?

KIRKPATRICK: The military does recognize the election of President Morsi. In fact, they're proud of the election of President Morsi, and they consider it evidence that they have completed their promise to hand over full power. Now, this is absurd. It's completely and totally false in a kind of, you know, "1984," "Through the Looking Glass" way, because on the eve of his election, they also dissolved the parliament and issued a decree claiming for themselves not only all legislative authority but all authority over the budget.

So they have left him all but powerless. So we're in a kind of bizarre alternate universe in Egypt right now where the nominal president isn't really the president, and you can tell because the state media is constantly trying to undercut him whenever he challenges the ruling generals.

GROSS: How?

KIRKPATRICK: Recently he issued a decree calling back the parliament for a day, and the parliament was allowed to meet...

GROSS: In violation of the military's decree.

KIRKPATRICK: In violation of the military's decree. And the military didn't stop him. This is all - you know, I'll spare you the details, but it's all wound up in a bunch of decisions from a highly politicized court system, a complicated and highly politicized court system.

So they allowed him to go forward for this one day, and they allowed the lawmakers to come and go from the building, which was open to question for some time, but state media did not cover it. You know, as the private networks were interviewing lawmakers leaving the building, talking about, you know, how this was a triumph of democracy and it was important to stand up to the military council and bring back the parliament, the state television network, nothing.

They showed documentaries about the Nazi era and eventually one that was a history, a laudatory history of the Egyptian secret police.

GROSS: Right, and what was covered was zero.

(LAUGHTER)

KIRKPATRICK: And what was covered was zero, yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. Before that he was a Times Washington correspondent, and before that he covered the conservative movement in the U.S. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. He covered the Arab Spring. And before becoming the Cairo bureau chief, he was Washington correspondent, and he covered the conservative movement in the U.S. for the New York Times.

So getting back to the new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, he lived in Los Angeles for several years, in the late '70s and early '80s. He has a Ph.D. in material engineering from the University of Southern California. His children were born in the U.S. and they're American citizens. So is there reason to believe that Morsi doesn't hate the United States and may even have some affection for it?

KIRKPATRICK: He has experience with the United States. You know, his wife has said that she was reluctant to leave the United States and I think liked her life in Los Angeles. You know, it's a very tricky question because the U.S. is deeply unpopular in Egypt, and President Morsi is a politician. So I have never heard him say anything like, you know, the United States is not so bad, or I really like the United States, or it was a great place to live.

But all of that could be explained by the fact that he's a politician, because those would be very unpopular things for him to say. The people who knew him when he was a student, it's interesting, they don't describe him as especially political or especially religious. You know, he seemed to just live a normal life in Los Angeles, although from interviews his wife gave, that's when he first joined the Muslim Brotherhood, that's when he became part of the movement.

GROSS: What happened to the young people who led the revolution in Egypt? Where are they now? Do they have any voice in what's going on now?

KIRKPATRICK: They're around. They're no longer - you know, as in all these revolutionary contexts, you know, it's easier to hold everybody together when you're all in opposition to a single autocrat. And after that, you know, the coalition fell away. The sort of more secular-leaning young people went one way, the Muslim Brotherhood went another way, and then within that small group of young people who were really the brains behind the 18 days of demonstrations that brought down Mubarak, they all sort of splintered off.

And I think they feel, they feel pretty crummy now about the way things have gone, but none of them have given up. All of them are trying in their own way to put pressure on the government and move things in a more positive direction. And they - you know, it's wrong to portray them as simply excluded or defeated because they've been transformed by this.

You know, once you've brought down a 60-year-old military dictatorship, you're a different person, and you have a different kind of confidence and you have a different kind of stature. And so they go into the new period equipped with that.

An some of them - you know, some of them are more liberal-leaning young former members of the Muslim Brotherhood who started their own political parties. You know, some of them are the people from the April 6 group, which was one of the more far-sighted early organizers behind the protests that brought down Mubarak, and they're back out in the streets trying again to build a new kind of a movement.

You know, some of them are sitting in the parliament. So it's - they're not gone, but they're different now.

