Why Youth Was Not Enough in Egypt

Posted February 7th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Posting video from Tahrir Square, February 2011. Ed Ou for The New York Times

[Read original in The New York Times Book Review.]


On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East
By Rachel Aspden
262 pp. Other Press. $24.95.

What happened to Egypt’s revolution?

After January 2011, Tahrir Square became a byword for hope, defiance and the unpredictability of history. The Egyptian people’s unexpected revolt baffled political scientists and other experts. Equally puzzling was the alacrity with which so many of the same Egyptians welcomed a new strongman a few short years later.

Egypt’s volte-face forces important questions about what kind of change is possible in the Arab world, and more universally, about the indiscriminate and violent nature of both revolutionary and authoritarian politics. Why were so many Egyptians willing to risk everything in 2011, and why, just two years later in July 2013, were so many willing to make another devil’s bargain with a despot?

“Generation Revolution” is a whodunit that seeks to resolve these twin mysteries of geopolitics and human nature. Its author, Rachel Aspden, first moved to Egypt from England in 2003, diving into a culture that she clearly loved on first sight. She studied the language, worked as a journalist and tried her best to understand the worldview of her fellow 20-somethings. Through her long-running friendships Aspden is able to see the frustrations that have driven events in Egypt. The life stories of her characters come into focus long before Tahrir Square in 2011. In this way, Aspden does important work establishing context for Egypt’s stifling period of decay, and the improbable revolution and authoritarian backlash that followed. This is a chronicle of politics by other means.

Aspden clearly loves her characters, but she unflinchingly recounts their flaws too. One of the most surprising is Amal, a woman who breaks all taboos to leave her family and village to live on her own in Cairo. Amal finds that political activists and male peers aren’t interested in her kind of struggle for freedom. Her story exposes the sordid mechanics of control and the individual cost of rebellion. At one point Amal, who is Muslim, receives help from a Christian church congregation and is detained by authorities, who suspect her of converting. Back in her village, her family locks her up to stop her from making an independent career as a teacher. She manages to run away and assuages her relatives by sharing some of the money she earns. Ultimately, she marries a foreigner and prepares to emigrate.

Other young Egyptians invite Aspden to meetings of “Life Makers,” a self-improvement group founded by a charismatic Islamic televangelist. They are touchingly earnest and ambitious, perplexed by their secular peers but open-minded enough to nurture friendships with non-Muslims like Aspden.

Still, most of Aspden’s friends are willing to entertain change only in limited areas, like the man who sleeps around in a coastal resort but hopes to marry a virgin. She presents the sometimes distasteful choices of her characters with empathy. Mazen, a wealthy Muslim secularist with some enlightened ideas, unexpectedly oozes bigotry and intolerance for Christians.

Aspden’s reporting is always fascinating, if not always artfully or lyrically delivered. She cheerfully and honestly confronts her own outsider status and newcomer’s naïveté (as when she enjoys a respite from Cairo’s endemic sexual harassment at a cafe that turns out to be a rendezvous spot for prostitutes). Yet her prose can also be frustratingly chatty. In order to profile a wide cross-section of Egyptians over an extended period of time, Aspden has sacrificed depth and focus. Some characters flit in and out, disappearing for years on end. In her tableau, Tahrir Square is but a single inflection point in a long history of national atrophy (the 18 days of the revolt are awkwardly inserted mid-narrative in dated journal-entry format). It’s nice putting the uprising in context, but there’s not quite enough of it.

“Generation Revolution” is at its strongest when describing the thicket of its characters’ personal struggles — with faith, family, friendships and sex. The author introduces us to conversations about existential subjects that reveal character, like Islam, virginity and romantic dreams about marriage. For instance, we catch a rare if fleeting glimpse of atheism, a crime in Egypt, in the person of the young doctor Abu el-Hassan, a critical thinker who begins as a religious fundamentalist and ends up rejecting religion.

Aspden’s Egyptians are evolving people trying to balance faith, family, ambition and personal happiness against the broader imperatives of authoritarian leaders (at home, in the mosque or church, in the government and military). A diet of hypernationalism, propaganda about foreign conspirators and security paranoia imposes limits even on freethinkers, who often end up mirroring official intolerance in their own lives.

One of the saddest elements of the July 2013 coup that abruptly ended Egypt’s experiment with democracy and civilian rule was the popular acclaim that ushered Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from army intelligence to the presidency. A great swath of the public was actively complicit in the new dictatorship that killed the revolution it had unleashed in the first place. Aspden brings to her reporting enough insight to make sense of the public’s conflicting attitudes, and enough critical distance to acknowledge how Egyptians contributed to their country’s sad fate.

