Q & A with Micah Zenko

Posted March 2nd, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing

Micah Zenko’s “Ten What’s” for CFR’s Politics, Power, and Preventive Action blog.

1. What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?

Interesting to whom?

As an antidote to the mostly dismal political development in the Arab world these days, I have been trying to document some of the cultural responses to the ongoing turmoil in the region. I have been seeking out urban planners, architects, writers, filmmakers, and other people who are maintaining a creative life in the face of what can feel like a dead-end moment, politically speaking. In some cases I am writing profiles of people and their ventures, like a decaying abandoned mansion in Beirut that has been turned into a collective with an urban renewal mission. In other cases, I am exploring broader concern about the life and death of cities. The underlying question driving this effort is an inquiry into the capacity of public intellectuals to create tangible change.

2. What got you started in your career?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I just wasn’t sure what kind. When I was kid, I spent summers in Greece hearing stories from my grandparents about the war—for them, that meant World War II and the Greek Civil War that followed it and ended in 1949. I hatched a notion that I wanted to be a war correspondent without any real idea of what that meant, and somehow ended up following that calling. By the time I graduated from university and was working as a reporter, there were sadly plenty of wars underway. The utopian optimism that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall evaporated in Somalia, Rwanda, and the wars of Yugoslavian succession.

3. What person, book, or article has been most influential to your thinking?

It is so hard to pinpoint one single source, but if I have to limit it to just one, I would say it was The Plague by Albert Camus. I first read it as a teenager and I have read it again every five or so years since then. The characters fighting the plague while cut off from the rest of the world in Oran provide an ideal for how to try to keep a sense of purpose, and a moral compass, in trying circumstances. The heroes of the plague are not ideological. They are pragmatists, trying to be useful and to make sense of whatever comes their way, including human venality and the horror of the plague.

4. What kind of advice would you give to young people in your field?

Seek out mentors and editors who will invest time and energy in your work. Take seriously your craft and development as a thinker and writer, and keep your grand ambitions in mind as you try to excel at whatever entry level job you find. There is lots of fear and angst today in the field of journalism, and many young journalists complain that it is nearly impossible to make a secure career in the field (come to think of it, many older veteran journalists voice the same complaint). That is a very real concern: smart, hard-working journalists, with talent and a streak of luck, might find elusive success for themselves— interested editors, fascinating stories, engaged readers—and yet also find themselves unable to pay their rent and student loans. The equation, I fear, drives some of the talent away from journalism and into fields that are equally demanding and underpaid but at least allow the possibility of some stability: fields like human rights research and advocacy, humanitarian aid, NGO or government work, UN consulting, and the like.

There is an enduring thirst for international reporting, though, and I have seen a lot of talented and persistent journalists make impressive starts against long odds over the last five or ten years, living on a shoestring in places like Cairo or Beirut, and drawing attention with their excellent work. The flip side, of course, is that many freelancers are pushed by the bad economics of the business and the lack of commitment, in some cases, by their publications to take dangerous risks without any real institutional support. I encourage all journalists at all stages of their career to resist this pressure and demand that publications pay a living wage for the journalism they make and provide responsible support to those who work in war zones.

5. What was the last book you finished reading?

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

6. What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?

None of the major threats the United States faces today amount to major strategic threats to core U.S. national interests; they pose complex problems that must be addressed creatively through sustained, costly engagement. Top among them are the security threats posed by a belligerent Russia and the failing or rigid states in the Middle East. But the biggest danger to U.S. interests these days is posed by the United States’ own overreaction, fueled by its own runaway security state, which dwarfs anything President Eisenhower had in mind when hewarned against the military-industrial complex. Today, an enormous portion of the U.S. economy is tied up in surveillance, control, and threat inflation. This vast roiling sea—people performing security theater at airports, agencies collecting data we can’t analyze—makes it all the harder to detect and prioritize actual threats.

7. What do you believe is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?

Jihadist violence and terrorism. Groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pose a real and tangible threat, but takfiri jihadist terrorism has been the single most overhyped phenomenon of our age. Murderous nihilists from Osama bin Laden, to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi have swelled to importance far out of proportion to their very real, but strategically limited, ability to wreak mayhem. They are thugs, and in some instances have amassed power that demands a carefully planned, sustained, and powerful response. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say that they are not important or do not demand a serious U.S. policy and security response. But perhaps, because of the fears they endanger, these jihadists have proved capable of manipulating the United States and provoking reactions that suit their own ends. It is like the U.S. government stops thinking when it comes to takfiri jihadis. A Syrian dictator drops nerve gas on his own people and the United States announces, and then backs away from, a bombing campaign. But then a masked sadist taunts the president and murders an innocent citizen on video, and the United States is immediately ready to begin another war in the Arab world?

8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?

Questions like this alway leave me floundering. Probably the biggest challenge is finding ways to spread sustainable prosperity into the quarters where it has been denied. In quasi-failing states like Egypt, that means the basics: housing, health care, literary, subsistence, jobs. In Europe, it means enabling the chronically unemployed to generate livelihoods and wealth. An unconscionable amount of wealth and waste has been generated over the last generation, and it has been far too inequitably spread around the world and within the wealthy societies at the top. This failure can propel instability anywhere: in an increasingly unequal United States, a struggling, polarized Euro-zone, and across the global south.

9. What would you research given two years and unlimited resources?

Identity formation in conflict. I have always been fascinated by the power of individual actors and ideological movements to drive change, for good as well as for ill. Often this power arises from a real or perceived sense of shared grievance that leads to the construction of a tangible community and, often, of a coherent ideology. At root, an ideological commitment and a personal identity serve as the cornerstone of any powerful community, and yet, these ideologies and identities are fluid and malleable. I would like to describe in as great detail as possible the factors that create and shift these identities. I have watched this process up close in Iraq and Lebanon, and I have read about it extensively in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But there are countless examples from history.

10. Why should we read Once Upon a Revolution if we already know how Egypt’s uprising turned out?

It’s not a thriller! But, in a way, it is a mystery; the Tahrir Square revolution really was not supposed to happen, and even its most faithful partisans were shocked by how far they got. I followed a core group of revolutionary activists for four years; they were exceptional because they were the visionaries who, from the start, understood their quest was political and were not afraid to act as leaders even in an uprising that fetishized the idea of having no leaders. “Revolution” sounds grand and sweeping, but like any historical event, it occurred down in the weeds, in the details.

Individuals like Basem, the secular nationalist architect, and Moaz, the Muslim Brotherhood pharmacist, began with a mindset that would be familiar to most of us, and then made a series of improbably, often very imaginative and courageous, choices. Multiplied by thousands, that is what sparked the Tahrir Square revolution, and what will continue to cause upheaval in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world until abusive dictatorships are replaced with accountable governments that respect citizens. This book ends with the revolutionaries defeated by a new version of the old regime, but they are still fighting and, more importantly, the same grievances that sparked Tahrir are burning even more intensely today. Dictatorship might well prevail in the end, but we are not there yet. This is a human story, and it helps us understand why the last four years are only the opening chapter in what will be a generational struggle in Egypt.

A plan to rebuild Syria no matter who wins war

Posted February 22nd, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


The souk in Aleppo, before and after its destruction in 2012. LEFT: WIKICOMMONS; RIGHT: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

BEIRUT—The first year of Syria’s uprising, 2011, largely spared Aleppo, the country’s economic engine, largest city, and home of its most prized heritage sites. Fighting engulfed Aleppo in 2012 and has never let up since, making the city a symbol of the civil war’s grinding destruction. Rebels captured the eastern side of the city while the government held the west. The regime dropped conventional munitions and then barrel bombs on the rebels, who fought back with rockets and mortars. In 2012, the historical Ottoman covered souk was destroyed. In 2013, shelling destroyed the storied minaret of the 11th-century Ummayid Mosque. Apartment blocks were reduced to rubble. More than 3 million residents fled, out of a prewar population of 5 million. Today, residents say the city is virtually uninhabitable; most who remain have nowhere else to go.

In terms of sheer devastation, Syria today is worse off than Germany at the end of World War II. Bashar Assad’s regime and the original nationalist opposition are locked in combat with each other and also with a third axis, the powerful jihadist current led by the Islamic State. And yet, even as the fighting continues, a movement is brewing among planners, activists and bureaucrats—some still in Aleppo, others in Damascus, Turkey, and Lebanon—to prepare, right now, for the reconstruction effort that will come whenever peace finally arrives.

In downtown Beirut, a day’s drive from the worst of the war zone, a team of Syrians is undertaking an experiment without precedent. In a glass tower belonging to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a project called the National Agenda for the Future of Syria has brought together teams of engineers, architects, water experts, conservationists, and development experts to grapple with seemingly impossible technical problems. How many years will it take to remove the unexploded bombs and rubble and then restore basic water, sewerage, and power? How many tons of cement and liters of water will be needed to replace destroyed infrastructure? How many cranes? Where could the 3 million displaced Aleppans be temporarily housed during the years or decades it might take to restore their city? And beneath all these technical questions they face a deeper one, as old as urban warfare itself: How do you bring a destroyed city back to life?

Critics dismiss the ongoing planning effort as a premature boondoggle, keeping technocrats busy creating blueprints that will have to be revised when fighting finally ebbs. But Thierry Grandin, a consultant for the World Monuments Fund who has worked and lived in Aleppo since the 1980s and is currently involved in reconstruction planning, disagrees. “It is good to do the planning now, because on day one we will be ready,” Grandin says. “It might come in a year, it might come in 20, but eventually there will be a day one. Our job is to prepare.”

The team planning the country’s future is a diverse one. Some are employed by the government of Syria, others by the rebels’ rival provisional government. Still others work for the UN, private construction companies, or nongovernmental organizations involved in conservation, like the World Monuments Fund. The Future of Syria project aims to serve as a clearinghouse, and to create a master menu of postwar planning options. As the group’s members outline a path toward renewal, they’re considering everything from corruption and constitutional reform to power grids, antiquities, and health care systems.

The task they have before them beggars comprehension. Across Syria, more than one-third of the population is displaced. Aleppo is in tatters, its center completely destroyed. The population exodus has claimed most of the city’s craftsmen, medical personnel, academics, and industrialists.

A modern country has been unmade during four years of conflict, and nowhere is the toll more apparent than in once-alluring Aleppo. But after horrifying conflict, countless places have found a way to return to functionality. What’s new in Syria is the attempt to come up with a neutral plan while the conflict is still in train. And Aleppo, the country’s historic urban jewel, will be the central test.

TO FIND A SIMILAR example of planning during wartime before the outcome was known, you have to go back to World War II. Allied forces spent years preparing for the physical, economic, and political reconstruction of Germany and Japan even before they could be sure who would win. Today, Americans tend mostly to recall the symbolic reconstruction after the war: the Nuremberg trials and the Marshall Plan, a colossal foreign aid program.

But undergirding those triumphs was the vast logistical operation of erecting new cities. It took decades to clear the moonscapes of rubble and to rebuild, in famous targets like Dresden and Hiroshima but in countless other places as well, from Coventry to Nanking. Some places never recovered their vitality.

Since then, a litany of divided and devastated cities has been left by other conflicts. Even those that eventually regained a sense of normalcy, like Beirut, Sarajevo, or Grozny, generally survived rather than thrived. Only a few countries—East Timor, Angola, Rwanda—offer what Syrian planners call “glimmers of hope,” as places that suffered terrible man-made disasters and then bounced back.

Of course, Syrian planners cannot help but pay attention to the model closest to home: Beirut, a city almost synonymous with civil war and flawed reconstruction. The planners and technocrats in the UN ESCWA tower overlook a gleamingly restored but vacant downtown from behind a veritable moat of blast barriers and sealed roads. Shell-pocked abandoned buildings stand as evidence of the tangled ownership disputes that have held back reconstruction a full quarter-century after the Lebanese civil war.

“We don’t want to end up like Beirut,” one of the Syrian planners says, referring to the physical problems but also to a postwar process in which militia leaders turned to corrupt reconstruction ventures as a new source of funds and power. He spoke anonymously; the Future of Syria team, which is led by a former Syrian deputy prime minister named Abdallah Al Dardari, doesn’t give on-the-record briefings. Since their top priority is to maintain buy-in from Syrians on all sides, they try to avoid naming names so as not to dissuade people they hope will use their plans when the war ends.

Syria’s national recovery will depend in large part on whether its industrial powerhouse Aleppo can bounce back. Until 2011, Aleppo had been celebrated for millenniums for its beauty and commerce. The citadel overlooking the center is a world heritage site. The old city and its covered market were vibrant, functioning exemplars of Islamic and Ottoman architecture, surrounded by the wide leafy avenues of the modern city. Aleppan traders plied their wares in Turkey, Iraq, the Levant, and all the way south to the Arabian peninsula. The city’s workshops, famed above all for their fine textiles, export millions of dollars’ worth of goods every week even now, and the economy has expanded to include modern industry as well.

Today, however, the city’s water and power supply are under the control of the Islamic State. Entire neighborhoods have collapsed under regime bombing and shelling: government buildings, hospitals, landmark hotels, schools, prisons. Aleppo is split between a regime side with vestiges of basic services, and a mostly depopulated rebel-controlled zone, into which the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front have made inroads over the last year. A river of rubble marks the no-man’s land separating the two sides. The only way to cross is to leave the city, follow a wide arc, and reenter from the far side.

For now, said an architect who works for the rebel government in Aleppo under the pseudonym Tamer el Halaby, today’s business is simply survival, like digging 20 makeshift wells that fulfill minimal water needs. (He prefers not to have his real name published for fear that the government might target relatives on the other side of Aleppo.) Parts of the old city won’t be inhabitable for years, he told me by Skype, because the ground has literally shifted as a result of bombing and shelling.

“It will take a long time and cost a lot of money for this city to work again,” he said.

CLOSE TO A THOUSAND Syrians have consulted on the Future of Syria project, which comprises at least two ambitious initiatives rolled into one. The first and more obvious is creating realistic options to fix the country after the war—in some cases literal plans for building infrastructure systems and positioning construction equipment, in other cases guidelines for shaping governance.

At the Future of Syria, hospital administrators, civil engineers, and traffic coordinators each work on their given fields. They’re familiar with global “best practices,” but also with how things work in Syria, so they’re not going to propose pie-in-the-sky ideas. These planners also understand that who wins the construction contracts will depend on who wins the war. If some version of the current regime remains in charge, it will probably direct massive contracts toward patrons in Russia, China, or Iran. The opposition, by contrast, would lean toward firms from the West, Turkey, and the Gulf.

“Who will have the influence in Syria after the conflict? That will dictate who is involved in redevelopment. It all depends on who ends up being in political control,” says Richard J. Cook, a longtime UN official who supervised postconflict construction in Palestinian refugee camps and now works for one of the Middle East’s largest construction conglomerates, Dar Al-Handasah Consultants (Shair and Partners). Along with other companies, Dar Al-Handasah has offered its lessons learned from Lebanon’s reconstruction process to Syrian planners, and plans to compete to work in postwar Syria.

That leads to the second, more subtle, innovation of the Future of Syria project. For its plans to matter, they need to be politically viable no matter who is governing. So the planners have worked hard to persuade experts from all factions to contribute to the 57 different sectoral studies, hoping to come up with feasible rebuilding options that would be considered by a future Syrian authority of any stripe. Today, nearly 200 experts work full time for the project.

At the current level of destruction, the project planners estimate the reconstruction will cost at least $100 billion. Regardless of how it’s financed—loans, foreign aid, bonds—that’s a financial bonanza for whoever controls the reconstruction process. Some would-be peacemakers have suggested that reconstruction plans could even be used as enticements. If opposition militants and regime constituents think they’ll make more money rebuilding than fighting, they might have a Machiavellian incentive to make peace.

