Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Project Launch

Posted November 29th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Introduction to Arab Politics project at The Century Foundation.]

The Arab world continues its intense, long reckoning with new political forces even as authoritarian systems reassert control and some states devolve into violent conflict. The Middle East and North Africa are in the middle of an era of epochal contestation and conflict. Tectonic processes burst to the surface with the popular uprisings of 2010–2011, and continue today, albeit often in less visible forms. The region’s political energies run the gamut from radical and revolutionary to reactionary and repressive, and are engaged in serious efforts to rearrange the map of hard power and governance. At stake is control, legitimacy, and competition between established and emerging ideologies.

Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings,” a multi-year TCF effort supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, studies and charts some of the considerable ongoing political energy that continues to shape the Arab world. Political thought and organization persist even in quiescent or violent times. The regional restoration of authoritarianism has not resolved the pivotal struggle underway, although for the time being it has shifted momentum in favor of the reactionary constituency.

Keeping an Eye on Political Ferment

The reports in this series seek to identify the ideas and mechanics at play in a region where the very essence of governance, state control, and legitimacy, are being contested—by established forces as well as new constituencies empowered since the peak of the uprisings. No longer is Arab politics a slow-moving competition dominated by dictators, monarchs, and organized Islamist parties. Political space is being contested by a host of actors, including empowered bureaucracies and institutional players, wealthy individuals, militants, populist political movements, civil society organizations, journalists, artists, protesters, and others. Generations of repression failed to erase political life, which has sprouted in marginal and at times unexpected spaces. And from some of these other quarters, new thinkers and activists have proceeded to challenge the power of the state, lay their own claims to hard power, and articulate different visions of political life and governance. These energies and movements are by no means always benign or idealistic. Their ideology and goals vary, and they include many actors whose primary focus is the construction of a more resilient authoritarian order. Quite clearly, political energy and aspiration have survived the political uprisings and their short-term defeat; it is less clear in what direction that energy will push the Arab states and whether the reversal of the popular revolts will become permanent.

Nearly six years have passed since much of the Arab world erupted in revolt against an epoch of corrupt authoritarian misrule. Today, the region’s story is largely one of authoritarianism restored or fiercely defending itself in civil wars that are reducing some states to ruin. The optimism of 2011 can feel like a historical artifact, an idealistic, perhaps naïve aspiration built on hope without any firm analytical foundations.

However, the underlying causes of the uprisings for the most part remain unresolved. And political life throughout the region has irreducibly changed, even in places like Syria or Egypt that have suffered pronounced backlash and repression since the peak revolutionary moments of 2011. These changes are not always for the better, and in some cases have quite clearly been for the worse. Yet there are considerable forces at play in the Middle East and North Africa region today, engaged directly in the political sphere as never before. Existing communities and institutions, such as the independent media, have engaged in political discourse and idea creation with renewed vigor. Plutocrats and wealthy individuals, always a key adjunct to ruling regimes, have expanded their political agency. As resurgent authoritarians increase pressure on civil society, political efforts have continued in the human rights and reform communities. In some cases, authoritarian pressure has spawned new, sometimes radical political challenges from political organizers determined to throw off old ideological and sectarian labels. Spaces with traditionally tangential relationships to politics, like fine arts, have become more intensely political as official pressure has silenced politics in traditional venues such as labor unions and television talk shows. Weakened states at war, a sadly prominent feature of the current period of Arab crisis, have also opened new ungoverned spaces. In them, experiments at self-rule and new politics have flared; some are malignant, like the exertions of the Islamic State group, some carry on the inclusive reform rhetoric of the early uprisings, and some fall in between.


This extensive energy—efforts at creation, and the backlash against them; the erosion of state institutions and local initiatives to replace them; fragmented challenges to fragmenting ideologies of legitimacy—characterize a region still in dramatic flux. There is no evidence-based reason to believe that progress is inevitable in the Arab world, any more than there is evidence that it is doomed to an eternity of sclerotic despotism. It is clear, however, that a wide array of experiments are underway that contain a vast quantity of political energy and aspirations.

