February 26, 2014
Guest: David Kirkpatrick
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. On September 11, 2012, an attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Just who led this attack and why have been the subject of much controversy in Washington.
Republicans have charged that the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton's State Department were at fault for not stopping what the Republicans claimed was a carefully planned attack by international terrorists, including al-Qaida. Our guest, the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick, spent months on the ground in Benghazi, trying to get to the bottom of exactly what happened there.
His article, "A Deadly Mix in Benghazi," was published in the Times at the end of last year. He spoke with more than 100 people and tried to reconstruct the events of that day, and he's identified a militant who appears to have been a leader of the attack. Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief for the Times. We invited him back on the show while he's in the States to talk about Benghazi and about developments in Egypt, where the military regime that took power last summer has waged an oppressive crackdown on political opponents. I spoke to David Kirkpatrick yesterday.
Well, David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start by talking about Benghazi. Give us a sense of the scope of your investigation into this incident, and what were the questions that you wanted to try and answer?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, the questions were obvious. The killing of Ambassador Stevens had become a major issue in American politics and also just a murder mystery. You know, there was an astonishing number and variety of theories about how and why he had died on the night of September 11, 2012, at the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
And part of what was so astounding about the debate and the variety of the theories is that it was an event that took place more or less in the open. It wasn't like someone surreptitiously stuck a car bomb under his car or quietly assassinated him with a sniper's bullet. This was an event that drew a crowd, a crowd that grew all night, where there were dozens or hundreds of witnesses to the main events.
And when I had visited Benghazi in the immediate aftermath, I got the feeling that a lot of people in Benghazi actually had a pretty good idea of what went down. So I felt, and my editors felt, like given that this was a pressing question of political consequence and public interest in the United States, the least we could do is spend some time in Benghazi asking the people who actually live there what happened.
DAVIES: Now, you write that two days before the attack that took the life of Ambassador Stevens in 2012, there was a meeting between an American diplomat, David McFarland(ph) and militia leaders. What did they tell him?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's worth noting that this was Mr. McFarland's first trip to Benghazi from Tripoli. And it's a very different place. And he had never met before with any of the Libyan militia leaders, any of the guys who actually did the fighting against Colonel Gadhafi and are now driving around with their pickup trucks mounted with artillery like they run the place.
And what the militia leaders say they told him is that Benghazi was getting too dangerous, too dangerous for Westerners. There had been a pattern of small kind of scattershot attacks at Western interests. Militant jihadis were growing more assertive. And what the militia leaders say they told him is we can't protect you here. You should leave at once.
He didn't understand that message. That wasn't his take-away. And I think part of the reason is that from his point of view, his mission was not to hear what these militia leaders heard about other threats, what they thought about other threats from other jihadis, but to find out what they were up to. I think he saw these militia leaders, you know, in their mix-matched camouflage and their long beards, as the question. You know, what was their attitude towards the U.S.? Did they themselves pose a threat?
And so his ears may have been closed to what they considered to be a fairly explicit warning.
DAVIES: Right, and a lot of these were militias that had benefitted from U.S. and NATO airstrikes during the, you know, rebellion against Gadhafi. Did McFarland and did Americans think that these militias were friendly to the United States' interests, would warn them or protect them if there were trouble?
KIRKPATRICK: Yes, they very much did. And in retrospect, it is - it's a little bit heartbreaking to see how it all played out. You know, every Islamist group of any stripe, every fighter against Gadhafi, and each in Libya, owes the U.S. and NATO a great debt. The NATO intervention saved the city of Benghazi when Colonel Gadhafi's troops were about to crush it. NATO air power helped the rebels oust Colonel Gadhafi.
And when Ambassador Stevens would walk through the city of Benghazi, he was beloved. You know, they called him Chris. He had been the first American envoy there after Benghazi declared itself free of Colonel Gadhafi, a time when even showing up was a risk on his part. You know, it was not an easy thing to do to glide into the harbor on a Greek fishing boat and begin walking around the city, wondering what was going to happen next.