Underlying the details—mapping destroyed blocks, surveying the condition of the citadel, studying sewers—are bigger philosophical questions. How can a destroyed city be rebuilt, when the combination of people, economy, and buildings can never be reconstituted? Can you use reconstruction to undo the human damage of sectarianism and conflict? Recently a panel of architects and heritage experts from Sweden, Bosnia, Syria, and Lebanon convened in Beirut to discuss lessons for Syria’s reconstruction—one of the many distinct initiatives parallel to the Future of Syria project.

“You should never rebuild the way it was,” said Arna Mackic, an architect from Mostar. That Bosnian city was divided during the 1990s civil war into Muslim and Catholic sides, destroying the city center and the famous Stari Most bridge over the Neretva River. “The war changes us. You should show that in rebuilding.”

In the case of Mostar, the UN agency UNESCO reconstructed the bridge and built a restored central zone where Muslims and Catholics were supposed to create a harmonious new postwar culture. Instead, Mackik says, the sectarian communities keep to their own enclaves. Bereft of any common symbols, the city took a poll to figure out what kind of statue to erect in the city center. All the local figures were too polarizing. In the end they settled on a gold-colored statue of the martial arts star Bruce Lee.

“It belongs to no one,” Mackic says. “What does Bruce Lee mean to me?”

Despite such pitfalls, one area of potential for the planning process—and eventually for the reconstruction of Aleppo—is that it could offer the city’s people a form of participatory democracy that has so far eluded the Syrian regime and sadly, the opposition as well. People consulted about the shape of their reconstituted neighborhoods or roads will have been offered a slice of citizenship alien to most top-down Syrian leadership.

“You are being democratic without the consequences of all the hullabaloo of formal democratization,” says one of the Syrian planners who has contributed to the Future of Syria project and spoke on condition of anonymity.

What is certain is that putting Syria back together again is likely to be as least as expensive as imploding it. A great deal of money has been invested in Syria’s destruction— by the regime, the local parties to the conflict, and many foreign powers. A great deal of money will be made in the aftermath, in a reconstruction project that stands to dwarf anything seen since after World War II.

How that recovery is designed will help determine whether Syria returns to business as usual, sowing the seeds for a reprise of the same conflict—or whether reconstruction allows the kind of lasting change that the resolution of war itself might not.

Boston Globe reviews “Once Upon a Revolution”

Posted February 16th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011 celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak. KHALIL HAMRA/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE

[Read review here in The Boston Globe.]

By Bernard Vaughan, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT, FEBRUARY 13, 2015

“I must be frank,” journalist Thanassis Cambanis writes very early on in his new book about the 2011 uprising in Egypt. “I fell in love with the Tahrir Revolution, but this love didn’t blind me to its faults.”

It’s a bland introductory declaration, easily forgotten by a reader eager to experience Tahrir Square. But it is one Cambanis, a regular columnist for The Boston Globe’s Ideas section, convincingly elucidates in “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” which is both a warm, deeply human chronicle of the people who drove the revolution and a cool, withering analysis of why they failed — or, as Cambanis prefers, were “defeated.”

The story follows a handful of activists, especially Moaz Abdelkarim, a 26-year-old “schlumpy pharmacist,” and Basem Kamel, an architect and family man in his early 40s. Abdelkarim grew up in the Muslim Brotherhood, has a fierce independent streak, and is impulsive. Kamel had avoided politics and is punctual, pragmatic, and shrewd. Together, Cambanis writes, they represented, respectively, the revolution’s id and ego.

The first 50 pages intertwine Abdelkarim and Kamel’s personal histories with the revolution’s roots before the two activists join the same cell marching to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011. For the casual observer, the uprising could seem to have come out of nowhere or been inspired by unrest in Tunisia. Cambanis explains it had been brewing since at least 2002 and boiled over the previous summer, when police in Alexandria beat to death an apolitical young man.

This background helps us understand how Abdelkarim and Kamel behave during and after the revolution. Kamel’s knack for retail politics is logical because we remember how, as an architect, he loved managing projects while interacting with “men of every social class and background” on job sites. Abdelkarim’s difficulty thinking beyond the moment fits a pattern, such as when he nobly questioned President Hosni Mubarak’s regime on state television years earlier in a segment that was edited out and only resulted in expanding his state security file.

As the Tahrir demonstrations escalate, there are, of course, moments of elation and euphoria as Islamists and secularists unite in common cause. But they were unable to sustain a coalition, which left liberal reformers ill-equipped to challenge the old regime’s “deep state” apparatus or the Muslim Brotherhood’s political machine. And Cambanis faults the revolutionaries for not trying to seize Egypt’s state television headquarters — despite its being surrounded by tanks — thereby forfeiting the main source of information for most Egyptians.

“Even at Tahrir’s pinnacle, the seeds of future divisions had already taken root,” Cambanis writes.

As the military overtly asserts control after Mubarak’s fall and again when President Mohamed Morsi falls out of favor, the reformers prove unwilling or unable to unify around tangible political goals, further alienating themselves from the masses. In one rambling, smoke-filled meeting, they “talked out of turn and rarely took their eyes off their smartphones.”

“The coalition’s loyalty to revolution was unquestionable,” Cambanis writes. “In practice, however, the revolutionary leaders behaved like teenage boyfriends with noble intentions and truncated attention spans.”

Anecdotes like this — from beyond the square — are when “Once Upon a Revolution” is most illuminating. In one moving episode, traumatized Muslims and Christians heatedly debate, fight, and comfort each other at a morgue after a deadly military crackdown. At Tahrir’s peak, rich kids drink expensive coffee at fancy cafes while complaining about traffic; poor people worry about their livelihoods. “These people in Tahrir Square represent only a minority of Egyptians,” a pastry shop manager tells Cambanis. Cable news and social media do not easily capture such enriching details.

Egypt today has reached “an impossibly sad juncture,” led by the popular Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who in his first year of control killed and arrested more people than the ousted Mubarak had in nearly three decades, Cambanis writes. But the revolution still happened, and its true impact could take decades to assess, he says. Underlining Cambanis’s many criticisms is intense admiration for the risks revolutionaries took and their accomplishments.

“They contributed something invaluable to the moral fiber of the universe, and, less abstractly, they learned to organize and command substantial power,” he writes. “They might well find a way to change their country.”

Bernard Vaughan is a New York-based journalist.



NYT reviews “Once Upon a Revolution”

Posted February 16th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Protestors in Tahrir Square wave their shoes at the televised image of Hosni Mubarak, Feb. 1, 2011. Credit: Ed Ou for The New York Times

[Read review here in the NYT.]

There was nothing culpable about this. Genuine revolutions may seem to succeed at first because they are the unexpected outcome of contradictory forces coming together almost by chance. When the first protest began in Cairo on the morning of Jan. 25, 2011, the demonstrators chanted: “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice! The people demand the fall of the regime.” Up to the last moment the organizers were uncertain that anybody would dare come out onto the streets to support them.

The most important revolution of the Arab Spring was in Egypt, whose 90 million inhabitants make it the most populous country in the Arab world. Had the revolutionaries won there, the balance of power between democracy and dictatorship would have changed across the region. Over 18 days, secular and Islamist opponents of President Hosni Mubarak fought together in and around Tahrir Square to end his 29 years in power. These were the heroic days of the revolution, and they were never to be repeated. Instead, divisions within the opposition became wider, while the partisans of the discredited old regime recovered their nerve and eventually returned to power. On July 3, 2013, a military coup with much popular support overthrew and jailed the first truly elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. In May 2014 the former army field marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president to replace him with 96.9 percent of the vote, a figure underlining the degree to which the authoritarian state was confidently back in business.

It is one of the many strengths of Thanassis Cambanis’s fluent, intelligent and highly informed book, “Once Upon a Revolution,” that he convincingly explains what happened in Egypt over the last four years. It should be read by anybody perplexed by how Egypt’s apparent entry into a brave new democratic world was ultimately defeated. This account has the vividness and readability of eyewitness reporting combined with an unsentimental and perceptive judgment about where the opponents of autocracy went wrong.

Cambanis, the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel,” got to know the activists who started the first demonstrations and describes developments as they appeared to him. He does not underestimate the difficulties the revolutionaries had in mobilizing people against a state that had developed so many instruments of control since the army first took power in Egypt in 1952. They had to overcome the sense of hopelessness and cynicism among the mass of Egyptians, who had come to believe that any attempt to better their lot was doomed to failure and might even leave them worse off. Egyptian leaders fostered this fear of insecurity, claiming that iron rule from the top was the only alternative to anarchy. “Egypt’s dictators had insisted that their subjects were incompetent, helpless sheep who needed a strong hand,” Cambanis writes. “Left on their own, they’d make a mess and starve to death.”

The supporters of democracy in Egypt always held a weaker hand than the outside world imagined. Mubarak fell because of pressure from below, but also because the Egyptian Army was alienated by his plan to have his son Gamal succeed him. The organizers of the street protests were naïve about taking advantage of their original astonishing successes; they never displaced their enemies from positions of power, attempting “a revolution without any of the usual political gambits. They didn’t try to take over the government’s television stations or any ministries.” Their restraint meant that they were slandered by the state media as well-off playboys and drug-takers, as sexually promiscuous or gay, and in the pay of foreign countries. The Western media exaggerated the extent to which the Internet, Facebook and YouTube circumvented government control of television, newspapers and radio. Cambanis concludes that “the Internet age hasn’t reconfigured the calculus of power.”

The weaknesses of the opposition were not all self-inflicted. It’s true that there was deep popular anger in Egypt because the ruling elite had never delivered prosperity in exchange for depriving Egyptians of their political and civil rights. Most people “found themselves in a Potemkin republic, crowded into unplanned apartments on narrow lanes, their grown children unemployable in Egypt whether they had a master’s degree or merely a strong back.” Poverty combined with miserable health and education facilities ensured plenty of dry tinder for revolutionaries. But the very backwardness of Egypt limited their ability to ignite it.

State propaganda for more than half a century had fostered delusions about military rule much to the advantage of those who benefited from the status quo. Demonstrators went on chanting “The army and the people are one hand” long after it was apparent that the army was orchestrating the murder, imprisonment and torture of protesters. Cambanis says that “even faced with overwhelming evidence of the military’s malfeasance, too many revolutionaries were willing to trust the military as an impartial referee. The revolution never sought to dispel the shibboleth that Egypt’s army was sacred.”

Somehow this army that never won a war in the 60 years it has ruled Egypt has avoided responsibility for the miserable state to which it has reduced the country. During the two years of revolutionary upsurge, it convinced Egyptians that it was the sole barrier against violence and sectarian hatreds that were fomented or manipulated by the military itself. When Copts demonstrated in front of Maspero, the state media headquarters in Cairo, they were shot down by soldiers and run over by armored cars. “Go help the army,” an announcer on state television declared. “Our soldiers are being attacked by Christians.”

Cambanis expresses uncertainty as to whether Tahrir Square was just an interlude in Egypt’s tragedy. He quotes Cairo street graffiti that ask, “Do you remember the tomorrow that never came?” His story of what happened will do much to keep that memory alive.

Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East correspondent of The Independent of London. His latest book is “The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution.”

The Broken Dream of Tahrir Square

Posted February 9th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Basem for Speigel

Basem Kamel in Cairo. Photo: Rena Effendi/Institut/DER SPIEGEL

[Der Spiegel published this update on a trio of revolutionaries four years after Tahrir Square. I extended the reporting for Once Upon a Revolution with followups in Cairo and Istanbul this winter. The story has been translated from English into German and then back again.]

On the fourth anniversary of the revolution, jailed blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah weighs 72 kilograms (159 pounds). It’s the 84th day of his hunger strike. Former Muslim Brother Moaz Abdelkarim has fled to Turkey. And architect Basem Kamel plans on running for parliament this spring.

For 18 days, the three men served as the protagonists in a grand historical drama. They wanted to reinvent their country and indeed the entire Middle East, with the world looking on enthusiastically. Without these three men — a Muslim Brother, an architect and a blogger who represent the heart, soul and brawn of the insurgency — the Egyptian revolution might never have happened.

The three activists camped out almost every day on Tahrir Square, helping the wounded and coordinating the protests. When Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation on Feb. 11, 2011, millions in Tahrir — and across the country — screamed, prayed and danced. “Never again can the regime ignore the people,” architect Basem said, barely audible over the euphoric chanting. He was confident that the generals who had seized power in Mubarak’s wake would be quickly dispatched by people power.

But four years later, there is little left of the revolution — its heroes have either fled, been jailed or receded into insignificance. Despite all this, they still haven’t given up.

Fleeting Freedom

When the Tahrir uprising began, Alaa Abdel Fattah was in South Africa, where he’d moved to take a computer programming job. He quickly returned, and when I first met him in February 2011, he was staring wistfully at the state media headquarters, the Maspero Building on the Nile River. “It’s impossible to take over this building,” he said, pointing at the row of tanks protecting it from the thousands of young unarmed demonstrators out front. “They could kill us all.”

Fattah was 29 at the time. He had a potbelly, long curly hair and a smile that pushed out his cheeks. He dressed like a programmer and brought brainy discourse to Tahrir, but he was also equally committed to the fight, standing firm in the face of regime attacks. His father was a well-known human rights lawyer and Abdel Fattah seemed to be born with the spirit of resistance in his blood.

Hosni Mubarak was still in power the first time he got sent to jail. The second came after the revolution in 2011. He got hauled in for a third time at the end of 2013. A fourth arrest occurred during the summer of 2014. On August 18, 2014, Abdel Fattah began a hunger strike in his prison cell.

At Abdel Fattah’s trial in September, the absurdity of the paranoid police state was on full display. He stood accused of crimes against the state and was sentenced to 15 years in jail. The defendant was put in a glass cage, his microphone silenced. Prosecutors, clearly unable to prove that Abdel Fattah committed any crimes against the state, showed a video illegally seized during his arrest. It showed his wife belly dancing at a private gathering. He was released on bail, but only briefly.

“My temporary release is a conspiracy like the case with my imprisonment,” Abdel Fattah wrote on Facebook after he got let out of jail. He was arrested again only a few weeks later. The conviction has since been overturned due to procedural errors, but he remains in prison awaiting retrial. Abdel Fattah’s younger sister, Sanaa Seif, is also in jail, serving out a two-year sentence for protesting her brother’s detention.

This is the situation in Egypt today, four years after the revolution, which began on Jan. 25, 2011 and ultimately forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who had been the country’s president for decades. After the military unseated Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi as the country’s first elected civilian president in July 2013, the brief phase of freedom came to an abrupt end. In the time that has passed since, the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed. Court proceedings against Mubarak didn’t lead anywhere; and his sons, who also faced charges, have just been released from jail. Meanwhile, most of the influential revolutionary activists are either in jail or have fled into exile abroad. In Cairo, the military is ruling again with a strongman at its helm.

Today there are even fewer avenues for dissent than there were before the revolution. No public gatherings are allowed; the secret police exerts a tighter grip than ever; parliament has been disbanded; and the media cheers on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Moaz for Speigel

Moaz Abdelkarim in Istanbul.

A Failed Revolution

There are also court proceedings against Moaz Abdelkarim in Cairo, but he managed to flee the country in time. The pharmacist and former Muslim Brother now lives in Istanbul and has shaved his light beard. “It doesn’t look like a revolution,” he says. “It looks like a failure.”

During the revolution, Abdelkarim was a young Muslim Brother who dressed like an old Islamist, with pleated pants and plaid shirts. He had a youthful grin and was a bit naive, but he also had an iron rebellious streak. He had grown up inside the disciplined Islamist movement as a third-generation Muslim Brother, but he chafed at its dictatorial traditions. Brotherhood leaders ordered their members to stay away from the uprising, but Abdelkarim ignored them, instead joining a group of opposition activists who met in secret apartments and later formed the seeds of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.