“Generation Revolution” is billed as a book about youth, or, as the subtitle puts it, the “front line between tradition and change in the Middle East.” In Aspden’s telling, the young, not yet ground into submission, have posed the greatest challenge to Egypt’s intolerable yet adaptive state. But the young can sustain resistance for only so long. The Tahrir Generation of 2011, she writes, may already be over the hill, though a new crop of restive Egyptians are reaching a boiling point, and they may not submit in the same way their grandparents did when the first military strongman took power in 1952. Nonetheless, Aspden notes, an empowered populace armed with education, modern communication tools and high expectations can repeatedly be dominated by an equally modern coercive state. Her conclusion is dispiriting, but she backs it with evidence. Youth alone, it seems, does not suffice to change tradition.

As Aspden demonstrates, all the well-intended characters in her book planted some of the seeds of their own downfall. Amal joined a popular protest movement unaware that it was being manipulated by intelligence agencies to bring Sisi to power. Islamists may have been willing to die opposing the coup, but they were uninterested in the fate of secular dissidents or democracy in general. Part-time revolutionaries mindlessly parroted state propaganda or the bigotry of Egypt’s religious establishment. Almost none were willing to defy their families for very long.

“Generation Revolution” is an excellent social history of Egypt’s persistent pathologies, as well as a universal story about the difficulty of changing deeply ingrained societal attitudes. The ambivalent Egyptians who struggle between radical modern aspirations and conservative community mores bear a more than passing resemblance to their American counterparts trying to reconcile Donald Trump’s vision for their country with Barack Obama’s, and no explanation for any of this can be complete without the kind of social history Aspden provides. The cumulative choices of millions, whether in protest, in voting or in docile compliance, are the indispensable ingredient.

So what did happen to Egypt’s revolution? Aspden, like most of its chroniclers, was rooting for it to succeed. Yet it failed, she says, not only because the police state adapted so efficaciously but also because the people who sparked the revolt ultimately remained faithful to too many reactionary ideas.

The character studies of “Generation Revolution” point to a single conclusion: Revolutionary Egyptians sought radical change only in the narrow lane of their relationship to the government and police. They did not reject the profoundly conservative mores of family, village, neighborhood and religious hierarchy, whose webs of control emerged relatively unscathed from the revolutionary period. Lasting change, however, cannot occur in isolation. Egyptians have proven remarkably inventive and good-humored at finding ways to circumvent or adapt to the state’s abuses, but less so at finding ways to stop them.

Review of Rod Nordland’s The Lovers

Posted January 24th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Zakia and Ali

Zakia and Ali. Photo: DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ

[Book review in The Boston Globe.]

When news reached Kabul that a pair of teenagers was breaking every manner of taboo, determined to marry for love or else die in rural Bamian province, New York Times reporter Rod Nordland jumped. He had been looking for just such a story to illustrate Afghanistan’s horrifying tradition of rape and “honor killings,” as well as the courage of young people ready to challenge the old system.

Zakia and Ali had met as children — their families farmed neighboring plots — and decided when they came of age to defy their parents and marry. By the time Nordland meets them, Zakia is hiding in a women’s shelter. Her family is threatening to kill her because she has tarnished their “honor.’’

Their story makes sensational headlines about “Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet,” and Nordland doggedly sticks with the protagonists. The result is “The Lovers,” a rich account of Zakia and Ali’s romance that doubles as an indictment of the Afghan patriarchy’s abuse of women and the failures of all those in power, inside and outside the country, to curtail it.

Nordland follows the couple’s escape into the mountains, their marriage and honeymoon on the run, and the hair-raising manhunt that pits Zakia’s relatives against the bride, groom, and his family. Along the way a circus of Afghan and US government officials and international gadflies try to shape the fate of Zakia and Ali.

Couples like Zakia and Ali usually pay for their daring with their lives. This exceptional pair, however, doubles down on their decision to marry by going public with their tale. Miraculously, they manage to avoid being killed, although their victory seems pyrrhic. Some young Afghans find solace in the couple’s crusade, although we only learn of their social resonance in glancing references to their celebrity status.

What support the couple wins from local power brokers has more to do with ethnic and tribal loyalty than any major change of heart among patriarchal elders. Zakia and Ali enjoy what pass for moments of serenity on the lam from vengeful relatives, discovering that the married life for which they fought so gallantly includes long stretches of monotony and bickering.

For Americans contemplating their longest war, in Afghanistan, the campaign for women’s rights was a potential bright spot. The 2001 invasion might have failed on most counts, mired in torture, warlordism, and corruption, but at least the appalling position of women was supposed to improve.
Nordland’s “The Lovers” fatally complicates that optimistic narrative. In the 1980s, when Nordland first covered the conflict in Afghanistan, the United States supported mujahedeen whose main motivation to fight was to reverse the Soviets’ emancipation of Afghan women. So it was rich with irony that after the United States staged its invasion, it pushed for a flurry of women’s rights laws that improved things mainly on paper — and were undermined by the same warlords who owed their rise to American patronage.