GROSS: So you know, the Egyptian revolution was sometimes called the Facebook revolution. Do you get a sense that social media is still playing a role in organizing opposition or just in organizing their next step?

KIRKPATRICK: I should tell you: I hate this Facebook revolution stuff.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Why?

KIRKPATRICK: I just - I really strongly object to it, for a couple reasons. One is that you can sit at your computer all day long and you're never going to get anything done in terms of bringing down a government. What happens is when people got up and went into the streets. And so Facebook and Twitter are - they have some advantages as organizing tools.

They're definitely an advance over the old putting up a flyer or passing out a pamphlet, but they're similar to that. It's a change in kind. And to put the technology in the forefront and not the individuals really misses the point. And in Egypt, some people suspect that when the West characterizes it as a Facebook-driven revolution, what they're really trying to do, what we in the West are really trying to do, is put the Western brand name that we know front and center, you know, that we're sort of projecting our own Western ideas onto it and in a way inserting ourselves into the picture, which they don't like.

And so for both of those reasons, I'm not particularly drawn to overplaying the power of social media in putting it together. Now, that said, you know, these things are pretty nifty. And especially in Tunisia, and in Libya, really, Facebook continues to play an important role as a source of news.

You know, people share information over Facebook, and in Egypt over Twitter that allows - it does allow for - it is an alternate media. There's no doubt about it. Especially in Tunisia before the revolution, when there was no independent media whatsoever, where everything was controlled 100 percent by President Ben Ali and as a result was incredibly boring. People turned to Facebook because it was so much more entertaining.

And eventually it became a way to get a different set of information out.

GROSS: Israel is very worried about its peace agreement with Egypt, and that peace agreement has been at the center, I think, of Israel's security over the past 30 years. And the U.S., of course, is worried too about the state of that peace agreement. Do you have any sense of how secure the Egypt-Israeli peace agreement is right now?

KIRKPATRICK: I think it's pretty secure. That peace agreement has also been at the center of Egypt's security over the last 30 years.

GROSS: How so? It's easier to see with Israel. How is at the center of Egypt's security?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, between the two, I think Israel probably has the more powerful army. I think Egypt, and Egyptians in general, are quite pleased not to feel threatened by their very muscular neighbor with its strong ally in the United States. I think the wars that were fought between Egypt and Israel were very painful for Egypt, and I think everybody in the Egyptian political elite right now understands that their economy is in such desperate straits, they just can't afford even a cold war with Israel.

They cannot afford an arms race, much less armed conflict. And just to be clear, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is right now the dominant political force in Egypt, has said very clearly and very repeatedly that they intend to respect the treaty. They don't want to have any fights with Israel.

Now, what gets complicated here is that when you look back at the treaty and at the accords that preceded it, the game there was a two-state solution. Israel, from the Egyptian point of view, Israel committed, as part of the peace, to move briskly towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state. So there are a lot of people in Egypt, and also President Jimmy Carter, who presided over that treaty, who feel like Israel hasn't lived up to its end of the bargain.

So I think there's almost certainly going to be some new pressure on that front from any new government in Egypt, but there's nobody who's talking about changing the peace.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Kirkpatrick, the New York Times Cairo bureau chief. He was posted there the day before the start of the Arab Spring last year. We've been talking about the election of Egypt's first democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and how that may affect the future of Egypt and the Middle East.

The Muslim Brotherhood is connected with Hamas, which is a political party that also has an armed wing, and the armed wing has fought with Israel. Hamas now runs the government in Gaza. And so if the president of Egypt is from the Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood is connected with an armed group that is, you know, more or less at war with Israel, how does that all work out?

KIRKPATRICK: Isn't that an interesting question?

(LAUGHTER)

KIRKPATRICK: And it's...

GROSS: So give us the exact answer, David.