After the revolution, Abdelkarim and other young Muslim Brothers formed the new Egyptian Current party. They were Islamists, but they believed passionately in a liberal, secular government and were committed to democratic principles and separation of religion and state. “I am Islamic,” he said in the spring of 2011. “But I don’t want an Islamic state. A state can’t be Islamic any more than a chair can be Islamic.” He attacked the Muslim Brotherhood in public when its members decided to found a party. The organizers responded by initiating disciplinary proceedings against Abdelkarim and expelling him.

On two different occasions, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces invited Revolutionary Youth Coalition leaders to meetings, and Abdelkarim also attended. The bemused generals listened to what the young activists had to say, but then politely ignored all their proposals and appeals. It quickly became clear to Abdelkarim that the generals had no intention of changing anything and that the old regime was still in power.

He nevertheless still believed the revolution stood a chance right up until the point when security forces invaded the Islamist encampment at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013. Supporters of Morsi had camped out and called for the reinstatement of their president. The security forces could have dispersed the sit-in with teargas and water cannons as they had done so often. But this time, they came in with guns blazing with live ammunition, at point blank range. The massacre lasted almost a day and, in the end, at least 800 people died — perhaps as many as 2,600, according to the Muslim Brotherhood’s estimates.

On Twitter, his friend Basem Kamel placed the blame for the massacre on Muslim Brotherhood leaders for putting their followers on a path to confrontation.

Abdelkarim drove the injured to the hospital, organized clandestine meetings and joined the team that lined the bloody corpses in a mosque, including those of many of his friends. One man bled to death in the backseat of his car. Exhausted, he cried as he drove. Abdelkarim lived out of his car for five days. He saw how friends who had survived were arrested within days of the massacre. The justice system also prepared cases against him, including the charge that he allegedly plotted together with the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah.

When he returned home five days after the massacre, his mother cried. She thought he had died. He packed his things and boarded a plane to Turkey shortly thereafter.

For months, the state media covered nothing except “Islamist terror.” In November, three months after the massacre, the regime imposed severe restrictions on protests and arrested numerous critics under the pretense they represented a threat to national security. Blogger Abdel Fattah also ended up in jail again. In January 2014, el-Sisi tested the waters with a constitutional referendum that passed with 98 percent support. In May, he ran for president and won 97 percent of the vote.

Moaz Abdelkarim has since lived in Turkey, but he has to leave every 30 days in order to obtain a new tourist visa. His life is adrift in exile, and he is constantly on the go. Given that the trial against him is continuing, with charges that include terrorism, it’s possible he will never be able to return to Egypt. “They want to keep us busy with made-up cases so we have no time to fight the regime,” he says.

‘The Revolution Will End Like it Began’

These days, he’s focusing his efforts on reconciliation between secularists and Islamists that can serve as the basis for the start of the next revolution. He does this because he believes Egyptians will soon grow tired of el-Sisi’s rule. But on this wintry night, another of his mediation efforts between secularist government critics and Muslim Brothers in exile hasn’t gotten anywhere. The mistrust between them is so great that the two sides won’t even meet face to face.

“We need to start a dialogue and agree on things we can fight for,” Abdelkarim says. The only success story in the Arab spring came in Tunisia, where secular and Islamist activists had already engaged in dialogue in exile. He’s now trying to do that himself as a member of the leadership board of the small but well-known Al Ghad Al Thawra Party, one of the only secular parties to maintain cordial relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. But the party’s leaders are scattered in exile and are powerless against the regime’s propaganda. Abdelkarim studies Turkish and is toying with the idea of returning to work as a pharmacist. If he does, it’s likely he’ll be making a final break from politics.

Of the three revolutionaries, Basem Kamel is the only who is still able to participate in Egyptian political life without fear. After the revolution, he helped found the Social Democratic Party. He was one of only four Tahrir activists who got elected to parliament three years ago — a day he celebrated by changing his profession on Facebook from “architect” to “politician”.

When the newly elected parliament met shortly before the first anniversary of the uprising, Downtown Cairo looked like a war zone. The military had sealed the roads around Tahrir with concrete walls, and barbed wire marked the path to parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists had secured a majority, but Kamel remained optimistic. “Revolution, finally, is politics,” he told me as he walked to the parliament.

At the same time, Moaz Abdelkarim was protesting outside against torture, arbitrary arrests and censorship that should no longer have been taking place. “The revolution will end like it began, with the same tiny group,” Abdelkarim said, standing before a wall of masked police. “A few hundred people will protest and nobody will pay attention.”

Kamel was one of the last to join the activists and he was older than most. He was 41 years old at the time — a tall, thin, balding man and father of three. His grandparents had been poor farmers, and he himself had studied architecture. During his university studies, he designed modern buildings using sustainable materials. But he earned his money with cheap cement block apartments that could cram in as many residents as possible. It helped him to rise to middle-class respectability in a tower on Cairo’s humble outskirts. But even toiling for 16 hours a day as he did, his family still had a hard time making ends meet. It angered him, and it was this anger that drove him — first to meet with Mohammed al-Baradei and soon afterwards to Tahrir.

The End of Democracy

The politicization of people like Kamel, who had studiously avoided politics for most of their lives, was one of the great achievements of the revolution at Tahrir Square. In that sense, he represents all Egyptians who otherwise would have preferred to hold back. Their support proved to be decisive in the revolution’s success. Ultimately, however, they were also the first to defect and support the military government.

“Aren’t you concerned about military rule?” I asked him after the generals toppled Muslim Brother Morsi in the summer of 2013.

“We know how to deal with the military,” Kamel said. “It’s the Islamists we’re worried about.”

Even though he had spent three years of his life fighting authoritarianism, he was buoyed by the end of democracy in Egypt. “It’s a revolution, not a coup,” he told me. “If you insist on calling it a coup, it’s a popularly legitimate coup.”

It’s still possible to meet with Kamel today at his Social Democratic Party headquarters, located in an imposing but rundown building in Downtown Cairo. It used to be teeming with people and energy, but today it is nearly empty. He says most Egyptians no longer support the party. “The problem in Egypt now is not the regimes,” he explains. “It is the people. We have to convince them.”

Even a year later, he still doesn’t regret that Morsi got ousted. What he does rue, however, is the return of a full-blown dictatorship in Egypt. “Today there is only one kind of politics allowed: Sisi’s politics,” he says. He believes el-Sisi will serve at least two terms as president. “Then we’ll be back in the game.”

Despite everything — including the fact that he lost his own position in the revolutionary parliament after it was dissolved in 2012 — he still wants to run again in parliamentary elections planned for this spring, even if 80 percent of the seats are reserved for independent individual candidates and only 20 percent are for the parties. That weakens the parties and strengthens those who are well-connected politically and can raise money for expensive campaigns.

Kamel is still convinced that Egypt can become a democracy, even if it takes decades for that to happen. He also believes it was the egomania of politicians and public apathy that doomed the revolution. He argues that the opposition parties should merge in order to increase their influence, but instead they are battling each other. All the parties founded after the revolution, he says with a sigh, are going the way of the ineffectual opposition parties that limped through the Mubarak years.

Kamel now wants to place more of a focus on his architecture business, which he neglected in recent years. He has lost his customer base and now his family is struggling to get by. “Today, my first priority is business,” he says. “Politics comes second.”

Anti protest law press conference in Cairo

Alaa Abdel Fattah. Photo: DPA

‘We’re Fed Up’

Meanwhile, Alaa Abdel Fattah remains on a hunger strike and has just been taken to the prison hospital. Many activists have joined him in fasting. But so far, their joint action hasn’t done much to change things. It’s a last act of protest, a symbol of the dead-end road the revolution is heading in.

“What’s important now is that we organize ourselves and pressure the authorities that conspire against us,” Abdel Fattah said before he stopped eating. “I will not play the role they have written for me. We’re fed up.”

Book launch roundup

Posted February 5th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing

I’m tying up loose ends from the first stage of the book tour and preparing to launch a variety of new projects. Here I’ve collected appearances about Egypt and the book from the recent spell.

Here & Now talked with me about the  killings in Egypt over the uprising anniversary weekend. You can listen here.

The World asked about why Egypt has turned so firmly in an authoritarian direction, and wanted to know what Basem and Moaz are doing today. You can listen here.

Now Sisi is applying the same tools to the same problems that led to the Tahrir Square uprising.

“All those core grievances are still present,” Cambanis says, and “nothing, unfortunately, about Sisi’s methods suggest that he’s going to be able to resolve them.”

WGBH’s Greater Boston asked why so many Egyptians cheered Sisi’s rise to power. You can watch here.

During a long chat on “Uprising with Sonali” we talked about the arc of the last four years and how change can come to a complex state like Egypt. You can listen here.

Finally, Foreign Policy ran a long excerpt from the book’s closing chapter, about the week of the coup in July 2013.

After midnight, Morsi finally came on television. He rasped and ranted and shouted about his legitimacy. He didn’t relent an inch. It was the speech of a man who planned to go down fighting. It was a speech that comforted the men and women in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square who expected martyrdom. Moaz watched at a Brotherhood hospital with one of Morsi’s advisers.

“It’s all over,” the adviser said. “There might have been a way out, but not after this speech.”

“You know how a chicken keeps running around after you cut off its head?” Moaz remarked. “Morsi is like that.”

(continue reading)


Politics & Prose

Posted February 1st, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing


You can also listen to the audio podcast of the talk from the Politics & Prose site, although I can’t find the link yet..

Egypt panel at Center for American Progress

Posted January 26th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing

A great session in Washington that featured retired General Jim Matthis, then the panel discussing the CAP report on Egypt (Brian Katulis, Mokhtar Awad, Amy Hawthorne, Michael Hanna), and then a discussion of my book with Steven Cook and Hardin Lang. The link below should lead to a YouTube video of the panel if the embedded file doesn’t work.

CAP Egypt Panel, January 2015

Book Launch: Leonard Lopate show

Posted January 21st, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing

On Tuesday, Once Upon a Revolution went on sale. We kicked off with a great conversation on WNYC with guest host Aasif Mandvi. You can listen here.

Foreign policy wins Obama still can pull off

Posted January 18th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing



Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.

LAST MONTH, in a pre-Christmas surprise, the White House announced a major foreign policy breakthrough on a front that almost nobody was watching: Cuba and the United States were ending nearly a half century of hostility, after secret negotiations authorized by the president and undertaken with help from the pope. Lately, America’s zigzagging on the grinding war in Syria and Iraq has attracted the most attention, but President Obama has punctuated his six years in power with a series of foreign policy flourishes, among them ending the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; launching an international military intervention in Libya; and a “reset” with Russia, which ultimately failed.

Time is running short. Obama has only two more years in office, and an oppositional Congress that will likely block any major domestic policy initiatives. But the president’s opening with Cuba raises a question. What other foreign-policy rabbits might this lame-duck president try to pull out of his hat?
Obama often talks about the arc of his history and his legacy. And we know from history that presidents in the sunset of their terms often turn their focus to foreign policy, where they have a freer hand. The presidential drift abroad has been even more pronounced in administrations that face an opposition Congress and limited support for any ambitious domestic agenda items.

Despite keeping his promises to end two wars and to reestablish America’s power to persuade, not just coerce, Obama has drawn some scorn as a foreign policy president. Poobahs across the spectrum from right to left have derided him for not having a policy (drifting on Syria, passively responding to the Arab Spring), for naively pursuing diplomacy (the reset with Russia, the pivot to Asia), for adopting his predecessor’s militarism (the surge in Afghanistan, the war on ISIS).

But, free from any future elections, the president may finally be at liberty to engineer bigger symbolic moves, like the recent rapprochement with Cuba. He can even try for politically unpopular policy realignments that would ultimately benefit his successor.

So what bold gambits might Obama reach for in his final two years? We’re talking here about unlikely developments, but ones that, with a push from a willing White House, could actually happen. Here’s a look at what might be on Obama’s wish list, and his real chances of grabbing any of these wonky Holy Grails.

A stand on torture

IN ITS WAR ON TERROR, America adopted a number of tactics that its leaders used to call un-American. Some of them appear here to stay, like remote-control bombing runs by robot planes (known by the anodyne moniker “drone strikes”), which have killed more than 2,400 people and have become the most common way Obama pursues suspected militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

But other tactics have lingered long after the White House has concluded they are counterproductive: most notably the use of torture, and the indefinite detention of enemies without charge or trial in the limbo prison at Guantanamo Bay. President George W. Bush, toward the end of his term, backtracked on both policies, quietly roping in the use of torture and exploring ways to shut down Gitmo. Obama has taken a more assertive moral stance on the issue, perhaps because he realized that America’s treatment of detainees delivered a propaganda boon to its enemies—and increased the risk of similar mistreatment for American detainees. But though he ended torture, he hasn’t settled the political debate, nor has he managed to close Guantanamo Bay.

This is one problem that Obama could resolve by fiat, if he were willing to deal with the inevitable political yelps. He could close Guantanamo Bay overnight, sending dangerous detainees to face trial in the United States, shipping others to allied states like Saudi Arabia, and releasing the rest (many of whom have spent more than a decade incarcerated). To those who would accuse him of putting America at risk by not detaining accused terrorists without charge forever, Obama could point to the US Constitution and shrug his shoulders. As for torture, some believe the best move would be to follow the South African model of a truth commission that airs all the grisly details, while granting immunity from prosecution to those who testify. Of course, critics of torture would decry the amnesty, and supporters would decry the release of narrative details.

Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt says to forget the truth commission. The simplest way for Obama to end one of the most contentious debates in America, he argues, is with a set of sweeping pardons for all those involved in torture. That could include officials from Bush on down, as well as leakers like Chelsea Manning. In an e-mail, Walt said such a move would be a “game changer,” although one with odds so long that he put it in the category of “foreign policy black swans.” “I regard it as very, very unlikely, but it would be a huge step,” he said.

Presidential pardons could make clear that torture and extrajudicial detention were illegal mistakes, while simultaneously freeing whistle-blowers and closing the books on the whole affair. Obama could even wait until after the 2016 presidential election has been decided, altogether eliminating political risk.

A détente with North Korea



NORTH KOREA entered the news recently because of its alleged role in the Sony hack over the silly film “The Interview.” But the hermit kingdom isn’t a problem because of its leader Kim Jong-un’s absurd cult of personality. No, North Korea poses a problem because it’s a belligerent, opaque, hyper-militarized state that stands outside the international system and is armed with serious rockets, nuclear warheads, and a powerful military.

One fraught area remains the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. About 30,000 American personnel are deployed there, and North Korea routinely provokes deadly clashes to remind the world of its resolve.

If Obama could finally end the Korean war—officially just in a cease-fire since 1953—he would resolve the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia and perhaps the world. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, has an almost mythic status among villainous world leaders. Millions have suffered in North Korea’s prison camps, and the militarized state maintains a hysterical level of propaganda that makes it stand out even among other “rogue” states. Even China, long the dynasty’s primary backer, has begun to express irritation with North Korean’s volatility.

But all this creates an opportunity, according to veteran Korea watchers. “There’s an opportunity, oddly enough,” says Barbara Demick, author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” “It would require a bold gesture on somebody’s part.”

Kim Jong-un, third in the family dynasty, has lived abroad and appears more open-minded than his father, Demick says. More importantly, despite the anti-American rhetoric, North Korea might want to end its comparatively young feud with the United States, which dates only to the 1950s, to better protect itself from the local threat from its millennial rival China.

Earlier efforts at reconciliation in the early 1990s foundered and collapsed after Kim Jong-il cheated on an agreement to freeze his nuclear weapons program. Demick and other experts are more hopeful that his son will be more interested in negotiating. Three years after taking over, Kim Jong-un seems to have consolidated power. He has relaxed some control over private trade, and he executed a senior member of his own regime who was considered China’s man in Pyongyang, asserting himself over rivals within his family and government.

“Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem to want to spend his whole life as the head of a pariah state,” Demick says.