To contextualize Ali and Zakia’s romantic yarn, Nordland presents a tirade of stories of rape, murder, bribery, and cover-up. While this barrage of anecdotes enrages, it does not advance our understanding of the thinking of the men who run this brutal system. Nor does it explain how they secure the cooperation of their countrymen.

Ali and Zakia are simple characters, illiterate, uneducated, and young. Although they star in this account, we never fully understand why they took such a bold leap. The closest glimpse we get to their souls is through the poetic verses that Ali selects for his cellphone ringtone.

There’s another story here, which Nordland shares with admirable candor and unflinching honesty, and that is of the unsatisfying, at times distressing, encounter between Afghans and the foreigners who have come to save, subjugate, or chronicle their country.

Almost from the first, Nordland dispenses with sanctimony. Journalists are supposed to maintain objectivity and avoid becoming part of the story. But in war zones, lines get blurred, and Nordland refuses to ignore his responsibility to be humane and help his subjects.

He gives Zakia and Ali money, lobbies for them with government officials, arranges a getaway car, and choreographs one abortive flight abroad.

The couple proves maddening and headstrong. They routinely ignore advice, dodge phone calls, and surface only when they need help or money. They might frustrate their allies, but Nordland respects their agency and independence of thought. They might not make the wisest choices, but the point is they act empowered in a society where few do.

The American government offers little aid, seeming reluctant to grant asylum to persecuted Afghans because it would undermine the line that Afghan women are better off since the Americans came.

All the more reason to chronicle this bittersweet, ambiguous love story. Zakia and Ali haven’t changed the status of Afghan women, and Nordland’s relentless reporting hasn’t shifted US policy. But the very acts of successful resistance and honest storytelling provide much-needed seeds of hope.

THE LOVERS: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing

By Rod Nordland

Ecco, 384 pp., $26.99

Thanassis Cambanis writes The Internationalist column for Globe Ideas and is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York. His most recent book is “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.’’

Review of “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS”

Posted October 3rd, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Getty Images/Globe Staff Photo Illustration

[Review of Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: ISIS for The Boston Globe.]

As its name makes clear, the Islamic State is after something far more permanent than its nihilistic, destructive methods might suggest. Over the past few years the movement has come terrifyingly close, confidently deploying modern tools of warfare and propaganda to establish a blood-soaked caliphate whose barbarity feels prehistoric. In his new book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick sets out to explain how a motley group of criminals considered too unruly by Al Qaeda transformed into the world’s most successful and savage jihadi group.

Warrick’s account centers as much on American missteps as it does on the jihadi long game to build capacity. He telegraphs his disgust with ISIS without turning his book into a two-dimensional jeremiad and takes pains to include accounts of the group’s thinking, evolution, and internal political disputes.

The Islamic State, better known here by the acronym, ISIS, swept into American consciousness about a year ago when it conquered northern Iraq and almost toppled the US-backed government in Baghdad. But ISIS didn’t come out of nowhere. Inhabitants of the Arab heartland had followed the steady entrenchment of jihadi groups in the region.

Since Sept. 11, America’s counter-terror establishment has been obsessed with kill lists, personalizing Al Qaeda and its offshoots as the fiefdoms of a few easily demonized leaders.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Syria, and on computer screens around the world, a vast, well-funded network recruited legions of talented and capable individuals, learned from its setbacks, innovated, and built effective institutions to buttress a durable reign of horror.

“Black Flags” tries hard to explain how ISIS came of age and why so many supposedly moderate or conservative forces in the Arab world have been willing to stand with extremists.

Most bracing of all is Warrick’s historically-grounded corrective, which blames the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the single most pivotal factor in the organization’s creation.

Warrick spends plenty of time on a riveting and detailed biographical account of the man who founded the group that became ISIS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian thug whose commitment to violent religious extremism was forged in jail. Blithe prison officials allowed jihadis free reign and then carelessly released them to curry political favor for the new king.

The US government made Zarqawi famous by naming him as the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, part of the spurious grounds to justify the Iraqi invasion. America’s mistakes were a bonanza for Zarqawi, who hired from the ranks of newly jobless soldiers and intelligence officials and capitalized on the disenfranchisement of Sunni tribes suddenly in need of a new protector.

Zarqawi reengineered the parameters of violence — no small feat in a neighborhood where despots like Saddam Hussein and the Assad dynasty in Syria already had spawned a vast torture complex. He personally beheaded civilians on video; directed suicide bombs at targets that other jihadis considered off limits like the UN, NGOs, and Arab embassies; and struck Shia religious targets with the ultimately successfully goal of provoking a destabilizing Sunni-Shia civil war. Even Al Qaeda thought he was going too far, Warrick notes, but Zarqawi’s methods proved to have enduring traction long after his death in 2006.