(LAUGHTER)

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's a bigger picture. You know, Hamas is a franchise of the Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood, you know, sent out emissaries across the Islamic world and there are a different Brotherhood franchises that are sort of independent in lots of different countries, including Hamas in Palestine. Now, before the revolution, the situation roughly was that Hamas was looking for patronage to Syria, primarily, and maybe a little bit to Iran, and Egypt, the government of Egypt, was patronizing the other half of the Palestinian situation, the Fatah faction that was running the Palestinian Authority - moderate, Western-backed, committed to peace with Israel even before there was a secure Palestinian state.

So now comes the revolution across the Arab Spring. Everything is gone. So Syria is no longer a reliable home or supporter for Hamas. So in that sense, they've lost their main sponsor, and instead they find that their old friends, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are coming to power in Cairo, which is terrific for them - they think. So Cairo now, a Brotherhood-controlled Egyptian government, is now the main sponsor of both the Palestinian Authority, the Fatah faction in the West Bank, and the Hamas faction in Gaza, the more militant group.

So what will this mean? The Brotherhood is very clear, that they have no intention of getting involved in any kind of armed conflict whatsoever. That's not their style. They will never provide arms to Hamas. They will - they - well, they say what they'd like to do is bring Hamas and the Palestinian Authority together to reconcile the two Palestinian factions so that a United Palestinian movement could negotiate with Israel.

Now, they support Hamas in the sense that they consider it a legitimate armed resistance to a foreign occupation. But they draw a line at trying to in any way aid that armed resistance. Does that make sense?

GROSS: Yes. But it's a very complicated calibration, and who knows how that's going to play out.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, who knows how that's going to play out. But you're onto something that I think is very important here, because Hamas for sure is now looking to the Muslim Brotherhood and Cairo for leadership, partly because they've lost their old sponsors in Damascus, partly because of their sort of ideological kinship with the Brotherhood. And how the Brotherhood chooses to play that relationship I think could have an enormous impact on the long-stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. It's definitely too soon to say what that's going to be but, you know, nothing has changed in that game for a long time. And it's certainly interesting to see that there are some new inputs into that equation.

GROSS: Are you implying that the Brotherhood, which, you know, now does not support, you know, armed opposition to Israel, might be a temperate influence on Hamas?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, I am. I'm more than implying it. I think that's the case. And I think it for a couple of reasons. When you talk to leaders of Hamas and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, they both say very clearly our interest right now is the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in stabilizing Egypt and turning around its economy, and we both, Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, understand that any kind of armed conflict or conflagration in the Palestinian territories is not helpful. So Hamas definitely sees that for the short term they need the peace with Israel, if only to help their allies in Cairo.

Over the longer term, though, if you're following Hamas closely, there are already a lot of signals from Hamas that they are looking for some sort of a peaceful solution. I mean they're, they consider it ridiculous to think that they would lay down their weapons before they had some sort of commitment from Israel and so it's not like they're about to adopt a purely peaceful means right away. But it's also very possible that under the tutelage of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood they could begin to move in a more moderate direction.

If you look, actually, at the real culture of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, they have not espoused violence at any time since the 1952 coup of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, since the original revolution. Their rhetoric and their ideology has always been about sort of cultural change from below, you know, one person, one family, one community at a time. And so it's not a particularly militant or radical ideology at the mothership right now, at the main Muslim Brotherhood.

GROSS: The Arab Spring has transformed so many countries and Syria now is in the middle of civil war. The Palestinian-Israeli situation hasn't really changed.

KIRKPATRICK: That's right. Except that it appears to get incrementally worse and worse from the Palestinian point of view, I mean because of the steady encroachments of settlements. The facts on the ground get worse and worse from the Palestinian perspective.

GROSS: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just visited Egypt and met with the new president and the chief of the military. Had any U.S. official ever met with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood before?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes. Since the revolution, lots of them have met with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a steady procession, including congressional leaders, Republican congressional leaders, lots of people from the State Department. Before the revolution there were also contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood but it was much more complicated and careful, and those would've been contacts between officials of the U.S. embassy in Cairo and nominally independent members of parliament who were known to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