Better Techniques for Understanding Arab Politics

TCF conceived this project with two primary aims. First, to document with clarity and precision the forces at play in the region, with special attention to under-studied regional interactions, ideological shifts, and political spaces not traditionally associated with the pursuit of hard power or political change. Second, to showcase an approach steeped in granular detail and historical context, so as to record some of the region’s contemporary political history before it fades from living memory. This approach, we hope, will enrich the understanding of policy makers, analysts, and scholars who are rooted outside the region, bring them in closer contact with those from and based in the Arab world, and foster a spirit of communal inquiry and cooperation.

During the last wave of popular uprisings, many close observers of Arab political life, including some of its central participants, were shocked by the widespread popular anger that coalesced in 2010–2011, and by the unexpected potential of people power to bring recalcitrant governments to heel. In fact, much of the thinking and organizing that bubbled into public view during the revolts had long been coalescing, at least in plain enough sight for a few activists and researchers who were interested and receptive.

Many factors contributed to the failure to fully appreciate Arab political dynamics prior to 2010, especially the growing energy and courage of the constituencies willing to oppose government policies. It is easy in hindsight to pinpoint crises or movements that later proved important. One lesson of the uprisings is that it pays for researchers and policy analysts to invest attention in a wide array of political and social actors. Traditional power centers and institutions remained important throughout the peak period of popular revolt, but were joined by a host of suddenly important new entrants to the political arena. Effective research and analysis required quickly adapting to an expanded range of actors. Looking ahead to the coming period of political ferment and contestation in the Arab world, observers, analysts, and policymakers should position themselves to best understand the forces at play and the drivers of instability, transition, and restoration.

Prior to 2010, many observers of Arab politics tracked popular movements and smaller activist efforts, although few expected them to play an important or influential role. Analysts looking for drivers of political instability often discounted activity in marginal or secondary spaces such as the arts, among students and the wealthy, and in civil society. Soft politics and culture were often considered separate and unrelated to the pursuit of hard power, which supposedly only took place in political parties, labor unions, and other spaces traditionally considered the battleground for power. It is not possible to predict which social phenomena will play future roles as drivers of instability or change. These studies should encourage a broad and agnostic analysis of a wide range of political spaces. These contemporary histories and ethnographic reports improve the analytical tools at our disposal and contribute important qualitative data. This is not to suggest that a deeper and more nuanced understanding of political, social, and cultural dynamics will allow for more accurate predictions of coming instability. Instead, as a result of this type of research, analysts might be in a better position to understand the next unexpected political events that occur in the Arab world.

Historical Perspective

The popular uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia sparked a wave of engagement across the Middle East and North Africa, the reverberations of which continue to this day. Throughout 2011, the region was enthralled by bold aspirations for a new dawn of accountable governance, transparency, and rights. It was considered inevitable that an old generation of dictators would be swept away, and it was widely believed that massive change, driven by inchoate people power, would manage to implement revolutionary change without violence or civil strife.

Tunisia alone seems to have charted a relatively positive course. Elsewhere, the best scenarios are where the status quo survived without widespread violence, as in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Morocco. Elsewhere, uprisings were quashed, as in Bahrain; dictatorships returned, as in Egypt; or war decimated the state, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

Human rights monitoring, advocacy, direct action, and documentary journalism all have critical roles to play in holding state power accountable. But none function by design as a pathway to power, or even to reform or change. They are adjuncts, not levers—and certainly not direct sources of hard power. One of the distortions of authoritarianism is that it neuters representative and mobilizing hard-power institutions—labor unions, political parties, and so on—that normally act to check and balance the government. As a result, ill-equipped soft spaces often take up the role of balancing and challenging the state. In authoritarian states, journalists, human rights monitors, and other entities conceived as referees or watchdogs, end up substituting for the opposition, since the state has eliminated all formal rivals. For decades, this set-up neutralized challenges to the state. But the endemic, generational failures of states to deliver on promises of services, security, and citizenship has exposed them to challenges from multiple directions.