His successors built ISIS into an organization determined to go much further than Al Qaeda and implement a brutal caliphate immediately. Today ISIS runs oil fields, banks, and a formidable military. The group’s executions grab our attention, but ISIS applies equal zeal to tax collection, education, and indoctrination — all good reasons to suspect that it may remain part of the scene for years to come.

There are a few missing pieces in this otherwise fine book. Warrick neglects the rich context of torture, abuse, and extremism fed by Arab governments and international patrons, including the United States, in the decades before Al Qaeda and then ISIS came to maturity. He mentions but does not delve deeply into the widespread sympathy for hardline Islamist ideas among the Arabian peninsula monarchies and many supposedly mainstream Sunnis.

Also some big questions remain at the end of “Black Flags,’’ including the mystery of the group’s technical achievements. How did ISIS refine its training, military tactics, and administrative abilities so thoroughly that it could control a nation-sized swath of Syria and Iraq? Warrick’s account fills in important conceptual blanks, but doesn’t explain why this time around the same old cocktail of takfiri jihad, Gulf money, and impressionable testosterone-filled volunteers yielded an army and government-in-waiting more effective than any of its regional peers.

Overall, however, Warrick’s book might be the most thorough and nuanced account of the birth and growth of ISIS published so far. “Black Flags’’ is full of personalities, but it keeps its gaze carefully focused on the wider arc of history.


By Joby Warrick

Doubleday, 344 pp., illustrated, $28.95

Max Strasser on Once Upon a Revolution

Posted March 30th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Review essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books]

When the Sun Falls over Tahrir

March 28th, 2015

By Max Strasser

SOMETIME IN THE SUMMER of 2011, I was sitting with a few friends at a café on the edge of a cliff overlooking Cairo. We were smoking shisha and drinking tea and beer, watching the sun set over the taupe tableau when we spotted two tall, blond men on the other side of the terrace with a digital camera, filming the sun’s descent through the smog. After a little while, I decided to make conversation. In thick Dutch accents they explained what they were doing: They wanted to film the sunrise over Cairo but, because it was too early in the morning and they only had a limited time in Egypt to shoot, they were filming the sunset instead, which they would play backward. They were making a documentary about the Egyptian revolution.

In the year after the Tahrir uprising that took place in January and February 2011, Cairo was crawling with good-natured documentarians. Having watched the inspiring 18-day “Arab Spring” revolution on television, they clamored to come see the action themselves, and maybe get a taste of the utopia and possibility that was Tahrir Square. Dutch filmmakers on shoestring budgets weren’t the only ones, of course. American anarchists, British journalists, French photographers all wanted a piece of what was going on in Egypt. Many of them left shortly after, taking with them their short films, their articles, blog posts, and think pieces, glorifying the revolution and telling the world that radical political change could be more than just a dream. Egypt had a perfect revolution: horizontal, spontaneous, inspiring. A radical’s fairy tale — or so it seemed.

Some observers stayed longer. Thanassis Cambanis watched not only the sunrise but also the sunset. The product is his book Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, a comprehensive, straightforward — and sympathetic — accounting of the Egyptian revolution from its percolations in the anti-police brutality movement that began in Cairo and Alexandria in the summer of 2011 up through the brutal start of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency, making stops along the way to various elections, constitutions, and protests.

Once Upon a Revolution provides a detailed timeline for people with a keen interest in the sequence of events in Egypt in the early years after the Tahrir uprising: the book is a methodical, unforgiving, nearly day-by-day account of mismanaged political parties, state repression, chaos, and fear. But it is more than just a primer. Whether Cambanis intended it or not, his book practically reads as a manual — a cautionary and instructive tale that should be required reading for would-be revolutionaries everywhere, Wall Street Occupiers and Hong Kong umbrella-holders alike, on the extent to which the powerful will go to prevent change and the pitfalls of decentralized revolutionary movements.

The book is loosely centered on two characters, both committed revolutionaries. Basem Kamel is a secular liberal, a middle-class architect with a family, living on the outskirts of Cairo. Moaz Abdelkarim is an idiosyncratic Islamist, a poorly dressed and perpetually tardy pharmacist who makes friends with the leftists and liberals in the tent camps in Tahrir Square during the 18-day “Arab Spring” uprising and eventually breaks with the Muslim Brotherhood over its exclusivist policies. They serve as imperfect stand-ins for the main strains of the Egyptian opposition and, over the course of the book, they become familiar if never truly deep characters. It’s the story of the revolution itself that drives Once Upon a Revolution’s narrative along.