So he was, in his life I am certain that he had a very strong sense of the deep gratitude among many people in Benghazi and in eastern Libya. Perhaps he had an insufficient sense of the lingering hostility towards the West and suspicions of the West among some of the Islamists in Benghazi who didn't rush forward to shake his hand and introduce themselves.
And I think a lot of people in the State Department and even in the United States embassy in Libya might tell you that in retrospect his feelings and the feelings of some of the other Americans, that they would be warned or protected, were overly optimistic or a little bit naive.
DAVIES: An important element of the controversy about this, of course, is the extent to which this violence was inspired by this American video, "The Innocence of Muslims," which had offensive portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad in the view of many Muslims. There were mass demonstrations in Egypt in response to this. To what extent were the Americans in Benghazi aware of what was going on, and to what extent did they see any need to take precautions?
KIRKPATRICK: The Americans in Benghazi were completely unaware, to put it bluntly, and I think most of the non-Islamist population of Benghazi was also unaware. This is an area where my understanding changed, and I'll tell you how it evolved. One of my Libyan colleagues was in Benghazi the night of the attack, saw and heard the fighting and ran to the scene like a good journalist.
He was stopped by some of the sentries outside the attack, who had been posted around the perimeter of the mission to make sure that no one got in who wasn't on their side. And he - that's when he first learned of this video. The sentries who were involved in the attack first told him of this offensive video and explained that it was the reason why they were attacking the mission, which, you know, in the context of Benghazi actually makes sense.
In the history of Benghazi, it's almost axiomatic: If you insult the prophet, we burn down the mission. So I assumed, having learned it that night, that's when I first learned of the video too, I assumed that the people in Benghazi had heard of the video and the cause of the video from the protests a few hours earlier in Cairo.
A few hours earlier there had been protests outside the embassy in Cairo, where I live, and eventually those protestors had scaled the walls, pulled down the American flag in the yard and hauled up the black Islamist banner. And that made Al-Jazeera, it made El-Arabia, it was news across the Arab world. And I had assumed that at that moment some guys got the idea that they would execute the same thing in Benghazi.
Subsequently, having spent time in Benghazi, I learned something that I hadn't realized, and that is that the cause of this video had been daily fodder on the ultra-conservative Islamist television networks out of Cairo. That much I knew. But what I didn't know is that those networks were also regular viewing for ultra-conservatives and militants in Benghazi, the kind of thing that would have been on all the time in the background in many of their homes, because Libya doesn't have its own ultra-conservative Islamist television station.
So if you - if that's what you're looking for in Benghazi, you listen to the shows that are coming just across the border from neighboring Egypt. So many people in these circles were familiar with the video and the growing outrage over the video in the days leading up to that attack.
So while it's totally possible, given the number of armed groups and the ubiquitousness of weapons and the general state of Benghazi, it's totally possible that after the Cairo attack a bunch of guys could've got it into their head to attack the mission, the U.S. mission in Benghazi and done so, it also could be that they knew this was coming for a couple of days and had even been planning for it.
That's worth noting because the people inside the U.S. mission saw hints of something being up early that morning. There were people taking photos of their facility that in retrospect looks like it was early surveillance in anticipation of an attack.
DAVIES: David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief and a Middle Eastern correspondent for the New York Times. We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is David Kirkpatrick. He is the Cairo bureau chief and a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. He in December published an extensive account of the violence in Benghazi which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
You've managed to reconstruct how the attack started. I mean there were security cameras. Tell us how it began.
KIRKPATRICK: Well, the video cameras, as well as the accounts of Libyan guards and other people who were in the mission, make it clear that there was no noise, not a sound, and then one lone figure comes walking along, apparently doing a last reconnaissance, just sort of kicking some stones outside the gates, and then bang, an attack, a fairly well-armed attack.