It’s quite difficult to imagine North Korea doing an about face and becoming a friendly US ally in Asia, but surprising things have happened. Vietnam, just a few decades after its horrifying war with the United States, is now as warm to Washington as it is to Beijing. Obama could try to end one of the world’s longest lingering hot wars by forging a peace treaty with Pyongyang.

A grand bargain with Iran

AMERICA’S RELATIONSHIP with Iran never recovered from the trauma of the US embassy takeover and hostage crisis of 1980. Iran, flush with oil cash and the messianic fervor of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, has been at the center of regional events ever since. Iran has been perhaps the most influential force in the Arab world, helping to form Hezbollah, prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and foiling America’s plans in Iraq.

Of late, attention has focused on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but that’s arguably not the most problematic aspect of Iran’s power in the region. A regional proxy war between two Islamic theocracies awash in petrodollars—Shia Iran and Sunni Iraq—has contaminated the entire Arab world. Resolving Iran’s major grievances and reintegrating it into the regional security architecture would reduce tensions in several ongoing hot wars and dramatically reduce risks across the board.

Obama could seek an overall deal with Iran, in which Tehran and its Arab rivals would agree to separate spheres of influence in the region and the United States could reopen its embassy. A Tehran-Riyadh-Washington accord could signal a major realignment in the region and a move toward a more stable state order, and is actually possible—not likely, but possible.

The big protagonists here, Iran and Saudi Arabia, lose a lot of money in their proxy fighting. It’s been 35 years since the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power, and both sides—Riyadh’s Sunni theocrats and Tehran’s Shia ones—have learned that no matter what human and financial resources they pour in, they can’t achieve regional hegemony. Eventually, they’re going to have to coexist. Israel, meanwhile, has maintained a fever pitch about Iran, and should welcome a calming shift.

The trick for today’s White House is what’s going on internally in Iran. “My sense is that if Obama and Kerry could push a button and normalize relations with Iran they’d do so in a heartbeat,” says Karim Sadjadpour, who studies Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The biggest obstacle to normalization is not in Washington, it’s in Tehran. When your official slogan for 35 years is ‘Death to America,’ it’s not easy to make such a fundamental shift.” But if Iran’s president can find a way to de-fang the hard-liners in his own country, Sadjadpour believes, there’d be a strong constituency among the political elites in Iran and the United States for a grand bargain.

A step back from Israel

PRESIDENT AFTER presidenthas poured time and energy into a Middle East peace process that never works. Failures have cost America political prestige around the world. As more governments lose patience with the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, America has found itself defending the Israeli government at the United Nations even as the same Israeli government openly mocks Washington’s agenda.

The bold move that the president could make—potentially changing the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—would be not to invest more in some new variant of the peace process, but simply to care less. Cooling our relations with the Israeli government could reestablish the strategic calculations at the core of the relationship and remove the distracting secondary issues that have accumulated around it. Israel is one of America’s closest military and economic allies, and the tightly woven relationship will survive a political shift. Obama could simply announce that the United States would no longer act as Israel’s main international political advocate, and that we would be happy to let other actors try to negotiate agreements, as the Norwegians did in the early 1990s.

Such a move would not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would go a long way toward reducing costs for the United States. Washington doesn’t need to own the baggage of its close allies. It could treat Israel like it treats the United Kingdom: as a special ally with extra privileges, but one whose bilateral conflicts are its own business.

“I realize that a president’s hands are tied by Congress when it comes to Israel, but there is plenty that the president can do without congressional approval,” says Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. She said that Obama has plenty of options, from using his bully pulpit to condemn Israeli actions to not blocking Palestinian UN resolutions.

Duke political scientist Bruce Jentleson suggests another kind of US surprise: incorporating Hamas into peace talks. “A delicate dance no matter what,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But Middle East peace breakthroughs have usually been through the unexpected,” like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, or the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords.

What Jentleson says of Middle East breakthroughs may well be true of other ones as well. Global politics never loses its capacity to catch us off guard, regularly delivering events that experts say are impossible. Only an inveterate optimist would bet money on any of these slim possibilities coming to pass. But only a fool would be certain that they won’t.

Four years after Tahrir, what would make another uprising?

Posted January 16th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution


An anti-Mubarak protester in Tahrir Square, in November 2014 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

[Published in The AtlanticArabic translation available at Sasa Post.]

CAIRO—Four years after the revolution he helped lead, Basem Kamel has noticeably scaled back his ambitions. The regime he and his friends thought they overthrew after storming Tahrir Square has returned. In the face of relentless pressure and violence from the authorities, most of the revolutionary movements have been sidelined or snuffed out.

Egypt’s new strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has injected new zeal and energy into the military establishment. He has established his rule using unprecedented amounts of force, including mass arrests and death sentences, and the elimination of freedoms that existed even under previous dictatorships. But he has also won considerable popularity, leading Egypt’s revolutionaries to seek new routes to change.

“Maybe in 12 years we will be back in the game,” Kamel told me during the January Coptic Christmas holidays, wearing a sweatsuit as he shuttled his kids to after-school sports. After some thought, the 45-year-old architect, who lives in southern Cairo, added a caveat: “Unless Sisi changes the rules.”

There’s been a dramatic downsizing of expectations since Sisi came to power in a military coup in July 2013 (he retired from the military and was elected president without any meaningful challenger in May 2014). But if the mood is grim among the activists who so recently turned Egypt’s power structure on its head, historical trends suggest that the victorious military establishment has plenty to worry about as well.

Sisi is younger, sharper, and more vigorous than Hosni Mubarak, but he’s applying the same tools to the same problems. A small, insular group of men makes all important decisions, from drafting the country’s new parliamentary-election law to managing the economy to deciding how to prosecute political prisoners. Foreign aid is a key pillar of support for the government. The main difference is in the faces around the top. Whereas Mubarak’s cabal included some rich civilians, Sisi relies almost exclusively on military men.

The problems are daunting no matter who leads Egypt. Unemployment is endemic. The nation can’t grow enough crops to feed itself, is running low on foreign currency, and runs up hefty bills importing energy and grain that it sells at heavily subsidized prices. There is no longer a free media in Egypt, and a regressive new law makes it almost impossible for independent NGOs to do their work. Political parties that don’t pay fealty to Sisi’s order are hounded and persecuted. One result of this repression is that there is no scrutiny of government policy, no new sources of ideas, and not even symbolic accountability for corruption, incompetence, and bad government decisions.

Egypt’s new ruler has made some shrewd moves. He has tweaked the food-subsidy system to reduce waste and corruption in bakeries, introducing a card system with points that allows consumers to spend their allowance on a variety of goods rather than lining up for bread that they end up throwing away. He paid a Christmas visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the first time any Egyptian leader has done so since Gamal Abdel Nasser, reassuring some Christians after decades of increased marginalization of and violence against the beleaguered minority.

But unless he miraculously resolves the country’s underlying economic plight—a product of the previous six decades of authoritarian rule, most of it dominated by the military—Egypt will snap again sooner or later.

“Six months ago there was huge popular happiness with Sisi’s performance. Now already it is less,” said Ahmed Imam, a spokesman for Strong Egypt, one of the few active political opposition parties left in the country. “I believe in another six months you will find rage, and the rage will become public.”

* * *

The simplest way to understand the January 25, 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s military rule is as a rejection of a government that was both abusive and incompetent. Since the military coup that ended the monarchy and brought Nasser to power in 1952, Egyptian authoritarians have fared well enough when they provided tangible quality-of-life improvements, or when they leavened the disappointment of growing poverty with an increased margin of freedom. But by the end of his three decades in power, Mubarak provided neither: His corrupt government gutted services and the treasury, while his unaccountable military and police establishment freely meted out torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.

According to his supporters and advisors, Sisi is gambling that he’ll pull off the kind of economic feats that characterized the apex periods of Egypt’s three major leaders in the modern era: Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, and Nasser.

Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square to celebrate former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s victory in the presidential election of 2014. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

So far, however, Sisi has needed to deploy draconian measures to keep control even at his moment of peak popularity. He has outlawed demonstrations. He has imprisoned tens of thousands, many for the simple offense of protesting. Old state security agents have returned to their old ways, humiliating dissidents by leaking their private phone calls to the media. Crackdowns target homosexuals, atheists, and blasphemers. Judges have sentenced to death hundreds of Muslim Brothers—until recently, members of an elected civilian ruling party—in shotgun trials that lasted a day or two and have made a mockery of Egypt’s once-respected judiciary. An activist from the secular April 6 Youth Movement recently had three years tacked on to his sentence because he dared ask about a Facebook page where the judge in his case had openly identified with Sisi’s regime and denigrated the revolutionaries, casting aside any pretense of judicial impartiality.

Such hardline tactics could reflect a military confidently in charge; many activists who subscribe to this view have chosen exile or a hiatus from public life. But the tactics also could reflect desperation: The old regime has won a reprieve, but it has to work much harder than before to keep a tenuous grip on power. In that case, the overwhelming chorus of support for Sisi could be just the prelude to another period of bitter disappointment and revolt.

Critical human-rights monitors continue to track government abuses, some from within Egypt despite the constant risk of arrest. A few youth and political movements continue to operate as well. The Revolutionary Socialists, the Youth Movement for Freedom and Justice, and April 6 all continue to organize, albeit on a modest scale; gone are the mass protests of 2011-2013. The Constitution Party, which includes some leading secular liberals, has been outspoken in its criticism of military rule. So has the Strong Egypt party, led by a former presidential contender and ex-Muslim Brother named Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has the distinction of having equally opposed abuses by Islamist and secular military regimes since Mubarak.

“Either the regime is reformed and resumes a democratic course, or its bad performance will provoke a revolution that will explode in its face,” Aboul Fotouh said in a recent interview in his home in a Cairo suburb. His party might run parliamentary candidates in the elections scheduled for March and April, but state security agents have made it impossible for the party to operate normally, canceling all 27 conference-room reservations it has made in the last three months—a favorite tactic resuscitated from Mubarak’s time.

* * *

Most of the leaders of the original uprising are in prison or exile. Some have been silenced, and some like, Kamel, seem willing to accept military repression as the necessary price for getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they considered the bigger threat. “Even knowing what I know today, I would say the Brotherhood is worse,” Kamel said.

Today, private and state media channels have become no-go zones for dissenting voices. Independent presenters like Yosri Fouda and comedian Bassem Youssef have gone off the air, and other one-time revolutionaries like Ibrahim Eissa have become shrill advocates for the regime.

In the four years that I’ve been reporting closely on Egypt’s transition from revolution to restoration, I’ve seen young activists go from stunned to euphoric to traumatized and sometimes defeated. I’ve seen stalwarts of the old regime go from arrogant and complacent to frightened and unsure to bullying and triumphalist. And yet, so far, the core grievances that drew frustrated Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the first place remain unaddressed. Police operate with complete impunity and disrespect for citizens, routinely using torture. Courts are whimsical, uneven, at times absurdly unjust and capricious. The military controls a state within a state, removed from any oversight or scrutiny, with authority over a vast portion of the national economy and Egypt’s public land. Poverty and unemployment continue to rise, while crises in housing, education, and health care have grown even worse than the most dire predictions of development experts. Corruption has largely gone unpunished, and Sisi has begun to roll back an initial wave of prosecutions against Mubarak, his sons, and his oligarchs.

Anti-government protesters carry celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square in 2011. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Kamel has abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric of 2011 for a more modest platform of reform, working within the system. He was one of just four revolutionary youth who made it into the short-lived revolutionary parliament of 2012, and he helped found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most promising new political parties after the fall of Mubarak.

He expects to run for parliament again with his party, but the odds are longer and the stakes lower. The parliament will have hardly any power under Sisi’s setup. Most of the seats are slated for “independents,” which in practice means well-funded establishment candidates run by the former ruling party network. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group, is now illegal. Existing political parties can only compete for 20 percent of the seats, and most of them, like Kamel’s have dramatically tamed their criticisms.

“I think Sisi is in control of everything,” Kamel said. “Of course I am not with Sisi, but I am not against the state.”

That’s why he’s devoting his efforts to a training program for Social Democratic cadres, a sort of political science-and-organizing academy for activists and operatives that will take years to bear fruit. “It’s long-term work,” he said.

Still, something fundamental changed in January 2011, and no amount of state brutality can reverse it. Many people who before 2011 cowered or kept their ideas to themselves now feel unafraid.

“We want accountability, not miracles,” said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Constitution Party. “We’re not asking for gay rights and legalized marijuana. We’re asking to stop torture in prisons.” Dawoud is a secular liberal activist who kept his integrity even during the period after Sisi’s coup when many of his peers cast their lot with the generals against the Islamists. He has been harassed by every faction, facing death threats and even a murder attempt by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In three years’ time, Egyptians took to the streets and saw three heads of state in a row flee from power: Mubarak, his successor Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and President Mohammed Morsi. The legacies of the revolution are hotly contested, but one is indisputable: Large numbers of Egyptians believe they’re entitled to political rights and power. That remains a potent idea even if revolutionary forces and their aspiration for a more just and equitable order seem beaten for now.

In the worst of times under Mubarak, and before him Sadat and Nasser, mass arrests, executions, and the banning of political life kept the country quiet. But as Egypt heads toward the fourth anniversary of the January 25th uprisings, things are anything but quiet, despite the best efforts of Sisi’s state. Dissidents are smuggling letters out of jail. Muslim Brothers protest weekly for the restoration of civilian rule. Secular activists are working on detailed plans so that next time around, they’ll be able to present an alternative to the status-quo power. No one believes that this means another revolution is imminent, but the percolating dissatisfaction, and the ongoing work of political resistance, suggest that it won’t wait 30 years either.

“That’s our homework: to prepare a substitute,” said Mohamed Nabil, a leader in the April 6 movement who still speaks openly even though his group is now banned. “At the end Sisi is lying, and the Egyptian people will react. You never know when.”

Stay Thirsty asks about Egypt

Posted January 11th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution

A conversation with Stay Thirsty magazine.

STAY THIRSTY: In your new book, Once Upon A Revolution, you say that at the beginning of the 2011 Tahrir Revolution the revolutionaries spoke in bold strokes. What was it about their ideas that caught fire with the Egyptian people?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: They spoke out loud about their thirst for justice, breaking taboos that had been enforced, often with great violence, for generations. This revolution channeled an enormous current of anger and frustration, and it also tapped into a very primal simple hope for a better life. At its most elemental, Tahrir Square paired up two very powerful, if vague, sentiments: “You can’t crush me any more” and “Freedom!”

Egyptians had been told for generations that they were incapable of thinking for themselves. Only the regime was qualified to make political decisions. The police state enforced quietude through ubiquitous surveillance, and frequent torture, detention, and harassment. Rule was capricious and volatile, and it kept people off-balance. The people who filled Tahrir – to the shock of the ruling class and the secret police and their legions of thugs – said “Enough! We’re not scared of you anymore.” It was a real moment of calling out the naked emperor. Once people stopped being afraid, the only way to stop them was to kill them. Many Egyptians found this revelation tremendously empowering.


STAY THIRSTY: As the era of dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak came to an abrupt end, was there a genuine belief that a transition to democracy was really possible in Egypt?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: A window opened at the beginning of 2011 during which genuine democracy seemed possible. The transition really was contested. President Hosni Mubarak stepped down under pressure from the military. A popular revolt shook the ruling order, but in actual fact it was a military coup that unseated Mubarak. Still, while the military never lost power entirely, for the first year after Mubarak they were running scared. Again and again they capitulated to mass demonstrations. They were afraid of the secular young revolutionaries, they were afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. The generals feared for a while that the ruling order would crumble entirely. But even at the beginning, the revolutionaries at the center of Tahrir Square knew they faced very long odds in their quest to end military domination of politics, hold the regime’s torturers and killers accountable, and dismantle the oppressive security state.