Anyone who follows news from the Middle East knows the horrific ending (at least for now) to the story. Today, in Egypt, revolutionaries are jailed while officials from the former regime run for parliament. To understand how the country got from that to this, it helps to dwell a bit in the details, in the small missteps and sown chaos that took place between February 11, 2012, when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and August 14, 2013, the date when the army murdered some 600 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and began a crackdown that lasts until today. That’s precisely what Cambanis does, and the results are useful.

After the initial protests forced President Hosni Mubarak from power, a military junta known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took control of Egypt. The generals vociferously claimed they were the defenders of the revolution, but they did everything in their power to stymy radical change. They fast-tracked constitutions and dissolved parliaments, they cut backroom deals and initiated prosecutions. Most of all, they sowed fear and chaos that ultimately served them perfectly.

Once Upon a Revolution devotes an entire chapter to the night of October 9, 2011, and the days afterward. That evening, a protest of Coptic Christians demanding equal rights marched from a north Cairo neighborhood to the headquarters of the state media, known as Maspero. The march was met with unexpected brutality: Armored personnel carriers barreled into unarmed protesters. Military police fired live bullets into the crowd. Twenty-eight died. Reports emerged of the army tossing bodies into the nearby Nile. That night, Egyptian state media spewed sectarian incitement against the Christian minority community. In the aftermath, the generals made pitiful attempts to spin the facts: the Copts had killed each other, the APC’s collision course was an accident.

At the time, the impact of the massacre wasn’t even completely evident to Egyptians themselves, much less outside observers. Cambanis writes, “In the weeks that followed the massacre, Egypt went about business as usual. The organized political class rallied the cadres. Maspero hardly affected the calculations of the SCAF, the Wafd Party, the Brothers, and the Salafis.” On the surface that’s true, but the effect was more subtle and more profound. The Maspero massacre — along with the police’s repeated crushing of anti-SCAF protests and even the February 2012 soccer riot in Port Said that left more than 70 people dead — became part of a patchwork of violence that created a climate of instability, fear, and paranoia. Compared with Mubarak’s resignation or the July 3, 2013 military coup, the Maspero massacre may appear a minor sideshow. And yet these events — whether they were at the behest of the SCAF or not we may never know — helped lay the groundwork for the military’s takeover.

But the military wouldn’t have been able to launch its power grab had it not been for political conditions on the ground, something on which Cambanis keeps an equally close eye. Recounting the opposition’s incompetence is just as crucial for understanding why Sisi’s retrenchment was possible. The Muslim Brotherhood deserves perhaps as much blame as the military for the revolution’s failure to achieve its goals. The group was famously Egypt’s best-organized political organization and one of the few actors with enough clout to negotiate with the military. It did so repeatedly and in the process betrayed the fundamental aims of the revolution. The Brotherhood leadership cut deals with the army to bring itself to power, as when it backed the SCAF-written constitution and helped push forward premature elections.

The Brotherhood’s politicking succeeded — for a time. Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, won the 2012 presidential election. But the Islamists’ missteps and overreaches helped turn Egyptians away from the democratic experiment and, in the end, straight back into the army’s waiting hands. Cambanis’s chapter on Morsi’s rule is titled “The Enemy Within.” It recounts exactly what the Brotherhood did to make its sometimes-allies, the revolutionaries, so completely distrustful: cutting deals with the SCAF and standing by the military and police while they cracked down on anti-government protests. By the summer of 2012, when Morsi became the president, the Brotherhood had no credibility. Morsi’s rule only undermined it further, seemingly proving everyone’s worst fears by proposing banning alcohol to issuing a radical decree in November 2012 that gave himself nearly unlimited powers as president over the judiciary and the constitution-writing process.

It was more or less inevitable that the anti-authoritarians would join forces with the anti-Islamist reactionaries to oppose Morsi. Many among the revolutionaries — including the social democrat Basem, one of Cambanis’s protagonists — backed a June 30, 2013 protest calling for Morsi’s removal. Three days later, the anti-Morsi protests culminated with a military takeover.

The revolutionaries — the leftists and liberals who formed the core of the uprising and tried to keep its goals alive amid military massacres and Brotherhood backroom dealing — do not emerge blameless from the tumultuous 2011–2013 period. Cambanis is unabashedly sympathetic to them. (I was, and am, too.) But he can’t help but point out their foibles. The revolutionaries failed to take advantage of electoral politics; they neglected political organizing in the countryside and the small cities in favor of Cairo and Alexandria (and Tahrir Square in particular); they made demands on the government that were at times unreasonable; they squandered opportunities to have their voices heard by those who held power; far too often they fought among themselves. (Something that some — such as the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, of which Moaz, one of Cambanis’s central characters, was a member — came to admit only too late.)