And without difficulty they make it through the front door of the mission, perhaps because it had been left accidentally unlocked. And inside the mission they found, apparently just by chance, large cans of fuel, fuel that had been left there for a new generator, which had yet to be installed. And so it doesn't take much to think, well, let's use this fuel to start burning down some vehicles and buildings.
DAVIES: Now, you said that the attack began, and it was clearly an armed assault on the gate of the compound. Did a crowd then seem to spontaneously gather after that, or was this a matter of militias showing up?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, in Benghazi there's a fine line between militias and regular people. You know, you're looking at a community where pretty much every young man has some partial affiliation with some armed group from the uprising. And every household has guns in it. So I talked to many people who recalled hearing over the telephone, you know, so they get a phone call, oh my gosh, can you believe what's happened in Cairo, they've pulled down the American flag and pulled up the black flag, and then a call later saying, oh my goodness, now there's an attack on the mission here, let's go check it out.
And so it spreads around Benghazi like wildfire. And one of the things that makes its way around through the rumor mill is that in fact the violence at the mission began because one of the guards inside, a Libyan or American, had shot one of the protestors or attackers. We know they're attackers, but in the rumor mill it was, you know, a Libyan was approaching the embassy to try to remonstrate over this video, and the Americans shot him.
And that is really explosive in the context of Benghazi, and even though it was false, or I believe it was false, it spread like wildfire, as I say, and soon there was a very big and angry crowd of people coming to join the fight, people who, many of whom drove up in trucks belonging to militias that the U.S. thought of as friendly and even protective of the U.S., and then other people who showed up just to watch or take souvenirs or pictures.
DAVIES: Now, what about the militias that the United States had hoped and assumed would warn it or assist it in the event there was an attack from Islamists? In fact I think you write that one of these militias, one of the, you know, friendlier militias to the West, the February 17th Militia, actually had three armed people inside the compound providing security, right?
KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's right. They were paid by the U.S. embassy but had been obtained through the February 17th Militia. You know, when we think of a militia, we imagine a group of like-minded individuals under a commanding officer, but it's really not like that in Benghazi, and I think this is one of the things that the Americans at the time failed to adequately factor in.
The militias are quite fluid. There are people who might believe that they belong to two or three and drift in and out of them. And despite their nominal affiliation with the February 17th Militia, whose leaders represented it as fairly pro-Western and friendly to the U.S., there were pockets of real hostility among those same fighters, hostility to the West or quite radical thoughts about Islam and the West.
So it's a very mixed situation, even inside each of the militias. And when I talked later to the leader of that particular militia, he acknowledged quite frankly that he's pretty sure that some of his fighters had come and joined the attack, as did many fighters from every militia in the city.
Christopher Stevens, meanwhile, the ambassador, was inside using a borrowed cell phone to try to call everyone he could to help out. And those calls, you know, made their way to several leaders of the largest militias. I talked to one of them, who happened to be out of town at a wedding that night. He heard the plea, and he knew that it was going to be inflammatory and that a huge battle was going to unfold.
So he says he called some of the wiser older figures in his own militia to try to go and calm the situation and keep their fighters from joining the attack, but he knew it was a losing reaction, a losing effort, that it couldn't really be stopped.
The Americans say that what really happened is most of the militia leaders, the ones they were counting on, just turned off their cell phones. You know, faced with the prospect of defending the Americans against an attack by their neighbors, you know, fighting other Libyans to protect the American mission, that's something they weren't willing to do.
DAVIES: How was Ambassador Stevens killed?
KIRKPATRICK: Ambassador Stevens died from the smoke. He was inside the main villa of the compound with a security agent in a safe room, and they apprehended that the building around them was burning and that it was no longer going to be safe to try to stay in their, you know, armored, protected room.
So the diplomatic security agent tried to lead Ambassador Stevens and another American out of the building, crawling along the floor to a bathroom, I believe, and out a window. And the diplomatic security agent, in his own account, he was going first and hammering along the floor so the people behind him could hear him and follow along.