So it was all very much on the down low. But over the last year, when it became clear that the Brotherhood was going to play an important leadership role in post-Mubarak Egypt, it started small and it's become, you know, very open lines of communication. And even people like Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, you know, Republicans known for their longtime animosity to the Muslim Brotherhood, have trooped right on over to Brotherhood headquarters and sat down with the most important Brotherhood leader, Khairat el-Shater, and talked to him very frankly and even left feeling like he's somebody they could do business with. So it's been a - in that sense it's been a real revolution in American relations with the Brotherhood and how America and the American government, at least, sees Islamic politics

GROSS: Yeah. Because the Brotherhood was illegal in Egypt during the Mubarak regime, and of course Mubarak was our ally. A lot of members of the Brotherhood spent years in prison. So what influence does the U.S. have in Egypt now? During the Mubarak era we would give I think about a billion a year in military supplies and then more in other subsidies.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. We would give 1.3 billion a year in military supplies and then a total, including that of 1.5 billion in overall aid is the most recent numbers, and that money continues to flow.

GROSS: Are there any strings attached?

KIRKPATRICK: There are no strings attached. It's an interesting puzzle because the U.S. would like to think that its financial contributions buys some degree of influence. I mean I think it's understood in the U.S. that this money is sort of a payment for Egypt's participation in the peace with Israel. The flow of aid began when Egypt signed on to the Camp David treaty and became a U.S. ally, and that money has continued ever since as part of the bargain. Egypt keeps the peace, Egypt gets U.S. support. But none of it is very explicit.

GROSS: Do you think that people in the Obama administration have any reservations about giving $1 billion a year in military supplies to a government whose direction is unknown, whose direction is uncertain?

KIRKPATRICK: People in the Congress do. For sure people in the Congress do and they talk about it quite a bit. My read on the Obama administration is that they are looking for any way they can to continue that aid. So yeah, that's the best way to put it. I mean unfortunately for the U.S. and for the U.S. hopes of influencing Egypt, the Egyptian generals and other political leaders pretty much understand that they have all the leverage in that relationship right now. Given their strategic position, given the fact that they are the most populous Arab state, that they have the largest Arab army, that they are the custodians of the peace with Israel, that they've got the Suez Canal, the U.S. very, very much wants to stay friends with whoever is running Egypt. And so it's very unlikely from a strategic point of view that the U.S. is going to do anything as drastic as revoking that aid to try to influence some short-term direction in Egyptian policy.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. My guest is David Kirkpatrick and he is the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. He arrived at his position the day before the start of the Arab Spring. And before covering that area of the world, he covered Washington for the New York Times, and before that he covered the conservative movement in America.

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's the New York Times Cairo bureau chief. He arrived at his position the day before the start of the Arab Spring. Before that he was a Washington correspondent for the Times, and he covered the conservative movement in the U.S.

You co-wrote several articles with Anthony Shadid, the foreign correspondent who died in February while fleeing Syria, where he'd slipped in without a passport to cover the uprising there. And he died apparently of an asthma attack from the horses that were accompanying him and his colleague out of the country. What are some of the things you learned from him? Is there any advice he gave you about being a foreign correspondent, about covering the region, about covering war zones?

KIRKPATRICK: I almost don't know where to begin. Anthony, it's no exaggeration to say that he was the greatest foreign correspondent of his generation, and he had a special genius for empathy with his subjects and especially for the people of the Arab world. He really brought an extraordinary gift to his journalism for being able to see the unfolding of history from the perspective of the people who were inside it. And when you say that, you think, well, that's certainly what all journalists should do, but it's not easy for a Western journalist to do. It's not easy for any journalist to do it with the kind of beauty that he brought to it. To try to do a little bit of that is something that I will always aim for and I will always think of Anthony when I do it.

GROSS: When you were in America, one of the beats you covered for the New York Times was the conservative movement in the U.S., and you wrote some really interesting pieces about the movement. And primarily you were covering the religious right during this period. And now during the days during and after the Arab Spring, you've been reporting in part on, you know, political groups, political movements run by Islamists. And I'm wondering if covering the religious right in the U.S. prepared you in any way for covering, you know, religious political groups in the Middle East?