Nothing exemplifies the revolutionaries’ pitfalls and failures as well as the ill-fated Tahrir Square sit-in of July 2011. Amid feelings that the revolution had stalled under military rule, the revolutionary groups repaired to their favorite tactic: a tent camp in the center of Cairo. But unlike the initial uprising demanding Mubarak leave the presidency, this time the goals were diffuse and hazy. Protesters called for prosecution of members of the former regime, including hanging Mubarak, but other arguments were presented poorly. The protesters gathered under the conveniently ambiguous slogan “The Revolution First.” Once they were stuck in the square — in the sweltering weather of Cairo in July — they couldn’t back down. Each group was concerned about looking somehow less revolutionary than the others. The sit-in lacked public support and petered out. The memory of the July sit-in, like so much from that decisive year, will likely wither into oblivion. It was one of many missteps. But by focusing a chapter around it (“Stuck in the Square”), by describing the way the revolutionaries argued among themselves and aimlessly checked social media on their iPhones from the center of Tahrir, Cambanis makes clear what exactly went wrong, giving a microcosmic preview of the ways the revolution would falter. Every political organizing meeting in Cairo that devolved into pointless bickering under a cloud of cigarette smoke feels like a tragic missed connection — what if that one had only worked out?

Maybe those are lessons that can be learned for the next time around. Cambanis ends his book discussing the possibility of the revolution continuing in some form, at some point in the future. “The revolution continues,” was a common slogan during the years covered in the book, it was spray painted on walls, uttered in conversations, chanted at protests. It was even the name of a short-lived political party. It’s a hard mantra to keep alive these days. But optimism in itself can be revolutionary. President Sisi’s rule won’t last forever. And when the revolution continues — Egypt’s or any of the many uprisings that Tahrir inspired — a close reading of the history of Egypt from 2011 to 2013 could help the revolutionaries understand how to move forward.

That history shows the lengths to which entrenched elites will go to hold on to power: how they will manipulate, obfuscate, censor, and squash the opposition. At the same time, this recent history demonstrates for would-be revolutionaries the importance not just of learning how to protest and break down structures of power, but how new ones must be built from the ground up. The start of Egypt’s revolution was telegenic and inspiring; its demise, for now, at the hands of General Sisi has been hideous and demoralizing. But it’s important to know what happens between the sunrise and the sunset.


Max Strasser is an associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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.



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.)

Booklist reviews “Once Upon a Revolution”

Posted December 11th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Once Upon a Revolution,Writing

Middle East reporter Cambanis, who writes the “Internationalist” column for the Boston Globe and regularly contributes to the New York Times, offers a gripping portrayal of the forces that led to the eruption in Tahrir Square in Egypt on January 25, 2011. His reporting and analysis also move out from that event, considering a revolution that has not yet ended. He compares this revolution to the French Revolution, a long time coming and a long time continuing. Cambanis’ in-depth examination started, he says, with his on-the-ground reporting during the uprising, finding people in the square who were willing to continue to talk with him. The richness of his reporting informs his book, but it is the narrative nonfiction frame that humanizes the account and makes it more accessible. He focuses on two unlikely revolutionaries: Basem Kamel, a middle-class architect who came late to politics at 40, and Moaz Abdelkarim, a pharmacist and career activist. By tracing Kamel’s and Abdelkarim’s varying backgrounds, Cambanis manages both to give readers two insiders’ views of Egypt in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and to trace the origins of Tahrir Square and its ripples. Cambanis is master of the compelling detail: for example, in relating that Kamel was born in 1937, he notes that this was the year King Farouk I was crowned, a king who ate oysters by the hundred in his palace while his people endured WWII bombings. Wonderfully readable and insightful.

— Connie Fletcher

[Original here.]

Once Upon a Revolution: Kirkus Review

Posted November 18th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


The first review, from Kirkus, of my forthcoming Egypt book is out. I’m excited to imagine people reading this story from the Egyptian revolution.


Smart, troubling study of the events surrounding Tahrir Square and their aftermath.

9781451658996That Cairo landmark is a metonym. As journalist/historian Cambanis (A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, 2010) records in this lucid account of the Egyptian uprising, strategists of the opposition spent much time figuring out just where they could organize protests without being quashed by the country’s well-organized military, setting some of the early demonstrations and meetings in places “where the streets were too narrow for police trucks and water cannons” until momentum grew. It didn’t take long for the revolt to sweep the country, with its crowning day on Jan. 25, 2011. Cambanis profiles ordinary Egyptians who rose up against the Mubarak regime, some out of support for the Islamist cause, others in the hope of secular democracy. Their political divide runs deep. As the author writes of one key actor, “El-Shater didn’t seem to understand how much the liberals hated the Islamists, and how much the revolutionary Islamist youth mistrusted the Brotherhood leadership, himself included.” It is for that reason that the revolution—which, Cambanis reminds us, necessarily involves tumult and violence—remains incomplete. “I fell in love with the Tahrir Revolution,” he writes, “but this love didn’t blind me to its faults.” Still, to judge by this account, those faults are fewer than those of the previous regime, which leaves some hope that the people of Egypt are headed in the right direction—even if the Muslim Brotherhood soon “exposed itself as power hungry and eager to use violent tools of repression to silence opponents.”