He makes it out the window and realizes there's no one behind him. So he then goes back in a few times to try to rescue the Americans inside, but the smoke is very thick. It's hard for him to breathe. And after several efforts by himself and others, they give up. Ambassador Stevens was inside, unable to move or breathe.
And when he was later taken to the hospital, they tried, I think, to resuscitate him, but he was dead. One of the things that has always surprised me about that is the way that people in Benghazi still talk about it. You know, they - people in Benghazi, even ones who are quite hostile to the West or identify themselves as militant Islamists, still speak about him as Chris, not Ambassador Stevens, and they talk about his death as an accident, you know, the accident that killed Chris.
I think many of them really thought this was just going to be the burning of an empty diplomatic mission. And - but it gets at the weird ambivalence present among people in Benghazi towards Ambassador Stevens and towards the United States. Even people who I believe were actively covering up for the killers speak very fondly of Ambassador Stevens.
DAVIES: Now, a key figure in this was a man named Ahmed Abu Khattala. Just tell us a little bit about him and what we know of his role that day.
KIRKPATRICK: Well, he's important because he is a guy who we were able to learn was a visible ringleader of the attack. You know, when the attack began, several witnesses saw him outside of the diplomatic mission directing fighters: sending them in, getting reports from inside, telling them what to do, and then they would rush back inside.
So he was visibly in charge. Some people who showed up on the scene trying to figure out what was happening or to rescue Libyans trapped inside saw that he was leading the attack and went up to him, talked to him as the leader of the attack, and he agreed to help one of these people by actually getting in his pickup truck and driving him inside the combat.
And when he did, the lines parted, the fighters let him through, and then he got out and he sort of walked calmly around and oversaw the damage. You know, later on we have witnesses who saw him drive to a facility run by an organization called Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group, and another brigade, and he spoke with people about a second stage of the attack, presumably on the CIA compound.
So he's somebody who we know may not have been the only leader of the attack but was certainly one of them, a central lynchpin of the attack. So the more we know about him, the more we know about who did it and why they did it.
DAVIES: Tell us about him.
KIRKPATRICK: Ahmed Abu Khattala is a kind of a - he's a small fry, really. You know, he is for sure, by anybody's measure, a militant. He - I've met him a few times, and from his own telling, you know, he takes a very dim view of the West. You know, he sees Islam and Christianity as locked in an inevitable and deadly conflict. His understanding of Islam is idiosyncratic, to say the least, and many of his fellow Islamists, even militants, even the ones who would call themselves jihadis, consider him mentally unstable. You know, he's erratic.
Under Colonel Gadhafi, he had been jailed several times. You know, it's worth noting that if there was an Islamist of real leadership potential, somebody Colonel Gadhafi saw as a real threat, he locked him up and he threw away the key. You meet guys there who have been in jail for 20 years, and generally they're bright and they're effective, and that's why they were jailed.
Ahmed Abu Khattala wasn't that guy. Ahmed Abu Khattala was one of the usual suspects. He was rounded up and imprisoned and released four times for a total of 16 years preceding the uprising in 2011. And of course, you know, when it was time for an uprising, he grabbed weapons along with everybody else.
And there were a lot of young people running around Benghazi looking for someone who had credentials, like years in prison, a long beard and a militant ideology, to try to lead them to the front. So he put together a small band of mostly young people and became a brigade leader.
DAVIES: David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief and a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. In a moment, we'll talk about events in Egypt, where the military government has engaged in an oppressive crackdown on political opponents. In December, the Times published the results of Kirkpatrick's investigation into the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
When we left off, Kirkpatrick was detailing the events that day, and he identified a local militia leader who appeared to be a key figure in the attack.
You spent a lot of time looking into this. There was an FBI investigation. You talked about the role of this militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala. Is it clear who was responsible, and have the Americans tried to hold anyone responsible?