STAY THIRSTY: Leaderless revolts as we witnessed at Tahrir Square often collapse under their own weight. Will the ideals of the Tahrir Revolution nevertheless survive? Are they a true and lasting reflection of the will of the Egyptian people?

Tahrir Square (2011)

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: The ideals of the Tahrir Revolution are so attractive and unimpeachable that even Egypt’s new dictatorial ruler has adopted them, at least rhetorically. What’s not to like about “bread, freedom, social justice?” The more earth-shaking principals of Tahrir have survived as well, albeit under fire and among a beleaguered but brave vanguard: Think for yourself, dare to defy authority, believe in the near-impossible task of liberalizing an autocratic centralized state like Egypt’s. Arab autocrats believe they have the responsibilities of the ruler and ruled, and they see their subjects as fractious, infantilized, helpless without the strong hand of their father-leaders. Many of the opposition Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, share this same fundamental outlook. The Tahrir Revolution swept that patronizing set of ideas away, in the belief that Egyptians were citizens, with the power and the right to shape a state of their own choosing. These are subversive ideas, and they took root with enough vigor that protesters demanded the fall of three regimes in the three years from 2011 to 2013. That experience cannot be wiped away. The glimpse of a frightened, deposed tyrant scuttling from his palace, scared of his own subjects, lingers in the minds of Egyptians even today, at a time when the old regime and its cronies are on top again. Never again can an Egyptian dictator take his reign for granted, and never again will Egyptians believe that they are powerless sheep, good only to walk silently within the wall of fear.


STAY THIRSTY: With a poor education system, persistent deep poverty and few resources, do knowledgeable people believe that the 2011 Tahrir Revolution will eventually turn into a sustainable government? Or, with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power, are the revolutionaries pre-programmed to trust the Egyptian military and drift back into a Mubarak-like governmental structure?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Hopes and expectations are much more muted than they were in 2011, when many revolutionaries really believed that root reforms were possible, and could quickly improve life for most of the country’s poor. Most of Mubarak’s governing structure has remained intact throughout the transitional period, or as some would call it, the revolution and the counterrevolution. The old regime is back in power, with a new and more ruthless leader and a security establishment that feels super-empowered to take revenge on the revolutionaries who challenged it. The revolutionaries themselves, for the most part, haven’t repudiated their dreams of a different kind of government – although some [like the liberal character in my book, Basem Kamel] have ruled out radical change and embraced a more incremental reform project. But a great deal of the public appears to have given up on bold ideas. Huge crowds joined Tahrir. Then later, huge crowds turned out for the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated parliamentary elections and won the presidency in 2012. In the most recent chapter, the hugest crowds yet welcomed a coup led by Sisi, an army general, and then Sisi’s elevation to the civilian presidency. So public opinion has been fickle. It’s now clear to everybody who’s interested in change that improving Egypt’s government is an enormous undertaking. The institutions of state are powerful but inept and corrupt. Many of the most important ones, including the courts, the police, the army, have grown into autonomous fiefdoms that aren’t even entirely controlled by the strongman at the top. All this makes painfully elusive the idea of a government “of the people” that actually tries to help the poor and solve Egypt’s disastrous underlying problems: failed health care, education, housing and job market.


Tahrir Square (2011) (credit: Jonathan Rashad)

STAY THIRSTY: Now that the murder charges against Hosni Mubarak for killing 239 of the Tahrir protestors have been dropped by the Egyptian courts, will he re-emerge as the country’s strongman even though he is 86?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Mubarak’s torch has passed to a younger, more vigorous retired general. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is Egypt’s strongman now, and he’s consolidating power with a more stifling and violent crackdown than anything Mubarak attempted during his 29 years in power. But the new military regime seems to be treating Mubarak as a sort of despot emeritus. They could have chosen to keep him in prison, or keep him quiet. But they’re letting him talk to the press, giving a sort of gloating impression. As if they’re so confident in the reincarnation of the old regime that they’re not worried about going too far and pushing people to revolt again.


STAY THIRSTY: How were your views of Egypt changed by writing Once Upon A Revolution? Are you hopeful for the people that led your story?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: The Egyptian revolutionaries defied my expectations not just of Egypt but of human nature. I had grown quite cynical about the possibility of humans anywhere to undergo great change, and I certainly doubted that an apathetic public could suddenly get politicized and try to seize control of its destiny. I felt this way about humans in general, and Egypt seemed like a place whose public had been completely drummed into submission – not that people liked it, but they seemed to have given up a sense of possibility. What happened was really mind-blowing to me. A small group of people stood up against every kind of pressure to submit: not just police torture and regime harassment, but their own families telling them to stay home and shut up. They didn’t stay home, and then hundreds, maybe millions of people broke out of their habitual silence and acquiescence to protest or speak out or otherwise engage in politics. That’s a level of transformation that most people never experience in their adult lifetimes. Here, a huge number of people did it, at great risk. I will never again assume that just because something like the survival of a dictatorship is likely means it is guaranteed. I still have great hope for the individuals who made this daring creative leap. And I can’t give up completely on the chances for their grand project for Egypt. So long as these revolutionaries are still agitating and cogitating, be it in prison, in exile, or underground, their dreams might yet come to fruition. Not likely, perhaps, but not doomed.


STAY THIRSTY: When we look at the Arab Spring and its aftermath, when we look at the rise of ISIS and the role it is playing in Syria and Iraq and when we look at the role that Iran and Saudi Arabia are playing in the Arab Middle East, do you believe the DNA of the people in that region hardwires them for dictatorship or democracy?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: A kind of determinism or essentialism informs a lot of prejudiced thinking about ethnic or racial destiny, and I’d like to see us move away from that kind of thinking in our effort to understand why different countries end up with different kinds of governments. No group of people anywhere on earth is genetically programmed or otherwise predestined for the system of government under which it lives. Especially people living under autocratic systems, who have almost no mechanisms through which to voice their consent or shape the way they governed. I don’t mean to say that individuals have no responsibility. Often, in violent regimes, it’s a life-and-death struggle simply to avoid being complicit in regime crimes. That said, there are deep structural problems in governance across the Arab world, and there are many malignant forces to content with including takfiri jihad, rabid nationalism, and intolerance of minorities. It is very hard to force system change, especially against entrenched interest groups, like the Egyptians military, that are wealthy powerful, and violent. I think it will be a long struggle for Egypt to achieve some version of democracy. Same for war-ravaged polities like Syria and Iraq. Tunisia seems to have a good chance of developing a decent system. And perhaps unexpectedly, Iran has potential because despite its oppressive theocracy it has developed mature institutions and educated citizens, who could form the bedrock of a future democracy.


STAY THIRSTY: Is the world safer under the dictator you know or under a work-in-progress fledgling democracy? Is there any chance that the Middle East will move to a more orderly political environment or are we at the beginning of a very messy and disorderly period that will sacrifice vast numbers of lives and huge amounts of treasure without a clear outcome? Will the tyrants or the extremists eventually be the victors or will the tribal leaders seize control of their particular territories and dismantle the nation-states of the region?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Change is unsettling, not just to the powerful but to the regular people living with uncertainty and often suffering real privation above and beyond the pain and poverty to which they were already subjected. I’m a fervent believer that repressive unaccountable regimes built on fear are unsustainable over the long run. Many players, including the governments of the US and Saudi Arabia, seem to be putting their money on a bet for stability in the form of reconstituted authoritarian dictatorships. These bets are doomed to fail not simply because these regimes are unjust and morally unpalatable; it’s because they fail on the simple metric of providing anything for their people. A dictator who keeps the people fed and clothed might stand a chance; but not a dictator who humiliates the population while consistently lowering its standard of living. There might be another waiting period in places like Egypt, where Sisi could buy some years, even a decade, before the next uprising. One way or another, across the region we’re going to see a long and turbulent transition toward new, more accountable and inclusive political systems. They might not necessarily be democracies; they might even be outright dictatorships but ones that are more stable because they’re built on a wider coalition. There’s a slim chance that some of the artificial borders drawn after World War I will change as a result of wars like the one waged by ISIS, but I think it’s unlikely. Even these gummy borders have taken on a sort of logic and momentum of their own, and I think the more likely outcome is a renegotiation of national pacts within existing borders.


Protesting in Tahrir Square (2011)

STAY THIRSTY: You live in Beirut and have written about its many great advantages in spite of its lack of government and police force. Is Beirut a model for how we can expect successful cities in the Arab world to function in the future?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: It might be a model but it’s not an inspiring one – more of a muddled least worst of a bunch of bad possibilities. I’ve heard the same refrain a lot: “We’re not going to be another Lebanon!” I heard it in Iraq immediately after the US invasion in 2003, and I heard it from Syrians after their civil war quickened in 2011. Now Iraq has adopted some of the worst aspects of Lebanon’s power-sharing model, which is essentially a form of institutionalized gridlock that guarantees nothing important can ever be accomplished by the government but which minimizes the chance of another sectarian civil war. Some Syrian revolutionaries who dreamed of a democracy now say they’d be happy to turn out like Lebanon. I don’t think this system would be anybody’s first choice, but it’s certainly better than civil war or a violent, centralized dictatorship. But try educating your children or treating a serious disease here, and you see the pitfalls of living in a nation without a state.


STAY THIRSTY: If you were given the opportunity to reshape the Middle East, what would it look like in twenty-five years?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: I could tell you about things I’d like to see happen, but I cannot begin to answer that question not least because no single entity, not even a modern superpower or the Ottoman Caliphate, had that much power to shape events. I’d like to see the US be less reactive and less supportive of repressive corrupt regimes out a misplaced interest in stability. I’d like to see a curtailing of the mostly malign regional influence of Iran, which supports a lot of militias, and Saudi Arabia, whose money underlies the growing reach of religious extremism. I’d like to see the rise of a credible, authentic, locally supported culture of rights, due process, rule of law, citizenship, and pluralism, and an end to cults of personality and police states. It’s not that different than the kind of freedom, equality, economic opportunity and just institutions that I’d like to see flourish everywhere.


STAY THIRSTY: What can we expect next from you?

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: I don’t have any immediate plans for another book, but I didn’t plan on writing this one until January 25, 2011, when I realized I had no other choice. I’ll be keeping an eye on Egypt no matter what, but for the next few years I plan to focus on Lebanon and Syria. There’s a lot of fascinating dynamics playing out in the Syrian civil war, and like the Arab revolts overall, they’re part of a very long term process of political reinvention. New ideas are slowly coming to maturity: ideas about citizenship, governance, rights (along with a slough of not-so-appealing ideas about majoritarian rule and religious triumphalism). So are new power centers and networks. All these revolutionaries and activists are going to be at the core of the next generation’s elite. I’m excited to see what difference that makes. I’m also trying to take a respite from a decade’s focus on political struggles and war, with a line of reporting about culture and urban life in Beirut. Lots of the same questions, but played out in struggles that don’t usually involve killing.

Library Journal review out

Posted January 8th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Library Journal review

Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story

Thanassis Cambanis

 In January 2011, the Egyptian people began an uprising that ultimately led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s longtime president.   In this highly readable book, journalist and author Cambanis (A Privilege to Die) recounts the trials and tribulations of that revolution.   The work is informed by the author’s sustained, on-the-ground, astute observations of the unfolding events in Egypt.   His focus is on the activities of a number of activists from different walks of life, especially those of two unique individuals who joined the uprising – pharmacist Moaz Abdelkarim, a career activist who grew up in the milieu of the Muslim Brotherhood, and architect Basem Kamel, who had built a successful business and had generally stayed out of politics until the revolution began.  As the author explains, both of these figures had to grapple with ambiguities and contradictions in their own thought process, as did most other Egyptians who took part in the rebellion.  Ultimately, the movement failed to establish a democratic and accountable political order and the country once again succumbed to a military dictatorship.   The author concludes that this was owing to organizational and political shortcomings and an incoherent ideology.   Verdict:  A welcome addition to the literature on Egypt’s uprising and a solid source for the general reader. – Nader Entessar, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile

The story of “Once Upon a Revolution”

Posted January 8th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Spy scandal a sign of Hezbollah’s mid-life crisis

Posted January 6th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Published in Time magazine]

The Party of God was set up to fight Israel but is now a large organisation with a massive budget

For five years, Hezbollah has vowed in fiery speeches to exact revenge for Israel’s assassination of its top military strategist in 2010. Each anniversary passed with Hezbollah’s threatened attacks mysteriously foiled: operatives rolled up in Bangkok and Cyprus, and another mastermind murdered near his home in Beirut.

A recent revelation suggests the failure wasn’t so mysterious after all: a Hezbollah official responsible for the revenge attacks might have been on Israel’s payroll the whole time.

The unmasking of the Israeli spy in Hezbollah’s uppermost ranks — leaked in media reports in December and indirectly confirmed over the weekend by Hezbollah’s deputy leader — points to Hezbollah’s biggest long-term problem: its size, wealth and power have made it vulnerable to infiltration, corruption and careerists.

The militant organization, whose name means Party of God, was founded in 1982 to resist the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon but it has grown into an entrenched and wealthy part of the Lebanese establishment. Now in its fourth decade, Hezbollah has more power than its founders could have dreamed.

But no longer a compact revolutionary movement, Hezbollah must now grapple with the consequences of growth and longevity. Some supporters now take Hezbollah for granted while the party’s swelling ranks of cadres and fighters contain opportunists and careerists.

Hezbollah has become a state in all but name. It deploys troops to fight in a foreign war in Syria, it is a power-broker in Lebanon’s national government and it struggles to satisfy constituents who have grown accustomed to a higher, and safer, standard of living. It is subject to the same temptations and vulnerabilities as Arab governments and other legacy actors in the Middle East. The intelligence war with Israel marks just one particularly colorful and acute sign of its approaching middle age.

Hezbollah began to suspect it was compromised after a series of inexplicable setbacks, including the capture of two of its agents following a bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2012. In order to track down the mole, Hezbollah fed false information to one of its officials, Mohammed Shawraba, about weapons shipments in Syria. Israel bombed the false target and after a seven-month investigation, Hezbollah arrested Shawraba.

The double agent might have foiled as many as five planned retaliations by Hezbollah, according to reports that also tied him to the two most damaging Israeli strikes against Hezbollah since the 2006 war: the assassinations of military strategist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008 and of Hezbollah technology mastermind Hassan Laqees in Beirutat the end of 2013.

Yet it’s the parade of related cases that have piled up since the last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 that suggest something broader is afoot. Hezbollah revealed in 2011 that it caught some of its operatives cooperating with the CIA, meeting at a Pizza Hut on the edge of south Beirut to sell Hezbollah secrets to the Americans.

A trusted car dealer in southern Lebanon sold senior Hezbollah officials cars that had Israeli GPS trackers in them. He was arrested by the party in 2009.

Another Lebanese man was revealed to have worked as a spy for the Israelis, monitoring traffic on key roads to the Syrian border.

A financial scandal erupted at the same period, in 2009, when a Ponzi scheme collapsed and erased the savings of many of Hezbollah’s middle-class constituents. The scheme was run by Salah Ezzedine, a well-connected businessman (nicknamed Hezbollah’s Bernie Madoff) who had persuaded senior Hezbollah officials to invest their money with him, and who had founded a publishing house named after party leader Nasrallah’s son. Ezzedine lost between $700 million and $1 billion, according to news reports at the time.

A final straw came in 2012 when a senior Hezbollah official who had been embezzling money fled to Israel. Reports suggest he was stealing for his own benefit, pure and simple, but when he was about to get caught he fled to Hezbollah’s greatest enemy with his money and party documents.

All these cases point in one direction: toward more corruption and more Israeli infiltration.

Hezbollah’s initial appeal in the 1980s and 1990s was its incorruptibility and zeal. In a country dominated by kleptocratic warlords, Hezbollah stood out in its first two decades as an organization whose leaders did not care to enrich themselves. Their first priority was to expel the occupying Israelis. Their second was to help their suffering constituents, most of them Shia Muslims displaced by the civil war and crowded into miserable slums on the edges of Beirut. In those first decades, Hezbollah brought sewers, electricity and clean water to south Beirut, and its leaders lived simply.