A clear exposition and analysis of complex, swiftly changing events. The book gives readers cause to understand why we might support regime change in the Middle East, even if it brings instability and incoherence.

Ashraf Khalil and Wael Ghonim Write the Egyptian Revolution

Posted January 19th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

My review of the two latest Egypt revolution books is up at The Daily Beast. I discuss Wael Ghonim’s memoir and Ashraf Khalil’s reported book about the uprising.

Two books released this month can help us start to make sense of this puzzle, with detailed accounts of the uprising a year ago and some insight into the institutions and attitudes that shape Egypt’s largely conservative society.

The first is a memoir by Wael Ghonim, the celebrated Google executive who helped spark the uprising with a wildly popular Facebook page dedicated to a middle-class kid beaten to death by the police. Ghonim tapped into a demographic that proved crucial to the Egyptian uprising: upwardly mobile college-educated youth frustrated by Egypt’s stagnation but wary of politics and activism.

As he tells his own story, Ghonim is a driven, socially awkward young man—ambitious but almost allergic to fame. His early clandestine ventures online revolve around building a library of religious recordings called IslamWay.com. He’s offered great sums of money but instead quietly donates it to charity, all while he’s still a teenager. In the years around 9/11, he marries and pursues his dream, which has nothing to do with unseating Mubarak’s tyrannical police regime. No, young Wael wants nothing more than to work at Google, a goal he finally achieves in 2008.

For a broader look at Egypt’s transformation, one can turn to journalist Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. Khalil’s illuminating reporting situates the revolt in the stultifying decades that preceded it. (I should mention that Khalil is a friend dating back to the days when we were both based in Baghdad.) He spends nearly half his story on the final decades of Mubarak’s crony rule, detailing the pompous ineptitude of the aging dictator with eternally young hair. And he does an admirable job pulling together the threads of the early dissident and activist efforts rooted in the late 1990s.

By the time Khalil gets to the demonstrations of Jan. 25, 2011, we understand why some Egyptians felt they could no longer “walk next to the wall,” as the proverb instructs, and felt they might as well risk death or imprisonment rather than submit to Mubarak’s capricious police state. But we share the wonder of Khalil, and many of the activists he interviews, who even as they promoted an uprising doubted that Egyptians would join them in significant numbers.

Read the rest in The Daily Beast.

What the Generals Did to Egypt

Posted October 24th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Originally published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, subscription required.]

Review of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, By Steven A. Cook. Illustrated. 408 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95.

On the morning of Feb. 11, 2011, hours before Hosni Mubarak submitted to the millions of his subjects clamoring for his resignation, a half-dozen retired generals sipped coffee poolside at the Gezira Club, kitted up for tennis and contemptuously dismissed the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. “Who do they represent?” scoffed a man who until recently had worked in state security. “They are loud, but don’t forget there are 79 million Egyptians who are not in Tahrir Square. They are the majority.”

It never crossed their minds that Mubarak might capitulate, as he would do later that day, or that the passivity of most Egyptians did not equal support for a regime that had squandered Egypt’s position at the head of the Arab world while excelling only at abuse and corruption. That rank incomprehension — one might less charitably call it arrogant cluelessness — stretched from the coffee klatch at the Gezira Club through the entire government. Yet Egypt had managed to remain a stable linchpin of American policy in the Middle East for decades, until suddenly it wasn’t.

This transformation, along with the internal decline from pride of the Arab world to shameful decaying autocracy, is the subject of Steven A. Cook’s “Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.” The book clearly was in the making long before the uprising.

Cook’s central contention is that since the military coup of 1952, Egypt’s leaders have never had an ideology. Instead, they have resorted to an increasingly complicated and cruel apparatus of coercion, bullying the citizenry into consent but failing to create any positive reason to support the state.

Cook isn’t trying to tell us why Egyptians revolted in 2011, or what might come next, although his perceptive analysis helps answer both questions. His real aim is to diagnose Egypt’s decline and directionlessness in the modern era, from Nasser’s charisma to Mubarak’s dead-man governing act, and to shed light on America’s role. With meticulous historical context and the acumen of a political scientist, Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, weaves together a narrative drawn from archives, interviews and his own firsthand reporting during a decade of visits to Egypt.