KIRKPATRICK: I hope so. You know, my evangelical Christian friends are going to be very upset to hear me say this, but I do find some broad similarities between Muslim religious conservatives and Christian religious conservatives - you know, different similarities that come up again and again. The most striking thing to me was during the parliamentary election I went out to a rally by a group of Salafis. Now, Salafis are a group, a faction of the Islamists in Egypt who take a very literal view of the teachings of the Quran. They're to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood by a long shot. And I sat down, you know - we went out to a small village in Giza across the river from Cairo and we pull up past a kind of parking lot except instead of cars it's full of donkey carts.

And we get to a bunch of folding chairs full of men. The women are sitting inside behind, you know, curtained windows listening from inside a building because the sexes are strictly segregated. And the sheik who's speaking starts saying I'm here with you today, because those people over there don't understand you.

They think that with their fancy degrees and their Ph.D.s they know better than you do. But if your son or daughter has studied the good book, they know just as much about everything they need to know to run this country. And we shouldn't stand for that kind of condescension. You deserve more respect than that and you can't listen to the condescension of their liberal media elite.

And you get where I'm going here. If it weren't for the fact that this guy had a long beard, he might've been in suburban San Diego. I mean, the kind of the populist politics of resentment fused with a religious context, the kind of, you know, anti-secular, liberal elite, it's very, very similar to a certain element of the religious right in America.

And I think the Salafis, these very conservative Islamists, did surprisingly well. Everybody was surprised by their success in the parliamentary elections in Egypt. They won about 25 percent of the seats. And my personal instinct is that a lot of that support came as much from the populism of their message, the anti-elite part of their message, as it did from any specific desire to return to a, you know, centuries-old early Islamic morality.

And that's one place where I think the experience of having covered the Christian conservative movement here in the U.S. was very helpful to me, to be able to see that. The other way that the experience comes up a lot, for me, is in the U.S. you see that the question really isn't, you know, are we going to apply religious values to public life. We are.

I mean, the vast majority of Americans want that and you're not going to get very far trying to say, you know, please check your values at the door. The interesting question is what does it really mean. How do we interpret our religious teachings as they apply to public life? And that debate is now unfolding really for the first time and with much grandeur stakes across the Islamic world where you see some people saying, all right, finally, we can have Islamic law.

And what that means is pluralistic constitutional democracy where we separate the clerics from political power because that corrupts both sides. And you have other people saying now wait just a minute. You know, if Islam means anything it means that we're going to apply certain rules and put certain guidelines on democratic political life, or else we're just like the West.

And how that debate gets resolved, I think, has enormous stakes for the ultimate outcome of the Arab Spring.

GROSS: Well, we're just about out of time but I'm wondering how you think - if you don't mind talking about this - how you think you've been changed personally by your experiences covering the Arab Spring and the post-Arab Spring?

KIRKPATRICK: You know, that's a very good question. You know, I've ended up doing things that I never thought I could do, whether they're as simple as living without running water for a week after the fall of Tripoli, sleeping a lot less than I thought I could, and making a lot of decisions a lot faster than I thought I could.

I mean, all of that I guess is pretty mundane. The truth is I'm still too close to it and too far into it to really know what it's going to mean for me, I guess.

GROSS: Is it what you expected it to be, being a foreign correspondent?

KIRKPATRICK: It's much, much, much, much more fun. You know, I knew it would be interesting, but I had no idea that I would have a ringside seat on this kind of a transformative moment in the history of the world. The sense at this moment, is just electric.

You know, in those - I mean, it was one thing in Tunisia where you thought, wow, this might really be something, but then during those 18 days of the Egyptian revolution, where the people themselves really thought they were grabbing their own history in their own two hands and breaking it to pieces, that they were just going to shatter the past and all the old dichotomies and invent something new; you know, I never could have imagined I would be part of something like that.

GROSS: Well, David Kirkpatrick, be well. Thank you so much for talking with us.

KIRKPATRICK: Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. He returns to Egypt in August. You can find links to his recent articles on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "How to Be a Woman," a new collection of essays by London Times columnist Caitlin Moran, a self-proclaimed strident feminist. It was a best seller in Britain. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.