KIRKPATRICK: It's clear that Ahmed Abu Khattala was partially responsible. You know, it's - I can't say definitively that there weren't others who played prominent roles alongside him, but I've talked to enough witnesses that it's clear he was playing a leading and directing role in the attack. Later on in the night, he's on the video. You know, I described him outside - directing the attacks outside the compound. Later on, he's on the video inside the attack from the security cameras, inside the mission. The U.S. has drawn up plans to try to apprehend him. This, we've reported in The New York Times. But those plans have never been executed. People in the Obama administration say that they have been reluctant to try to move to grab Mr. Abu Khattala, for fear that it might destabilize the already fragile Libyan government.
We might also speculate that it's not that clear what they would do with him once they apprehended him. I don't know if the FBI has enough evidence to try to convict him in an American court of law. So the U.S. could be in a little bit of a pickle here, where, you know, a journalist like me might be able to say that according to the standards of journalism, there's a lot of reason to believe that this guy played a big role in the attack. But that falls short of having witnesses who will stand up in court and say, yes, this individual told me to kill Ambassador Stevens.
DAVIES: You spoke to Ahmed Abu Khattala a few times, and including after the attack, right? What did he tell you?
KIRKPATRICK: He said that he did not play any role in leading the attack, that he showed up after the fact, tried to direct traffic and later enter the compound in an effort to rescue a Libyan who he heard had been trapped there. He also added some other flourishes about how after entering the compound, they found all kinds of illegal weapons and guns with silencers and evidence that the Americans were up to no good. I - that's his story. I don't find it credible, because I have talked to so many other witnesses who described him playing a much more active and leading role in the attack.
The other reason why I don't necessarily believe Mr. Abu Khattala is because in the same interview, you know, he went out of his way to express his admiration for Osama bin Laden, you know, his belief that the September 11th, 2001 attack on the U.S. was justified by American foreign policy, his conviction of this global war between Islam and Christianity. And when I asked him, you know, in your mind, do you think that an offensive online video denigrating the Prophet might be reason enough to kill four Americans, he kind of shrugged and said, you know, religiously, maybe. I'm not sure. So even though he was denying an active role in the attack, almost everything else he said was as much as to say, if I didn't do it, I sure would've liked to.
DAVIES: I want to talk about some of the debate about the Benghazi attack that has continued since you've written the piece. We've heard, particularly, Republicans in Congress say is that al-Qaida was involved in this attack, or at least groups with links to al-Qaida were involved. What do we know about that?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, the Republican statements, for a long time, were much stronger than that. I mean, they described it very assertively as an al-Qaida attack or an al-Qaida-led attack. I found no evidence of that, and to be honest, neither has the American intelligence agencies or the FBI investigation, based on my reporting. You know, subsequently, there have been some indications in a center report on intelligence that people present for the attack may have been affiliated with a variety of terrorist groups, like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or Ansar al-Sharia and Darna, or even al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. You know, it's - that wouldn't surprise me at all if individuals were present in Benghazi who had those kinds of ties. You know, it was that sort of port of call. And if one of those individuals is present and there's an attack going on at the American mission, are they going to stay home? No, of course they will join the attack. But there is no evidence whatsoever that al-Qaida or any group linked to al-Qaida played a role in organizing or leading the attack.
And, in fact, what we know of Ahmed Abu Khattala - who is there - and the fighters from Ansar al-Sharia of Benghazi, who were there, is that they are purely local figures. They didn't just arrive out of nowhere. You know, you could go to Benghazi and talk to the people who grew up with them, who were in prison with them, whose careers evolved in tandem with them. You can see Ahmed Abu Khattala at work as a building contractor in his blue Dickies jumpsuit. And it's clear that he is not - he doesn't have those kinds of international or extra-national ties in any meaningful way.
DAVIES: I am struck, in reading your account, at how little security there was at the compound. Seems like there were no personnel at the gate, not even clear that it was locked. The three American personnel weren't in a position, really, to respond very readily. Is it a fair criticism that the State Department just didn't have enough security, that they weren't ready for this?