Today, things are different. At the very top, Nasrallah lives in hiding, and by all reports remains committed to the group’s humble ethic. But the organization he runs is awash in money. After the 2006 war, Iran flooded Hezbollah with millions of dollars to rebuild homes and roads. Since 2011 there’s been yet another burst of spending linked to the war in Syria. Over the objections of many Lebanese — and the grumbling of some supporters who thought Hezbollah should maintain its focus on Israel — Hezbollah dispatched troops to fight on the regime’s side in the Syrian civil war. At first the deployment was kept secret, but today Hezbollah openly sends troops and celebrates its members martyred in Syria. The organization has dramatically increased its spending on fighters and their families and has expanded the size of its military force in order to maintain a deterrent against Israel while fighting in Syria. Hezbollah has become a standing army capable of fighting a war on two fronts where it was once a guerrilla army. That’s an expensive development and not one that necessarily carries the same appeal as Hezbollah did when it was fighting a war of resistance on its home territory against a much stronger Israeli occupation force.

Today, it appears, there are Hezbollah insiders willing to sell crucial secrets to the enemy. There are others who seem happy to siphon money out of the Party of God’s pockets for their own enrichment, just like operatives in all the rest of Lebanon’s notoriously corrupt factions.

In comments over the weekend to Hezbollah’s “Nour” radio station, the party’s number-two, Naim Qassem, said that Hezbollah was made up of fallible humans but was able to contain the “limited” fallout of the spy cases.

“Hezbollah has worked intensely on battling espionage among its ranks and in its entourage. Some cases surfaced, and they are very limited cases,” he said. “There is no party in the world as big and sophisticated as Hezbollah that was able to stand with the same steadfastness.”

That makes sense as spin, and Hezbollah can obviously survive — the question is, with how much damage.

Until the 2006 war, Hezbollah successfully stood apart in Lebanon. It was a Shia organization, but it opposed sectarianism. Even those who didn’t share Hezbollah’s dedication to fighting Israel recognized that the militant group placed that goal over its own power and enrichment.

In its rise to power, however, Hezbollah has relied on support from some of Lebanon’s most corrupt factions, including the Shia Amal Movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

Today, Hezbollah is a party of the establishment, deeply invested in a Lebanese order that depends on patronage and sectarian balancing. It is unlikely that corruption and spy scandals will unseat Hezbollah from its dominant position in Lebanon. But Hezbollah’s descent from the moral high ground it claims as unimpeachable standard-bearer of the Lebanese resistance seems only a matter of time.

Wayback Machine: Designing a new Egypt

Posted January 5th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Khalil Hamra/AP photo

Back in the spring of 2011, the vistas of possibility lay wide open. What kind of new government would Egyptians decide after they shocked the body politic out of its stupor with their history-defying revolution?

Today’s post-Tahrir system hasn’t reinvented anything; it’s more like the old butcher shop with sharpened knives and a more expensive burglar alarm. But that moment isn’t that far distant when Egyptians were empowered to draw the blueprint of a completely new system. Remembering the ideas that percolated then reminds us that the prospect for something different has not been foreclosed, despite the status quo today.

For today’s installment of the Wayback Machine, I offer this story I filed almost four years ago and which I came across while organizing my files for New Year’s.

* * *

Now what?

The next version of Egypt could set an example for the Arab world. Inside the struggle to imagine a new state.

May 29, 2011

CAIRO — Traffic stopped in Tahrir Square during the revolution, but four months later, the torrent of marching humans that briefly made Cairo a world symbol of the thirst for justice has been replaced by the familiar, endless stream of grumbling cars.

The tricolor paint on the city’s trees, applied with gusto in the immediate weeks after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, has already begun to fade. As the wilting heat approaches its summertime averages in the 90s, vendors here do a brisk business selling “I [heart] Egypt” T-shirts, mock license plates commemorating the date of the uprising, and posters of the young martyrs to Mubarak’s security forces.

Schools have reopened; births and deaths are once again registered by Egypt’s ubiquitous bureaucracy; and the machinery of state continues to deliver the basic services that make this nation of 80 million function. The military junta that replaced Mubarak polices the streets and censors the media, though with a touch slightly lighter than Mubarak’s. There are still street demonstrations; on most Fridays, small factions chant in Tahrir Square and distribute leaflets demanding to put figures of the old regime on trial, fix the broken economy, or allow greater freedom to criticize the government.

Most of the nation’s energy, however, has shifted to a new debate: what should come next. Egyptians are realizing that they now face a challenge perhaps even more historic than its revolution. They need to design, nearly from scratch, a legitimate state to govern the most populous Arab nation in the world.

Egyptians are supposed to write a new constitution sometime this fall. And although no one is sure precisely how this will occur — the schedule is controlled by the military junta, which communicates chiefly through updates on its Facebook page — the public conversation has already metamorphosed into raging debate over what the government should look like. The outpouring of public frustration that reached a crescendo

in Tahrir Square on Feb. 11 has now moved onto a crowded lineup of television talk shows and the cafes. As youth activist Ahmed Maher put it over a demitasse at the Coffee Bean this week: “Before the revolution, everyone talked about soccer and drugs. Now they talk only about politics.”

Emboldened newspapers obstreperously editorialize about the path toward democratic elections. On TV, academics, activists, and cultural personalities wax about the best structure for a future Egyptian state. Once-submissive veteran politicians now rail in public meetings against “counter-revolutionary” officials sympathetic to the old regime.

The task they face is enormous. Like most of the Arab world, Egypt’s entire post-colonial experience of government has been authoritarian: first a monarchy, and then nearly 60 years of rule by three military dictators in a row. And there’s simply no road map available: no example of another government in the region that reflects the aspirations of its population and rules by consent rather than through a police state.

Over the last three months, the debate over Egypt’s future has taken shape as a tug-of-war among a few big visions. Should Egypt have a broad but weak state, one that touches people’s lives pervasively but with power diluted to prevent the rise of another strongman? Or should it deliberately rely on the country’s most powerful institution, the military, to guide the state, as Turkey did during its recent rise? A libertarian school seeks a minimalist constitution, more like America’s, and a vastly downsized state that rethinks the old corporatist model; and a cohort of nationalists want to start revitalizing Egypt by turning outward, forging partnerships with Turkey and Iran to give Egypt a foundation in a new regional power structure.

In the last century, Egypt led the rest of the Arab world in throwing off colonialism, in embracing the excesses of Arab nationalism, and then to a cold peace with Israel and a long spell of provincial stagnation. Today, as Egypt struggles to formulate a vision for what will come next, its people are well aware that at stake is not only their own future, but also a potential new model for what an Arab state can be.

The question of what a new Egypt should be might seem impossibly large, but Egyptians agree on a few broad principles: a sovereign state, not dependent on foreign largesse, and not ruled by cult of personality. Whatever comes next might borrow from Western models, but primarily will draw on Arab views of justice, popular sovereignty, social harmony, and consensus. That starting point still leaves gaping room for uncertainty.

“This is like reinventing the wheel,” groused an elderly lawyer at an early national brainstorming session for a new constitution.

“It’s exactly what we should be doing,” snapped back Tahani El Gebali, the first woman judge on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, and a prominent voice in the debate over Egypt’s future.

There aren’t many helpful examples. The modern Arab world has only seen glimmers of viable, democratically accountable states: Iraq, briefly in the 1970s before it became Saddam Hussein’s fiefdom; Egypt itself, in moments when its economy was growing and it could project military power in the region. For the most part, however, the region has been plagued by one-man misrule, historically propped up by Cold War-legacy superpower giveaways.

Most of the elites arguing over the smartest path to Egyptian democracy agree that first will come a parlous adjustment period. Gebali and other liberalizers talk a lot about “democratic literacy,” arguing that it will take years to teach the Egyptian public about its rights in a genuinely representative system. Authoritarians and others sympathetic to the status quo phrase it differently: They argue that Egyptians “aren’t ready” for an open political system and that representative democracy would yield only chaos.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Egypt’s recent history, the strongest group of democracy advocates is arguing for a system designed to have a weak president and multiple checks on state authority. By their logic, it’s less important to have a streamlined and highly effective state than it is to thwart the next aspiring Mubarak. Egypt, for all its problems, has the luxury of coherent, functional institutions — it’s neither a failed state nor a crumbling one. Therefore it can afford a transitional phase with a fractious government whose main purpose is to liberalize the state and instill the notion of popular sovereignty.

“We always have had one man ruling alone,” Gebali explained in an interview. “Now we need alternate centers of power.”

Egypt has a well-developed liberal intelligentsia, and some of its most established legal scholars have embraced this approach. Their notion, broadly speaking, is to build on the ideas of revolutionary America and France, but to separate powers even further — by their reckoning, a US-style presidential system is also vulnerable to dictatorial impulses. Their proposals incorporate many ideas unique to Egypt and which speak to the Arab Spring’s particular blend of concerns — not just for democracy, but for social justice, transparency, and economic progress led by the state, rather than by free markets. So they don’t talk of abolishing the considerable and costly subsidies that keep food and fuel affordable to Egyptians, nearly a quarter of whom live below the poverty line. The education and health care systems are rife with failure, but the consensus holds that the central government should be responsible for fixing them. And though the economy is moribund, virtually all Egyptian political players support a heavy state role in setting wages and employment terms.

Within the wider liberal community runs a small strain of what might be called libertarian minimalism: thinkers who share the same views about rights and civil authority, but who want to see Egypt’s vast state seriously downsized. Many economists and government technocrats see their bloated state policies as costly and unsustainable, but are loath to say so in public. (Understandably so: The vast majority of Egyptians like these state subsidies and entitlements.) They want to undo the philosophical and legal clutter caused by decades of inept governance.

“We need a very short constitution,” said Ibrahim Darwish, an American-trained expert in constitutional law. “The US Constitution has only seven articles and has lasted two and half centuries.” His position carries moral authority — Darwish helped draft Egypt’s 1971 constitution, and is currently advising the Turkish government on its new constitution — but he admits it is unlikely to get much of a hearing among Egyptians, even liberals, because of their deep attachment to complex state structures and legal regimes.

Another broad line of thinking in the debate, one associated with traditionalists rather than liberal modernizers, emphasizes Egypt’s existing strengths, its military establishment and historic regional clout.

A school that might be called neo-nationalists is pushing for Egypt to reform itself first by cultivating international power. In their view, Egypt has atrophied as a country because it has spent decades subserviently implementing the foreign policy agendas of the United States and Israel. The key to Egypt’s future, by this thinking, lies less in its form of government than in shoring up its position in the world.

The foreign policy school argues that Egypt can join Iran and Turkey to form a “triangle of power.” The Egyptian writer and analyst Fahmy Howeidy has even visited Tehran to promote the idea that a coordinated foreign policy by the three regional powers could change the balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, and curtail American influence in the region.

For these thinkers, the past few months have been galvanizing: Egypt’s first post-revolution foreign minister, a career diplomat named Nabil Al-Araby, quickly shook up the Arab world’s arithmetic by brokering an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, signaling that Israel would get a more skeptical hearing in Cairo, and irritating the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf by vowing to “open a new page” of warm relations with Iran. Like many of the exponents of this school, Al-Araby comes from a ruling party background inspired by the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s leadership and the ideology of Arab nationalism, which propelled Egypt onto the global stage from the 1950s until the 1970s.

The final important school of thought in Egypt’s state-building wars is the status quo militarists. In their view, Egypt has functioned as a security state for almost the entirety of its post-colonial history, and the military — as guardians of the state and of the people — is the only institution suited to transition Egypt into a new age. They point to the example of Turkey, where for most of the past 50 years the military has repeatedly checked what it saw as the excesses of elected governments by stepping in and temporarily taking power. Although it sounds like anathema in Western politics, Turkey has enjoyed a long-term stability rare in the region, culminating in a renaissance of civilian authority over the last decade.

In Egypt, it’s not only self-interested military officers who turn to the Turkish model. Many secular Egyptians, along with the country’s Christian minority, fear that electoral democracy would empower Islamic fundamentalists, and see the military as guarantor of a secular state. Even after the current junta yields to a new constitution, many of the military’s supporters would like to see a permanent role for it as a sort of trustee for the essence of Egypt.

Such trust in the military worries academics who’ve studied other nations making the transition from dictatorship to democracy; in places like Latin America and Asia, clear subordination of the military to civilian control has proved a necessary step to a stable modern state. But the popularity of this view in Egypt makes it a serious possibility.

For all the high philosophy at its heart, the constitutional debate in Egypt is unmistakably a proxy for the domestic power struggle afoot between the still-ruling military establishment and the liberals who want to build in Egypt, for the first time, a truly civilian state. Abstract terms like revolution and counter-revolution translate into very concrete positions — a military junta cut off at the knees, or a reconstituted deep state in which the military ultimately steers the government.

But in its sense of potential, the Egyptian conversation today also suggests a little bit of what it must have felt like in America in the age of the Federalist Papers. In revolutionary America, the founders self-consciously thought about the global implications of their effort to forge the first state built on Enlightenment ideals. Similarly, Egyptians are aware they have embarked on a project that could fashion a new social compact for the Arab world and beyond.

That ambition is evident in the small ideas also percolating through the society, as people reconsider issues from the role of religion in society and the philosophical origins of law, the rights of women and minorities, to uniquely Egyptian institutions like the half of all seats in parliament reserved for the peasantry.

On the current timetable, Egyptians are scheduled to vote for a new parliament in September, which will in turn choose the drafters of the next constitution. If all goes according to this plan, by the end of the year Egypt will have a new president and a new constitution. All this could change, of course, with a single pronouncement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

At the Coffee Bean last week, members of Maher’s April 6 movement — one of the pivotal activist groups that sparked the January uprising — strategized for the year ahead. They argued about the right mix of presidential and parliamentary authority for Egypt, and how to market political engagement through the bread-and-butter questions of economic survival that most concern the average Egyptian. Dozens of similar meetings of every conceivable stripe, from reactionary monarchists to anarcho-syndicalist, take place every night across a country that finds itself at the exact midpoint between the opening act of its revolution and what might be the first truly fair elections in its history.

“The situation in our country is critical,” Maher said quietly. “This transition will take at least two or three years. It will be a long time before we will have a stable form of government that we can trust.”

Goodbye 2014, and happy new year.

Posted December 31st, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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I hear lots of complaints about the failures of public space and the way the absence of such space impacts the way people live, and they way they politick. On Christmas Day I spent a few hours on the Corniche and marveled, as I always do, at the inviting beauty of the coast and the openhanded way that Beirutis take advantage of it, no matter how much institutional indifference or outright hostility they face.

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This family climbed over the fence and carried down a propane gas tank, nargileh, table and chairs, and seemed to have no trouble enjoying the most scenic seaside Christmas Day card game imaginable. This is why I love cities. Imagine what lovely use this family would make of Central Park, or Horsh Beirut, or the Dalieh. I’m glad I live in Beirut. Happy New Year.

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In Beirut mansion, city’s culture is reborn

Posted December 21st, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


A terraced garden outside Mansion in Beirut. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The Boston Globe.

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

BEIRUT — As a symbol of a lost era in a region full of them, Beirut stands apart. For generations it thrived as a center of culture, commerce, and education, until the 16-year Lebanese civil war fragmented the city’s diverse population and shelled its vitality into rubble.

The war ended in 1991, and today Beirut is mostly peaceful. Some of its glamour and wealth have started to return. Dazzlingly dressed Lebanese fill gallery openings; boutique wineries do a brisk business. Glass towers have sprung up around the new marina.