We at TCF hope that these studies encourage detail-rich studies that are overtly engaged in policy analysis and addressing the needs of policy makers. Better information about political forces and actors will help shape more effective policy analysis and decision-making. The method and cases chosen are as important as the policy goal. If the community of analysts, academics, policy makers, journalists and others concerned with the political condition of the Arab states is to better understand it, there needs to be an accurate map of the political landscape and the forces at play. Traditional power centers remain pivotal and are often the only elements of the political equation subjected to thorough study and analysis. But as the last few decades have showed, Arab political efforts are underway beyond known spaces such as the military, ruling party, official opposition and labor unions.

This project emphasizes the basic tools of qualitative research, with detailed descriptions, interviews, and contemporary histories that enable comparative analysis. A firmly grounded understanding of what has happened and what is happening today makes the best starting point for any policy analysis about what is to be done and what might happen next. The approach employed in this case can and should be fruitfully extended to other cases, including but not limited to economic actors, burgeoning institutions like the civil defense corps in rebel Syria (known as the White Helmets), initiatives to document history and culture across the region, sports fan clubs, informal groupings of rich individuals, militias, and prisons as incubators of political ideation. This project puts forward analyses based on illustrations that should be useful even to readers unpersuaded by the arguments, and the case studies of enduring use to those who study and observe the Arab region.

Publication of Research

TCF will release research reports produced by the Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings project on our website. The collected project, Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism (edited by Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna), is expected to be published in book form in June 2017 by TCF Press.

Political experimentation and invention survive in unlikely places half a decade after the Arab region erupted in revolt. Attempts to build institutions and ideologies have continued during a period of resurgent authoritarianism and at times amidst violent conflict and state collapse. In this volume, established researchers, new scholars, and active participants in the region’s politics explore some of the spaces where change is still emerging, as well as the dynamic forces arrayed against it.

With rich ethnographic detail, these studies pay special attention to efforts in culture, media, provincial and municipal governance, civil society organizations, and even in social movements whose revolutionary moment might seem to have passed. They explore regional dynamics and the local intellectual history of ideas central to the uprisings, such as secularism, liberalism, and human rights, and the reaction against them. They reveal an Arab region experiencing unprecedented cross-border learning and an unresolved struggle between resilient authoritarian structures and an array of alternative nodes of political power.

Significant political phenomena, whether progressive or reactionary, can be easy to miss in their early stages. These instructive studies can inform policy making that is aware of the varied attempts at social and political change in the Arab world and the forces competing to affect that change, many of which remain overlooked or under examined.

Contributors include Samer Abboud, Khaled Mansour, Nathan J. Brown, Benjamin J. Helfand, Yasser Munif, Asya El-Meehy, Aron Lund, Sam Heller, Cilja Harders, Dina Wahba, Monica Marks, Michael Stephens, Ursula Lindsey, Marc Lynch, Jonathan Guyer, Laura C. Dean, Sima Ghaddar, and Sultan al-Qassemi.

How the Arab Uprisings Left Hezbollah Behind

Posted September 21st, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published in The New Republic.]

Hassan Nasrallah has always been more sophisticated than the caricatured nightmare featured in the breathless propaganda of Hezbollah’s many enemies. Even at his most noxious he usually managed to present himself as a man of principle. That’s why it was almost sad to see Nasrallah this week pandering like an old-time Arab despot to public anger over the misbegotten Prophet Mohammed YouTube clip.

“America, which uses the pretext of freedom of expression needs to understand that putting out the whole film will have very grave consequences around the world,” Nasrallah said at a Hezbollah rally on September 17, one of the exceedingly rare occasions on which he appeared in public since he went into hiding during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. “The world should know our anger will not be a passing outburst but the start of a serious movement that will continue on the level of the Muslim nation to defend the Prophet of God.” Though the message sounds militant, it was actually just a flailing attempt to catch up to developments elsewhere in the region. Hezbollah, which used to set the Arab world’s trends, now finds itself forced to opportunistically jump on the latest global Islamist bandwagon.

In fact, Hezbollah’s embrace of the controversy over the video marks a final stage of its speedy evolution from revolutionary militant resistance movement to Machiavellian establishment power center. Lebanon’s Party of God once literally threw bombs at those who stood in the way of its ideology, attacking powerful enemies like America and Israel as well as smaller rivals at home. Today, Hezbollah represents the very sort of power it used to oppose. It dominates Lebanese politics as the majority party, choosing the prime minister; it commands a formidable standing army; its complicity in domestic political assassinations no longer is credibly debated; and it remains comfortable with its deep, compromised embrace of Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.