KIRKPATRICK: Well, I think it's enough to say that the mission was successfully overrun by an amateurish group of Libyan fighters, to say that if the State Department could do it again, they would do it with more security. You know, clearly, the ambassador died, a mistake was made. You know, what were the calculations that went into that? Why were they overconfident in their degree of trust to the Libyan militias around them? You know, that's a larger story. But it's certainly true that there was a failure of security. I don't think anyone would tell you otherwise. The ambassador was killed.
DAVIES: And I get a sense from your writing that it was a real failure of intelligence, here. They didn't quite understand who they were dealing with, right?
KIRKPATRICK: I think that's right. Watching the debate unfold in Washington, it's been conspicuous to me how little attention was devoted to the failure of intelligence. I think, to be frank, part of that is because the Republicans on Capitol Hill who have led the investigations and the inquiries into Benghazi have a disproportionate preoccupation with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who now may be a Democratic presidential candidate. And so there's quite a bit of attention to decisions that were made within the State Department about State Department security, things that might get close to her desk.
On the other hand, it's quite awkward for anyone to speak openly about matters of intelligence. They're intelligence. They're supposed to be secret. But looking back, it's clear that there was an intelligence failure, a failure to anticipate the attack. You know, my reporting leads me to believe that the American intelligence efforts in Benghazi were pretty good at keeping a close watch on the people who had known ties to al-Qaida - the obvious al-Qaida militants. But they were very weak on studying the local and homegrown militants, like Ansar al-Sharia, Benghazi, who turned out to pose a much greater threat to the mission, and were really just a few kilometers away.
DAVIES: And what's Benghazi like now? Do you know?
KIRKPATRICK: I haven't been there in a while, because it's getting to be an increasingly dangerous place for Westerners. This week, six Egyptian Christians were assassinated on a beach a few months ago. An American who was working there as a schoolteacher was gunned down in cold blood while he was out for a jog. It's getting to be a violent and scary place, where the crowd - the city kind of turned on Ansar al-Sharia and drove them out of their headquarters, an old Gadhafi military unit that defected at the time of the revolution helped drive them out. But now many of the Islamist militants have gone underground and are staging sneak attacks on members of that military unit and other former Gadhafi security forces. So there's a lot of bombings. There's a lot of assassination, and there's a lot of unexplained death, as these two groups continue to duke it out on the streets of Benghazi.
DAVIES: And is there any American presence in the city?
KIRKPATRICK: Not that I know of. When I've been there in the past, I have certainly found myself to be the only American that I was aware of.
DAVIES: And what kind of government exists in Libya these days?
KIRKPATRICK: That's a loose term for what they have. You know, they have a prime minister and a nominal parliament. But those people will be the first to tell you that they don't have much control over security on the ground anywhere in the country. So it's a work in progress. You know, this week, they had another vote for a constitutional assembly, which will hopefully draft a new charter that will be, you know, the basis for a new beginning. And hovering over all of that, of course, over all of Libyan politics, is the big negotiation over who's going to get what share of the oil revenue.
The only optimistic thing you can say about Libya right now is that nobody appears to be in charge. There's a rough balance of power, and there's no single institution or group or strongman who appears poised to predominate. So negotiations continue.
DAVIES: David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief and the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times. We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is David Kirkpatrick. He is the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, and also a Middle East correspondent.
You were last on our show, I guess last summer, just after the military had deposed the elected government of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military is still in charge, and it's been repressive. Give us a sense of the scale of the crackdown on popular protests and political opposition of this regime.
KIRKPATRICK: You know, quantifying with great certainty the degree of the crackdown is impossible, because the government is keeping a tight lid on all the information. But it's fair to say that it is without precedent in Egypt's modern history, even under the early days under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led a massive crackdown on the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. We didn't have anything of this scale. What I'm talking about here is, you know, I think more than 1,000 killed in the streets, nearly 1,000 killed in one day, when the security forces attacked two Islamist sit-ins at Raba and Nada squares in Cairo in support of the former president and against the coup. But a number of other, you know, mass shootings in the streets, and all of that followed by a wave of arrests that credible human rights groups put in the tens of thousands.