His story begins with a quick survey of Egypt’s modern political awakening, an excellent primer for the uninitiated. Egypt first revolted against its colonizers in 1882, ushering in an age of ferment that included a British-dominated monarchy and a religious awakening inspired by the pioneers of the Islamist revival. Corruption flourished, as did ego-driven power struggles within the elite. Disgust began to reach a boiling point in 1948, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officer compatriots fought in Palestine against the newly declared state of Israel. Between the king’s incompetence, the greed of the governing liberals and the Machiavellian scheming of the British, who humiliatingly still occupied the Suez Canal, Egypt’s leaders were doomed.

Nasser’s coup in 1952 threw all the bums out and placed power in the hands of a small group of young, unknown officers, who promised to advance the national interest as impartial technocrats. A charismatic orator, Nasser became the voice and conscience of Arab nationalism, and experimented with reforms that gave land, education and jobs to the peasantry.

Egypt’s people invested great hope in the idea of an apolitical, incorruptible military leadership — a comprehensible but unfounded reflex that prevails again today. The Free Officers tapped a deep and historically grounded wave of rage against foreign interference, a backlash that has never subsided.

Nasser flirted with the Soviets but never embraced Communism. He used the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve power, then ruthlessly crushed the organization when he realized it was becoming too popular to control.

By the time his mismanaged army collapsed in the 1967 war with Israel, Nasser’s reforms had stalled. Anwar Sadat, the weak officer who inherited the presidency in 1970, carved out a power base by gutting what remained of civil society. Sadat relaxed the restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood and encouraged free enterprise, spawning a wealthy new elite that matured into Mubarak’s crony capitalist circle.

Cook does an excellent job telling the story of Sadat’s daring trip to Jerusalem, which quickly and unexpectedly led to the Camp David accords — a peace treaty almost universally reviled in the Arab world, including Egypt. With that one move, Sadat managed to become the darling of the West, while sacrificing almost all his domestic support. Few of his countrymen mourned when he lost his life to an assassin’s bullet in 1981, and his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, assumed power.

The lesson for Mubarak and Egypt’s ruling class was to risk nothing. Gone was Egypt’s sense of destiny as helmsman of the Arab world. Abandoned, too, was the confidence to imagine developmental leaps forward like the Aswan dam.

The joke goes that upon being sworn in, Mubarak took his first ride in the presidential limo. The veteran driver reached a fork in the road. “Nasser always turned left here,” the chauffeur said. “Sadat always turned right. What would you like to do?” After long thought, Mubarak decided: “Just stay where we are.”

Under Mubarak, poverty and inequality leveled off for a time but then began to increase again. The sacrifice of liberties ceased to be a Faustian trade-off for security and economic progress once the government could no longer deliver on bread-and-butter issues. Egypt became little more than a byword for a brutal security state — though one that was a stalwart ally to Washington and Jerusalem.

By the 1990s most of Mubarak’s energy was going into suppressing political dissent and fighting to preserve his special relationship with Washington. He deployed an army of secret police officers and informants that rivaled East Germany’s, infiltrating everything from the doormen’s union to student theater groups. But by 2011, spies, tear gas and heavy-handed repression were not enough to keep him in power.

Readers looking for a full account of this year’s uprising will have to wait for the spate of coming books by journalists, insiders and political analysts. What Cook has given us is a scholar’s well-informed, analytical history, which offers invaluable insights to anyone interested in how Egypt came to its present impasse. “The Struggle for Egypt” is at its best when delivering finely honed details, as when Cook explains the relationship among Egypt, America and Israel. He offers a surprisingly engaging disquisition on Public Law 480, the American “Food for Peace” program that was the progenitor of an unhealthy aid-driven relationship between Washington and Cairo.

But Cook’s storytelling is laced with clichés and hackneyed images (“jaw-­dropping,” “live wire”). This is the kind of book where “the mist off the Nile . . . creates an odd sense of foreboding and anticipation” on the morning of the 1952 coup. (Was it really the mist, or was it the tanks surrounding all the government buildings?) He awkwardly drops characters he has met into his account without any apparent connection to the narrative, only to allow them to disappear a few pages later.

These stylistic hiccups, however, are merely occasional irritants in a substantial and engaging book. Cook knows his material and gets the important points right. His account should be particularly sobering for American readers, who will find in these pages a damning exposition of why United States aid and political influence are currently viewed with such profound suspicion in Egypt.

History offers today’s Egyptian reformers many warnings, most importantly about the danger of an unaccountable, all-powerful military. Egyptians have long suffered from the gap between their leaders’ rhetoric and practice. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak spoke the language of revolution, Arab pride and economic prosperity, but presided over a military welfare state that impoverished its people and ruled through systemic torture. This disconnect will plague anyone who tries to resuscitate Egypt after Mubarak. For if the man who ruled for 29 years, 3 months and 28 days is gone, the dysfunctional, Orwellian system he did so much to create and sustain lives on.