There’s no mystery here: Hezbollah has become essentially conservative, fearful of the status of its political interests and financial and military networks. The very fact that Nasrallah felt compelled to risk emerging from his underground safe haven suggests that he fears very seriously for his organization’s future. It’s a remarkable change for a movement that was once confident in its ideological rigor and in its ability to earn unparalleled popular support in the region.

IN THE FIRST two decades of Nasrallah’s stewardship, Lebanon’s Party of God transformed itself from a potent but small militant group, best known for spectacular terrorist attacks, into the driver of the Axis of Resistance, crafting a widely appealing message of nationalism and fearless self-reliance built on an uncompromising opposition to Israel and the United States. Just two years ago, Nasrallah was still crowing about an open war with Israel and was still reaping the political benefit of being seen as the sole Arab leader to stand up to the U.S. and Israel.

Today, of course, his critical patron in Syria is teetering, threatening to vastly curtail Hezbollah’s military power, and his source of money and weapons in Iran is distracted by sanctions, a feeble economy and its nuclear showdown with the West. More importantly, the Arab world is awash in genuine retail politics. Indeed, what ultimately broke Hezbollah’s monopoly on popular legitimacy—what ultimately put the Axis of Resistance to rest as a meaningful political or ideological bloc in the Middle East—were the Arab revolts.

Like any establishment power with too much to lose, Hezbollah has kept a distance from uprisings that empower competitors. Still, there is no denying that those rivals have risen throughout the region; fire-breathers and populists have taken position all along the political spectrum from the Islamist right to the secular-anarchist left.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood embraces many similar views to Hezbollah, without the call to violence and regional war. There are Salafi extremists running political parties, and there are secular nationalists who sound every bit as uncompromising as Hezbollah when it comes to Israel. To round out the picture, there are voices that oppose violence and endorse diplomacy and pluralistic electoral politics, again along all parts of the spectrum (although sadly, they form a minority). Even Hamas, one of the four pillars of the Axis, has quietly quit its alliance with Syria (and its reliance on Iranian money), gambling that a dignified and principled stand against Bashar Al-Assad will pay handsome long-term dividends in popularity and legitimacy.

Hezbollah, however, calculated that it had no such option. The Assad regime has long allowed Syria to serve as Hezbollah’s rear staging area. Weapons transit through the Damascus airport to Hezbollah training camps and depots. In times of war, trucks can ferry all manner of material into Lebanon from safe havens in Syria. Without Syria, Hezbollah could find itself isolated in the tiny confines of Lebanon, where about half the population detests Hezbollah and its project. For now, Hezbollah’s hard power is undiminished, but the future doesn’t look so secure for the Party of God.

And so, backed into a corner, Hezbollah has responded to the radical transformation of Arab politics much like American policy makers, improvising on an ad hoc basis. Hezbollah has doubled down on its anti-Israel and anti-American credentials, but has abandoned the more inclusive nationalistic part of its resistance credo that arguably propelled its meteoric rise and sustained power. Nasrallah used to unabashedly endorse any populist Arab movement that opposed dictatorship at home or Western ambitions abroad. Now, Hezbollah seems to pick and choose the occasions when justice matters: Yes for the Shia of Bahrain, less so for the citizens of Egypt, and not so much for the Sunnis of Syria. When Israel was occupying southern Lebanon or bombing its villages, and U.S.-backed tyrants were oppressing much of the region, the sense of a powerful, monolithic enemy united support behind Hezbollah. The new reality is patently more complex, with none of the old bugbears solely to blame for the Arab world’s woes. Without a villain, Hezbollah’s fundamental recipe for power and legitimacy loses its yeast.

Of course, Hezbollah has never become explicitly or exclusively sectarian. It has managed to maintain a tight, six-year alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, Michael Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. But this has never been an especially durable strategy. The contradictions are profound and irreconcilable. To some, Hezbollah is a pan-Arab guerilla front against Israel. To some it is a dogmatic Shia religious movement that sincerely embraces Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic theology. And to some, it is a shrewd and pragmatic political actor that knows how to make the trains run on time. Yet, it cannot be all of these things at once.