And what's conspicuous now, what's unmistakable is that the arrests are no longer only about Islamists, but have caught up a variety of other non-Islamists liberal or leftist voices of dissent, including some of the most prominent non-Islamists faces involved in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. So it really feels like a return of the old regime, in many respects.
DAVIES: And how have journalists been treated?
KIRKPATRICK: I've been treated fine. Other journalists, I think, are subject to an intimidation campaign. The most obvious example is the imprisonment of four journalists for Al Jazeera, one of them since August of 2012, a photographer, Al Jazeera Arabic, an Egyptian. Three of them were arrested in a hotel room in December. They were working for Al Jazeera English. And they include an Egyptian-Canadian and an Australian who were working for Al Jazeera English.
And their case has become quite alarming to many of us, because they are accused of being a terrorist cell, apparently on the basis of the government's judgments about their broadcasts. You know, they're accused of collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood by portraying impressions of civil strife in Egypt. There are some indications that they are basically in trouble because they tried to talk to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And when the rest of us have tried to get a clear answer from the government, you know, now that you have declared the Muslim Brotherhood - the Islamist group that supported President Morsi - now that you've declared it a terrorist organization, outlawed organization, will we be in trouble if we try to interview them?
And for a long time, they wouldn't give us an answer. And then, when it became a subject of significant international attention, they released a statement, and to be honest, the statement didn't give us an answer. You know, it said, you know, we believe in freedom of information. You can interview anyone you want. At the same time, let's add some broad caveats for concerns about national security. And when you finish the statement, you really have no idea what it means.
And so I tell you, honestly, many of my colleagues in the international press have genuine concerns over whether or not if they interview and publish an interview with a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, the security forces might come calling.
DAVIES: Are there independent media still functioning? I mean, Egyptian media?
KIRKPATRICK: The Egyptian media is substantially controlled by a small group of people who, by and large, all support the current government. There were Islamist media, Islamist newspapers and private television networks. All of that was shut down in tandem with the military takeover and the ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi. So the Egyptian media really speaks with one voice, and it is mainly cheerleading for Field Marshal Abdul Fattah Sisi, who led the takeover, and is now poised to become Egypt's next president.
DAVIES: And do social media fill the gap? I mean, do people have a sense of what's going on?
KIRKPATRICK: Social media do fill the gap, and international media plays a certain role. I mean, I think English-speaking Egyptians read our newspaper, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and other newspapers and get a different sense of what's happening in their own country than they would if they read only the local Egyptian-language news.
DAVIES: You know, when you were last on the show in July, you said that the atmosphere in Egypt seemed to be characterized by a hyper-nationalism that sort of seemed reminiscent of pre-fascist Europe, this enormous enthusiasm for the military and a tolerance for the harsh persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood.
KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. More than a tolerance, an excitement...
KIRKPATRICK: ...about that harsh persecution.
DAVIES: And do you still feel that way? You still see that?
KIRKPATRICK: Yes, I do, but I'm - I don't know where it's going to go. You know, I'm - there is a greater sense now - what's changed is there is now a sense among non-Islamists that the crackdown affects them, as well. So, you know, you hear - you begin to hear mixed feelings among liberals who are straining to say, look, I'm not with those Islamists guys. I really don't like President Morsi.
But it's too much to try to go and imprison my friends. It's too much to go and try to imprison for months and months without charges, or under obviously political charges, the young people who led the uprising in 2011. There's a beginning of a kind of generational divide. You know, there are a lot of young Egyptians for whom the 2011 uprising was a kind of a Woodstock moment. It was a time when their generation came of age.