But in many ways, Beirut is still a failed city. Hobbled by ubiquitous corruption, rampant criminality, and the legacy of sectarian militias, Beirut still doesn’t have any of the basic amenities of urban life, like traffic police, a planning board, even a functioning sewer, water, or electrical system. It is no longer a business capital; the money on display here was mostly made somewhere else. The war-shattered UNESCO building squats in the heart of the city like a crash-landed spaceship. To the west, two shell-pocked skyscrapers mark the horizon, both them uninhabited since the civil war broke out in 1975.

Most obviously, Beirut needs to attract investment and solve its infrastructure problems. But to truly revitalize the region, it will need to do more than that: It will need to recapture the cultural energy that long marked Beirut as the intellectual capital of the Arab world. A small city that welcomed big thinkers, it was historically home to writers, philosophers, political dissidents, artists, and other creative types from around the region. That, more than any of the trappings of wealth and celebrity, made it a beacon.

This is where Ghassan Maasri comes in, or hopes to. Maasri is an architect who grew up amid the rubble piles, collapsing old houses, and construction sites of post-shelling Beirut. Today, he is two years into an experiment called “Mansion.”

Picturesque old family villas still dot the city, often in disrepair. More and more are being torn down to make way for profitable condos and office towers. Maasri convinced the owner of one to to let him create a nonprofit experimental collective there. His idea was to use it to foster a community of “Beirut city users,” ambitious professionals as well as creative artists, who would use the space to launch projects that make the city a better place to live.

“I want to be able to meet artists on the street,” Maasri says. “The process of producing art is very important for the modern city. Filmmakers, theater, fine artists, architects, designers—these are the things that make a city livable or interesting.”

Maasri’s Mansion collective has emerged as a nucleus for engaged Beirutis, and a fixture on the city’s cultural circuit. It’s too early to measure whether the initiative will help revive Beirut as an intellectual and cultural center, but Mansion is now part of a small ecosystem of institutions trying to redirect the way the city works. Nearby is another collective that’s trying to serve as incubator for Lebanese startups; other cultural organizations are trying to promote mainstream audiences for local filmmakers and artists. On the preservation front, a well-known painter has launched a campaign to save Rose House, an iconic mansion overlooking the sea from West Beirut’s bluffs.

Elsewhere in the world today it’s taken for granted that cities are engines for culture and growth, a place for creativity, money, and smarts to meet. Authoritarian rule has greatly diminished those expectations in the Middle East. If Mansion works, it will be a step toward restoring that spirit to a region where it’s been gutted by war and political stasis.

“I’m trying to find a way so that people can produce things inside the city,” Maasri says. “It’s an experiment. Let’s see how it goes.”


Ghassan Maasari, an architect who grew up among the rubble of the city, convinced the home’s owner to to let him create a nonprofit experimental collective. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The Boston Globe.

IN ITS PRIME, Beirut was the kind of rich, important, stimulating place that today would be called a global city. The city supported daily newspapers in Arabic, French, and English. The most ambitious students in the region filled its universities. Its bankers were high-powered and urbane.

It was a city of beautiful alleys and an open waterfront, with an intimacy beloved by its admirers. The Rolling Stones liked to hang out here; an entire book was written about the writers, spies, and artists who orbited around one bar, in the St. George Hotel.

Money, not culture, has driven Beirut’s rebound since the end of the civil war. Political infighting has frozen the effort to fix the St. George, whose ruins blight the edge of the new marina, a soulless anyplace that’s hard to distinguish from Santa Monica. The old downtown, rebuilt by a politically connected developer, is an unused pedestrian area guarded by an army of private security officers. Martyr’s Square, the historic center, remains a sprawling unpaved parking lot because of a property standoff. The one major park that survived the war has been closed to the public ever since.

Warlords reached a compromise to end the war: Communities would coexist peacefully amid a low-grade simmering anarchy. As long as there was no national authority, no group could use it to dominate the others. As a result, Beirut is a city with few rules and no enforcement of building codes.

Maasri’s insight was to realize the anarchy might also have created a space to try something new. Now 42, he moved to Beirut as a child in the thick of the civil war; his family was fleeing the fighting in the nearby mountains. As the city came back to life in the 1990s, Maasri was horrified by the sheer waste. Artists were fleeing the city in search of affordable studio space, while thousands of buildings in prime locations sat empty and decaying.

Maasri first tried turning rental properties into communal studios, at cost, but found it too expensive. He won grant money to establish short-term artist-in-residence projects in abandoned properties in his hometown of Aley. With an eye to doing the same in Beirut, he wandered the city on foot, scoping out dozens of dilapidated Ottoman mansions that he thought would make an ideal space for a cultural collective. Every time he tried to contact an owner, he said, “I could never get past the lawyer.”

Finally in 2012 he got lucky. The owner of a grand three-story villa on Abdulkader Street was willing to meet Maasri directly, without any intermediaries. He had kept up his family’s 80-year-old Ottoman-style villa better than most; it was decrepit, but still had its doors, windows, and roof, which meant that unlike most of the similar homes around the city, it was inhabitable—if not comfortable. He was willing to loan it to Maasri for five years, free of charge.

The house couldn’t have been more centrally located: It was a few hundred yards from the Serail, the Ottoman barracks that now serve as the headquarters of the Lebanese government. Typically for modern Beirut, it is surrounded by four brand-new condo towers, an illegal squat, and a parking lot.

Maasri invited architects, artists, and people whom he loosely defined as urbanists to come populate it and fix it up. They cleared the vines and brush that had overrun the yard and were spilling into the street. They strung bare light bulbs from the ceiling, and turned the grand ground-floor entry hall into communal space that could host lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, and musical performances.

On a recent Saturday, a children’s event called “Mini Mansion” screened Charlie Chaplin movies. A party that evening promoted recycled glass. Earlier that week, Mansion had hosted a series of discussions about urban renewal, with panelists from Europe and the Middle East. There’s a design and architecture studio on the top floor, a silk-screen workshop, and a film archive. Upstairs, artists work on paintings and sculptures in their studios. A bike messaging startup called Deghri (Direct in Arabic) has its headquarters at Mansion, and is trying to establish bike repair clinics and a recycle-a-bike program for Beirut.

Residents pay a nominal rent to help cover water, electricity, food, and repairs. Most importantly, they are required to use their space, and ideally intended to bring even more people in. An urban gardening initiative was supposed to start a pilot program on Mansion’s roof, but never followed through; Maasri gave their spot to someone else.

Maasri himself lives in the crumbling but still grand three-story mansion. To make sure he isn’t breaking any occupancy rules, he has been officially designated the building’s doorman.

MANSION’S FOUNDER wants its spirit to spill beyond its walls. In January, Maasri is launching an “Inquisitive Citizens Urban Club” which will convene anyone interested in Beirut for a three-month study of public space in the city, with the ultimate goal of catalyzing urban activism. Other cities in Europe and United States have plenty of civic-minded urbanist groups. Here, however, it is groundbreaking.

The common theme running through Mansion’s projects is a hunger to reclaim public space. That’s a politically charged project in a city where big money drives the major development projects, and where the lack of public space is inextricably connected to the erosion of political and civic rights for citizens.

Beirut is the forefront of many interlocking debates about cities and the way people live in them. And that debate is critical right now in the Arab world. Increasingly, it has become a region of cities, as the population abandons the countryside in search of work and education. Yet the role of those cities is in flux.

Traditionally, Arab cities were cosmopolitan commercial and trading hubs, open zones with mixed populations. Today, the most dynamic examples of urban vitality in the region are the tightly controlled metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, wealthy cities with limited freedom and an economic model based on oil wealth, finance, and omnipotent royal families. A revitalized Beirut, with an openness to art, public initiatives, and intellectual culture, could be an alternative.

“If I have an idea, I don’t need money or approval to experiment,” says Ayssar Arida, an architect and urban designer who grew up in Lebanon and returned to Beirut two years ago after more than a decade in London and Paris. He was attracted to the freedom from authority. “Beirut is fantastic thinking matter,” he says. “It’s not totally gone to the dogs yet.”

His wife, French-Iraqi curator Sabine de Maussion, works out of a studio at Mansion, where the couple collaborated on their latest invention: a high-end construction toy called Urbacraft. Mansion is littered with conceptual models made from Urbacraft blocks (imagine an Erector set crossed with Lego, for design nerds).

Mansion can sound a little like a party for cool, arty elites. But that is not Maasri’s goal; he is wary of drawing shallow, trendy support. He wants people who are committed and willing to work to save a building, as a way of learning how to save the city around it. For now, Mansion is thriving, and it is his hope to leave the building and its neighborhood better off than he found them. Although he is hopeful that the owner will be impressed enough to extend the experiment, he won’t mind if three years from now he has to find a new home for Mansion.

To Maasri and his colleagues, it’s not buildings that make a city, but people who create things. They’re sad that so much of Beirut’s architectural heritage has been torn down in the rush to rebuild, but they have set their sights on something harder to define than preservation. If they can figure out how to keep creating in Beirut without depending on grant money or wealthy patrons, he believes they can bring back the best thing about Beirut—even if the glory days of its architecture have passed.

Down but not out: Egypt’s revolutionary youth

Posted December 16th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Egyptian youths shout slogans against the country’s ruling military council during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 30, 2011 (AP photo by Bela Szandelszky).
[Published in World Politics Review]

Young people and youthful energy propelled the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. And while the cohesion and impact of vaguely defined “youth” movements have been overstated, they remain the most important potential source of change—the Arab world’s best hope. The small vanguard that drove the original uprisings is growing more organized and more ideologically sophisticated even as, for the time being, it has lost political ground.

Egypt has always set regional trends in political thought. Its Tahrir Square uprising raised expectations for democratic transitions throughout the region, although the other Arab revolts brought wildly divergent results, especially for youth. Today the military appears to have won in Egypt, but the long-term outcome of the struggle there between revolutionary and reactionary forces is still in question; how it unfolds will be a bellwether for the Arab world.

Youth Is a State of Mind

Basem Kamel makes an unlikely revolutionary youth activist. I first met him four years ago, inside the small tent erected by the Revolutionary Youth Coalition to house its big-tent deliberations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He seemed decidedly middle-aged and established: balding, evenly shaved despite his sleep-deprived gaze, slightly stooped, his scruffy protest clothes accented with a knotted orange scarf. He was 41, father to three children, proprietor of an architecture firm. “Youth is a state of mind,” he laughed when I arched my eyebrows at his age.

But like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and the fractious panoply of movements for which it briefly served as the umbrella, Kamel represented a radical challenge to the status quo. Against the mores of the ruling party, Kamel appeared young, pluralistic, open-minded, radically experimental and egalitarian. So were the other “revolutionary youth” I encountered in Tahrir Square, ranging in age from children to grandparents.

Kamel had gone within a year from apolitical observer to revolutionary policy wonk. He wanted to throw out the entire regime’s way of doing business along with then-President Hosni Mubarak. He wanted a rules-based social welfare state that encouraged entrepreneurship and initiative while efficiently taking care of the poor and vulnerable. He wanted justice for Egyptian citizens who had been abused by police and military personnel, and he wanted to see his fellow citizens learn to take responsibility for everything from litter to voting. “If we succeed, everything will have to change,” he said then. “It will take a long time.”

The Revolutionary Youth Coalition is no more. It collapsed a year and a half after its founding, because its secular and Islamist members lost trust in each other. It was the sole institution in Egypt that tried systematically to bridge the gap between Islamist and secular political actors. Elsewhere in the Arab world, only Tunisia’s Parliament has attempted the same feat, with equivocal success.

Yet despite its noble aims, the coalition also embodied the region’s political identity crisis in its very name. “Youth” and “revolution” are virtually meaningless as explanatory categories for what is taking place in Egypt and elsewhere across the Middle East. The Arab world today is in the grip of a regional struggle for control—and in some cases a fundamental redesign of government—being waged among many contesting visions: hereditary monarchs, old-fashioned nationalist states, incremental Islamists, nihilist jihadists, socialist reformers, anarchists and others. The young can be found in almost every one of these locales and movements, including the most reactionary establishment political parties and statist institutions. Similarly, some of the most creative and constructive political forces feature middle-aged or even old activists in inspiring roles.

The particular problems facing youth as demographically defined—completing secondary or higher education, finding a first job or career and establishing a family—are economic and social. And while young people have a special kind of energy that dissipates with age, none of these factors predispose the young toward any particular political tendency. Throughout the Arab region, as throughout the rest of the world, they are just as likely to be apathetic as political, or reformist as conservative.

Nevertheless, a set of new political ideas and processes has been unleashed in the Arab revolts. The energy of young street protesters catalyzed a moment of revolutionary potential, a moment that shattered the assumption of regime staying power and opened the way for competitive politics and new ideologies. That fundamental idea—that a peaceful popular movement can replace a repressive state with a responsive, democratic, just and egalitarian polity—has survived today in a battered condition.

In Egypt, the country with the greatest potential and the greatest political impact on other Arab countries, the idea of change survives mainly in the beleaguered family of “revolutionary youth” movements, for which the country’s broken political system has made no room. The story is different elsewhere. Tunisia, for instance, has a plethora of young activists but no predominant set of youth movements, most likely because the existing political structure, with its parties and trade unions, engaged in meaningful negotiation that was able to harness the energy of young revolutionaries and channel it into a successful transition to democracy. Lebanon offers a third alternative—a paralyzed dysfunctional state where established sectarian parties have managed to absorb and dissipate youthful energy and momentum for reform, without making any improvements in governance or way of life.

A close and honest look at the condition of the Arab youth movements tells us a great deal about the prospect for systemic change in the region. At the core of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia was a group of movements that espoused an agenda much more about revolution than about youth. Its supporters were concerned with political and economic injustice, and they touted democracy in a local vernacular, refusing the notion that it is a tainted or premature import from the west.

The revolutionary youth have been roundly defeated in Egypt. Tunisia’s more successful uprising has subsumed most of its youth activists into mainstream parties, perhaps a sign that political life is healthy or diverse enough not to require a binary external category such as youth to advocate for reform. Elsewhere, youth movements have remained marginal, as in Lebanon, or been sidelined by violence, as in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

But there is a clear and admirable agenda, one quite threatening to the region’s status quo regimes, articulated under the banner of revolutionary youth. Any Arab state that doesn’t grapple with its central claims and aspirations will remain fundamentally insecure, under threat any time circumstances conspire to make an opening for the latent uprising incubating in the warmth of their misrule.

The Bulge

The Arab world is disproportionately young; more than half of the population is under 25. Education systems are failing. Young people make up almost all the new entrants to the labor market, and the Arab region leads the world in youth unemploymentaccording to the United Nations. Demographers and economists who look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have rightly called attention to the youth bulge, including a looming one in Egypt, coupled with the region-wide systemic failures to educate citizens and provide them jobs.

The considerable scholarship about the demographic and economic implications of the youth bulge explains one of the many dispiriting constraints on growth and quality of life in the MENA region. A recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) paper summarizes the reams of demographic and economic analysis of the Arab youth imbroglio: “Without noticeable improvements in their economies or employment prospects, especially for much of the frustrated youth, rising demonstrations, unrest and violence appear unavoidable for the nearly half a billion people in the Arab world by 2025.”

But “demographic destiny” and the depressing economic conundrums of the Arab economies tell us nothing about the likelihood of political explosions, transitions or repression. Poor states that have little concern with the rights and welfare of their citizens can still perform at dramatically different points along a spectrum from murderous and self-destructive, like Syria; to aggressively indifferent, like Egypt; to muddling but occasionally passable, like Jordan. Regimes with massive youth bulges can successfully crush dissent, as Iran did to the uprising known as the “Green Revolution” in 2009, or escape it altogether with minor adjustments, as Saudi Arabia has done since the Arab uprisings. Demographics are not destiny, politically speaking.

Egypt’s Movement Youth

The past two years have brought a crescendo of terrible news for supporters of pluralism, rights and democracy in Egypt. The country’s first and only elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, ruled erratically and eroded civil freedoms. He was deposed in a popularly acclaimed coup in July 2013.