Hezbollah has never been free of such tensions and Nasrallah has always managed to masterfully hold the movement together despite them. As the disconnect has grown wider, however, the false narrative that Hezbollah uses to bridge the gap has grown ever more tenuous. It’s getting harder for even Hezbollah’s most committed supported to believe that Syria’s uprising is a foreign, American-backed plot to massacre innocents, create sectarian strife, and impose Israeli hegemony over the Levant. As the civil war next door spills ever more toxically across the border into Lebanon, claiming lives in Hezbollah’s neighborhoods, it has become impossible to maintain the charade of denial. As the nature of the Syrian regime’s brutality (and the cynicism with which Nasrallah has blessed it) begins to sink in, Hezbollah risks ending up looking more and more like a Shia sectarian movement, just another player in a polarized regional struggle.

If history is any guide, of course, Hezbollah will be nimble and adaptive, and use any circumstances possible to turn a bleak outlook to its advantage. Some holes, however, are too deep to climb out of. The fall of the House of Assad might be one of them. And, judging from his flailing, Nasrallah himself seems to know it.

The Despair of Egypt

Posted December 27th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Read the original post in The Atlantic.]

The state of the revolution in Egypt is today, for me and probably many others watching it closely, cause for rage and despair. The case for despair is obvious: the dumb, brute hydra of a regime has dialed up its violent answer to the popular request for justice and accountability, and has expanded its power. The matter of rage is more complicated: in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries, it was righteous anger — forcefully but strategically deployed — that brought fearsome police states to their knees. The outrages of Egypt’s regime are still on shameless display. The only question is whether the fury they provoke will make a difference.

When we see the Egyptian soldier enthusiastically stripping a female protester while another kicks her abdomen, rage is a natural response. So too when we see soldiers and their plainclothes henchman cheerfully chuck rocks and chairs from a fifth-floor roof, and in at least one case, piss down below on their fellow Egyptians peacefully protesting in front of parliament, drawn to the streets in part because of the dozens of their comrades already killed by the state. Most enraging of all is the self-righteous, imperious lying that accompanies the industrial-scale state abuse of its citizens. General Adel Emara hectored the Egyptian reporters who tried to question him about last week’s outrages in Tahrir Square, including the blue bra sequence.

Like the American generals in the early years of the Iraq occupation who complained that the nay-saying media was telling mean, inaccurate stories about their swimming success, Emara blamed the media. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces was protecting the nation and the demonstrators downtown were spreading chaos. “The military council has always warned against the abuse of freedom,” he said, apparently without irony. In statements this week, the military has incredibly claimed that the bands of hundreds or thousands of unarmed protesters are actually a plot to overthrow the state — a grotesque reversal of the truth.

The new prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, blamed the “counter-revolution” and “foreign elements” for the demonstrations. He also promised no violence would be used against them, even as security forces shot more than a dozen people and beat hundreds of others. No shame here, but perhaps some ulterior plan to discredit protest entirely. An angry response might be the only one possible, the only way potentially to thwart this colossus. Remember the original protests a year ago in Tunisia and Egypt: people billed them as “Days of Rage.”

Why the violence against demonstrators, against women, against foreigners? Apparently the SCAF believes it can intimidate people into submission, that it can succeed where its authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak failed. The death tolls of this year, and the arrest of 13,000 civilians brought before military trial, are measures of the repressive reflexes of the current military rulers. On November 19, police set upon a small group that had camped out on the edge of Tahrir Square, beating them and destroying their tents — and sparking two weeks of street battles that left at least 40 dead and 2,000 wounded. More recently, on December 16 security forces attacked a follow-on protest in front of the parliament building and the ongoing fighting has killed at least 16 people and critically wounded hundreds.