And something like two-thirds of Egyptians are under 35, and 70 percent are under 40. So, it's an enormously young country. And that younger generation is starting to feel like the new regime is not just cracking down on the Islamists. It's not just ousting the first elected president, but it's beginning to repudiate the whole revolution of 2011.
DAVIES: David Kirkpatrick, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.
KIRKPATRICK: Always a pleasure.
DAVIES: David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief and a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of stories from author Lorrie Moore. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. It's been 16 years since acclaimed writer Lorrie Moore has brought out a new short story collection. Her new collection is called "Bark," and book critic Maureen Corrigan is sitting up and taking notice.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Lorrie Moore isn't quite a household name. This was news to me, because I thought that, given that she's the kind of writer who's published in The New Yorker and profiled in The New York Times, most culture vultures would know who she is. But over the past couple of weeks, when I mentioned her new book, "Bark," in conversations, both in the halls of academe and over meals with friends, I mostly got blank stares.
One smarty confused her with that other great literary "Lorrie" - the late Laurie Colwin - whose short stories and novels are also essential reading. Maybe Lorrie Moore's muzzy kind of literary fame is due to the fact she doesn't publish a lot. A warp-speed wonder like Joyce Carol Oates publishes 20 books in the time it takes for Lorrie Moore to crank out a story, but she's almost always worth the wait.
There are eight stories in this collection, whose frivolous title, "Bark," refers to both the stray roving dog and to the stuff that covers trees. For me, the long first story, called "Debarking," is itself worth the price of this book. "Debarking" is about a guy named Ira who's newly divorced from his former wife, Marilyn. Here's Moore's trademark digressive, loopy narrative voice explaining why Ira hasn't yet removed his wedding ring:
The ring - supposedly gold, though now that everything Ira had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew - cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a happy vine.
The rest of the story concerns Ira's stumbling attempts to start a relationship with a woman who's too physically attached to her own teenage son. In the background - the way world events usually do provide the background to our own private dramas - the U.S. invasion of Iraq is about to begin.
Ira so desperately wants to be settled again, to take cover in the safe bunker of marriage and escape this grim world of middle-aged dating and sad weekly visits from his little daughter who, he reflects, is now rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off.
Ira, though, is too raw. Moore makes you feel for him, and, at the same time, she makes you want to push off the weight of Ira - all his exposed, sappy neediness - far away. Although Moore has said she finds short story collections organized around a theme, contrived, many of the other stories in "Bark" also mull over the shock of sudden aloneness after a relationship has collapsed or someone has died.
"The Juniper Tree" is a ghost story in which a college professor is visited by the taunting specter of a friend who's just died from cancer. Even the concluding story, "Thank You for Having Me," which is about a wedding, folds in this simultaneously irreverent and profound riff on death and loss. The unnamed wedding guest, a single mom, tells us that it felt important spiritually to go to weddings, to give balance to the wakes and memorial services. And without weddings, there were only funerals. I had seen a soccer mom become a rhododendron with a plaque, next to the soccer field parking lot, as if it had been watching all those soccer matches that had killed her.
I had seen a brilliant young student become a creative writing contest, as if it were all that writing that had been the thing to do him in. I had seen a dozen people become hunks of rock with their names engraved so shockingly perfect upon the surface it looked as if they had indeed turned to stone.
Not every story in "Bark" is so memorable. In fact, I'd say there are even numbers of clunkers and keepers here. But Moore is such an original, I'm not complaining too much. No other writer would think of the peeled-off exposure of divorce in terms of "Debarking." No other writer lights on descriptions like: the old-silver-jewelry smell of oncoming rain.
Well, OK, maybe one other writer would: Moore does remind me of that other American original, Emily Dickinson. They share a love for puns, an unpremeditated oddness, and an abiding sense of solitariness. Dickinson didn't publish enough, either, at least in her lifetime, but she, too, was pretty much worth the wait.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Lorrie Moore's new collection of stories called "Bark."
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