Reflecting the general patterns of society, an apparent majority of young people, including many activists, supported the anti-Morsi Tammarod protests. Only a tiny number of them immediately criticized the military’s direct takeover of power, although dissent quickened after the military regime massacred at least 1,150 Morsi supporters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square on Aug. 14. Egypt’s new leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, swiftly moved to outlaw protest and ban the Muslim Brotherhood, and over time has arrested almost all the leading dissidents across the political spectrum. He has restored and intensified the repressive methods of the old regime and has banned critical figures from appearing in the media.

In one sense, the playing field looks like it did under Mubarak: A state behemoth that is terrible at governance uses a heavy hand to crush opposition, and faces a very small but committed activist community that includes old veterans and youthful newcomers.

But Sissi, a general who resigned from the military when he decided to seek the presidency almost a year after his coup, may face open revolt much earlier in his tenure than Mubarak, unless he indefinitely maintains his unprecedented levels of violent suppression. The generation of activists that propelled Tahrir has gone on to establish political parties, youth movements and other institutions. Its ranks have gained invaluable organizational experience. They have built vast interpersonal networks, bound by the shared experience of torture, detention, long prison sentences, exile and mourning. The brightest of the revolutionary leaders and movements have slowly begun to address their biggest failings; they are creating clearer, more compelling alternative ideas of governance, and they are developing strategies that take into account the volatility of mass public opinion.

Moreover, a significant portion of the socially conservative elite—the centrists who leaned slightly toward the revolution in 2011 and toward Sissi in 2013—has experienced political mobilization and the sense of power that comes with overthrowing a regime. Egyptians have acquired a taste for political empowerment and accountability.

A survey of the current state of the activist youth movements, as well as the widespread apathy among the youth demographic, can invite depression. Yet it is remarkable, especially when compared with the period before 2011, that in the face of historically unprecedented violent repression of all dissenters, from human rights lawyers to Muslim Brothers to bourgeois middle-aged civil society activists, a wide array of movements has persisted in opposition to the state.

Public opinion has gone into a version of political hibernation. Protests against Sissi’s government are small, and polls suggest transition fatigue. Some individuals who casually participated in protests or politics from 2011-2013 told me they had “lost faith in politicians,” “no longer trusted activists,” or were “ready for stability so I can get a job and have my life back.”

However, among the most dedicated activists, only a few have defected from politics entirely, while many have made notable shifts. Top among them are the organized revolutionary youth who have shifted allegiance entirely, best represented by the anti-Morsi Tammarod movement. Its original founders were five youth activists, including veterans from the April 6 Youth Movement and from former presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. They mobilized a signature campaign against Morsi, and after the coup they became stalwart cheerleaders for Sissi’s elevation from junta leader to elected president. Tammarod is undeniably a reactionary force that has benefited at times from state support, but it is also undeniably a youth movement toward which Sissi’s government has turned a jaded eye.

Basem Kamel, the 41-year-old revolutionary “youth” I met in Tahrir four years ago, went on to co-found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which has now positioned itself to the right of its revolutionary roots as a traditional liberal party. He became one of just a handful of revolutionaries elected to the short-lived parliament of 2012. After the Sissi coup, Kamel and his party supported Sissi’s transitional government, prioritizing secularism and a fight against the Muslim Brotherhood over opposition to military rule. “I didn’t support Sissi, I opposed Morsi,” he told me this winter. “Whatever we are now, it is better than the Muslim Brotherhood.” He now sounds like a cautious reformer rather than a principled revolutionary.

Kamel opposes Sissi’s crackdown on protest and free speech, but he believes it will take years or decades for vanguard activists to convince the Egyptian public to support a genuine move away from military rule. He has chosen to work within a political party that has been allowed to continue operating by the regime as part of a trusted or permitted opposition.

Youth and revolutionary politics continue to exist, despite the crackdown under Sissi, because of systemic state failures. Police still torture with impunity; runaway judges make a mockery of the rule of law; army officers control political life; and the economy continues to fail the vast majority of its citizens, while a corrupt elite connected to the army and a ruling clique rakes in rentier profits.

And the most visible independent activists have continued to agitate, demonstrate or write treatises even from prison. Alaa Abdel Fattah, an independent leftist who helped form a revolutionary coalition after the Rabaa massacre, has produced a powerful oeuvre from his jail cell. Most recently, this fall he spurred a wave of partial hunger strikes under the slogan “We’re fed up.”

Meanwhile, the April 6 Youth Movement, a grassroots movement that has made deep inroads among working-class Egyptians, has survived a concerted effort by the state to dismantle it, in part because the movement’s leaders and members have in fact collaborated with right-leaning nationalists. These positions drew enmity to the movement, but they also put it more closely in step with the Egyptian mainstream. Perhaps for this reason, April 6’s grassroots network has survived the imprisonment of its leadership. As recently as November, it was able to muster a sizable protest in Tahrir Square, along with other secular, non-Islamist revolutionary groups angered by a judicial verdict clearing Mubarak of further charges.

Egypt’s Islamist Revolutionaries

The final locus of continuing resistance activity in Egypt comes from the Islamist space. Always the largest, most organized and best-funded opposition to the state, Islamist groups have always had formidable youth wings. During the revolutionary period, the Islamist political space fragmented. Today it still includes the largest number of active opponents to the Egyptian regime, although many of those activists are young Muslim Brotherhood members calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. They are increasingly isolated not only by the state, but from revolutionary movements who view Morsi’s autocratic tenure as a betrayal.

Yet a principled group of former Muslim Brotherhood members forms one of the most interesting revolutionary cohorts. Hundreds of young men and women who were among the elite of the Brotherhood’s official youth movement defied their hierarchical organization bosses and took part in the original Jan. 25 uprising in 2011. Most of them believed the Brotherhood should stay out of politics and remain a social and religious organization. These were pious and committed Islamic youth who believed in a secular, pluralistic state. Three of them were founding members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition; they were among the first Brotherhood youth officially expelled by the hierarchical Islamist group.

They founded a political party, the Egyptian Current, which failed to attract wide membership. Some of its members work as independent activists or have joined secular political parties. Many of its best-known leaders now work with Strong Egypt, the political party of an ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate, Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh. Strong Egypt has been one of the only political organizations to condemn authoritarianism quickly and consistently, whether practiced by liberal civilian politicians, Morsi or Sissi. It forms the only existing bridge between secular revolutionaries and the powerful Islamist bloc, which for now has distanced itself from a project of pluralism, reform or revolt.

But the distrust between the two camps runs too deep for the kind of cooperation it would take to effect meaningful change in Egypt, and continuing efforts to mediate between anti-regime revolutionaries and Islamists have failed so far. Moaz Abdel Kareem, a former Brother and Revolutionary Youth Coalition member, has been one of the most persistent advocates of secular-Islamist collaboration. “It is crazy to think we can have a revolution without the Islamists,” he told me recently over a water pipe in a cafe in Istanbul. “We need to start a dialogue and agree on things we can fight for.” His own predicament suggests the impossibility of unity now; his old Islamist colleagues reject him as far too secular, while his revolutionary colleagues suspect he’s still secretly a Muslim Brother.

Illustrating the divide, in late November, secular revolutionaries rebuffed a public call from the Brotherhood for “revolutionary unity.” An April 6 spokesperson told Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian publication, that his organization would never again trust the Islamists, while a member of Strong Egypt said it was waiting for the Brotherhood to revise it positions and prove it could “keep its word.” In a further illustration of the exclusion of political “youth” dynamism by established political players, the Muslim Brotherhood itself criticized its own young members for going too far in their efforts to forge a united front with secular activists. The Brotherhood’s paternalistic tone echoes that of first Mubarak and now Sissi, with its patronizing dismissal of youth politics as naive, subversive or outright traitorous.

Sissi is unlikely to address Egypt’s core failures: the collapsing economy, the utter lack of justice or rule of law and the smothering of political life. In Tahrir Square in 2011, many people told me they had finally been motivated to protest because the state “humiliated” them: It prevented them from supporting their families, and it didn’t allow them the slightest political voice. The implication is clear. A regime might be able to get away with corruption and misrule if it allows some democratic expression, or it might get away with oppression as long as it delivers basic quality of life. But it will have trouble keeping its population quiescent if it fails on both counts.

The Role of Youth Beyond Egypt

Beyond Egypt, the entire Arab state system has been called into question, which is why powerful vested interests from the Gulf monarchies to the region’s nationalist militaries have engaged so fully in what they rightly view as an existential struggle. Nearly every country in the region has responded to these profound forces, although it is still early in their historical lifespan. Each Arab state offers a model of how to crush, harness or coopt revolutionary energy.

Short of war, there are three general approaches. The first is to deploy a police state to marginalize revolutionary ideas; Egypt is the leading example, but Bahrain and to some extent Jordan have followed a similar approach. The second is to embrace revolutionary energy within the system and attempt a transition: Tunisia has done this most successfully, although at periods Yemen and Libya seemed to have managed some degree of systemic change. The third is to redirect or absorb the revolutionary energy with neither a frontal clash nor a sincere effort to respond to its demands: Lebanon is the quintessential master of this sort of twisted jujitsu approach, although its principles can be seen at work in the maneuvers of regimes in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A closer look at Tunisia and Lebanon, as alternatives to Egypt’s course, also highlights the problem with relying on youth as an organizing principle to explain Arab politics.

Tunisia, Model or Exception?

Increasingly, Tunisia seems like an outlier in the Arab world. Its peaceful uprising was disproportionately younger than Egypt’s, and it was quickly supported by key institutional players, including the military. The biggest political blocs, the Muslim Brothers and the secular trade unionists, managed to negotiate a consensual constitution and a balanced transitional government despite their divergent visions. Islamists voluntarily ceded power after losing in Tunisia’s second elections. Not everyone is satisfied, but none of the key constituencies profess to have been locked out of the political transition, in contrast to Egypt. Perhaps most important in the context of the current discussion is the fact that “youth” were not ghettoized, but rather dispersed across the spectrum of politics and civil society.

Tunisia is a small nation whose relative wealth and education levels make it hard to compare to other Arab countries. Yet activists elsewhere in the region have drawn some key lessons. Tunisia benefited from a balance of power that included trade unions with a sizable, organized following, and also from a wise provision in the transitional electoral system preventing the winning party from amassing an absolute parliamentary majority. The main parties engaged in sincere, if occasionally acrimonious, negotiations. Islamists repudiated violence committed by their supporters, while secularists have avoided the taint of military authoritarianism that has come to characterize so many of their Egyptian counterparts.

This is perhaps a result of the fact that, while in exile years before Tunisia’s uprising, Muslim Brotherhood leader Rachid Ghannouchi and liberal dissident Moncef Marzouki met regularly, despite their profound ideological differences. Their relationship produced a level of institutional trust during Tunisia’s initial transition period, when Marzouki was president and Ghannouchi’s party controlled the government.

The Lebanese Alternative

For better and often for worse, Lebanon’s muddle-through system of compromise and patronage has become a regional model. Once dismissed as dysfunctional and corrupt, Lebanon’s solution to its 1975-1991 civil war has come to be seen by many other regional actors as a lesser evil, often worth emulating. Iraq might have accelerated the path to sectarian civil war by adopting a Lebanon-style sectarian ethnic quota system, but many there still see “Lebanonization” as a palliative and a preferable alternative to a bloodbath. Syrian activists who in 2011 swore they would never be “another Lebanon” now tell me that ending up like Lebanon after a decade of fighting might be the best hope they’ve got.

Lebanon’s volatile stalemate has staved off civil war and internal political revolt despite myriad systemic failures to address the concerns of ordinary citizens, especially unemployed or underemployed youth. In this, Lebanon might once again suggest a somewhat distasteful workaround.

Interestingly, no substantive youth or revolutionary or reform movement has emerged in Lebanon since the Arab Spring uprisings. Polling and anecdotal evidence suggest that the majority of Lebanese resent the spoils system of governance, controlled by the same major warlords who have dominated politics since the civil war. Yet their economic energy has been dissipated, either absorbed into the corrupt spoils system at home or dispersed into Lebanon’s vast diaspora, the proceeds from which prop up the country’s crippled economy.

Youth are freer in Lebanon than anywhere else in the Arab world to engage in cultural activity, although state security censors still carefully police the boundaries of free expression to silence radical critiques of the power structure. But that freedom doesn’t extend to politics. Young Lebanese are free to harness their political energy into the vibrant youth wings of the existing political parties, but not to challenge the status quo. All the major factions have intricate institutions to tap into youthful energy, including scouts, paramilitaries, social clubs, student council elections, fundraising work and ultimately party membership. Opportunities for political participation are limited to the existing sectarian parties.

One exception is the on-again, off-again movement in support of civil marriage, which remains elite, small and, while threatening to the sectarian spoils system, neither radically revolutionary nor inherently political. Presently, the civil marriage cause appears dormant. In times of heightened security fears, the demands of civil society in Lebanon tend to be drowned out, although a dedicated core group of civil society activists has persisted in the face of decades of pressure and ups and downs.


The political movements that challenged the Arab world’s established order in 2010 and 2011 are still in the process of developing. Their ideas and platforms are inchoate, and their leaders and core members are often under attack. In multiple countries, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, proponents of even nonviolent incremental reform have been subject to terrifying levels of state violence. Elsewhere they have been systematically but less bloodily silenced or co-opted, including in Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

But it seems obvious that these movements are not going away, just as the Muslim Brotherhood, with its compelling ideology and disciplined organization, has never disappeared—despite repeated attempts at state-sponsored eradication—since its founding in 1928.

The great energy and aspirations that drove the revolts haven’t disappeared, even if the revolutionary leaders in Egypt have been marginalized for now. There on the margins, they are still working.

Kamel has concluded that the fault lies not with Egypt’s stars, but its citizens. “We have fought four regimes in a row, but most of the people of Egypt are not with us,” he told me this fall. “The problem in Egypt now is not the regimes. It is the people. We have to convince them.”

Some still believe that Sissi’s overreach will drive people together again, just like Mubarak’s abuse of power did in January 2011. “The Mubarak verdict shocked people,” Abdelkareem, the ex-Muslim Brother and Egyptian Current founder currently in exile, told me. “Now the youth are starting to cooperate again.”

Throughout the region, the same force that drove the uprisings has been redirected. Some of it simmers out of sight. Some of it has poured into the call for violent takfiri jihad in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt and perhaps elsewhere. Some of it has flowed into the quiet, continuing organizing of the political parties, youth movements and civil society groups that challenged status quo power. In Egypt, Sissi’s regime will either have to address these aspirations or fight a constant rear-guard war against dissent. The harder it fights, the more dissenters it will find.

Publisher’s Weekly review

Posted December 16th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing

Another review out in Publisher’s Weekly of Once Upon a Revolution.


As the heady days of revolution in Tahrir Square recede further into the past, liberal democracy in Egypt seems increasingly like a pipe dream.  Beirut-based journalist Cambanis (A Privilege to Die) follows two leaders of the uprising from the beginnings of their political involvement to the military coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi.  Basem, an unassuming architect, becomes one of the few liberal members of parliament, while Moaz, a Muslim Brother, grows increasingly disenchanted with political Islam.  Cambanis eloquently describes post-Mubarak Egypt and the “chaos coursing below the surface, but open conflict still just over the horizon,” as well as the “inability of secular and liberal forces to unify and organize,” which left the political field open to the military apparatus and the secretive Islamists.  Crushed by arbitrary military edicts and ascendant puritanism, Egypt’s nascent civil society stalled and sputtered while its freewheeling press degenerated into “a brew of lies, delusion, paranoia, and justification.”  The people Cambanis shadows never lose hope, exactly, but he makes clear that they feel as if they are spitting into the wind, struggling to enunciate what the revolution accomplished.  Agent: Wendy Strothman, Strothman Agency. (Feb.)