There are few plausible explanations for the recent spasms of violence against nonviolent demonstrators. It’s hard to imagine why state security attacks civilians during periods of calm, sparking new protests and reinvigorating the revolutionary movement. Perhaps the military has a strategy designed to discredit protesters and revolutionary youth, allowing or even engineering street violence which they can then use in the state media to portray activists as hooligans. Or, perhaps, the police and common soldiers have developed such an intense hatred for the demonstrators — who let us remember, succeeded at putting the security establishment on the defensive for the first time in 60 years — that whenever they confront a protest their tempers flare and they lash out.

There’s also a theory that the police, and even some parts of the army, are simply in mutiny, disregarding the SCAF’s orders. Some believe that the SCAF genuinely believes that all protesters are saboteurs, foreign agents, and traitors out to gut the Egyptian state. Some also suggest that the SCAF is simply incompetent, and that each sordid episode of protest, massacre, political agreement, and betrayal is an act in a bumbling melodrama starring a cast of senescent, befuddled generals, most of whom lived their glory days in military study abroad programs in Brezhnev’s Moscow.

Whether there’s a plan or no plan, some of the results are becoming clear. The Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, who dominated the election results so far, have essentially supported the SCAF’s vague schedule to transfer power to a civilian president by summer. Liberals have coalesced around a new demand for a president to be elected immediately and take over by February 11, the one-year anniversary of Mubarak’s resignation. The SCAF has continued its divide and conquer tactics, undermining all dissent in public while meeting in private with politicians from all parties.

All power still rests in the hands of the military, which has designed an incomprehensible transition process clearly engineered to exhaust any revolutionary or reformist movement. (Before Egypt can have a new government with full powers, the military believes there must be a referendum, two elections of three rounds each for a legislature, another referendum on a constitution, and then a presidential election. That doesn’t include runoffs and do-overs.)

Meanwhile there’s a debate underway about who “lost” the revolution, as if the demonstrators and liberal Egyptians could have gotten it right and changed Egypt over the last 12 months. Steven Cook partly blames the protesters for “narcissism” and “navel-gazing,” claiming they lost the opportunity to engage the public because they were too busy on Facebook and Twitter. Marc Lynch writes that the protesters have not captured the imagination of the wider public, though he (correctly) holds the SCAF responsible for bungling the transition so far.

Perhaps the most depressing read this week is a dark and self-critical essay by the revolutionary, blogger, and failed parliamentary candidate Mahmoud Salem, better known by his blog pseudonym Sandmonkey. He now believes that he and his fellow revolutionaries blew a chance to connect with Egyptians during the brief, hopeful moment after Mubarak quit; that, Salem argues, is when people were willing to change. Now that moment of possibility has evaporated.

One common thread runs through these writings, and through much of the critique of the uprising: that the revolutionaries never bothered to try to reach “the people.” There is some truth to that claim. Some of the most talented organizers among the original January 25 revolutionaries quickly turned their focus to party politics. Their efforts might bear fruit within one or two election cycles — five to ten years — but theirs is a dreary and inside job of crafting party platforms, opening branch offices, and recruiting staff and members. Another crucial cadre of revolutionaries were radical by conviction; it was by design, and not by accident, that they invested their energy in street protests and in forging links with labor activists, in order to spread the revolution into the workforce. That’s not to say that the remainder, who number at best a few thousand, didn’t try to engage the Egyptian public; they’ve been trying, but they haven’t been too successful. They go on television, they write newspaper columns, they hold press conferences. In August and September, they put on Revolutionary Youth Coalition road shows, where they went to towns and neighborhoods across Egypt to explain the goals of the protests. Even without a budget, however, they could have done that kind of outreach, in cafes and poor neighborhoods, every week since February 11; instead, much of their time was tied up in Tahrir protests whose utility made less and less sense even to sympathetic Egyptians.

The revolutionary youth alone hold promise for Egypt’s politics of accountability, rule of law, minority rights, and civilian control over the army — the unpopular but important bulwarks of a more liberal order. It would be a mistake to focus too much on public opinion of the protests, or even the gatherings’ size. What matters is their impact. The military, in fact, has set the parameters. Since February, they have scorned those who negotiate with them in good faith at polite meetings. The only concessions the generals have made — including, last month, their agreement to schedule presidential elections a year and a half earlier than they’d originally wanted — came as the result of violent protests in Tahrir Square. Perhaps the revolutionaries found it simple to flood Tahrir in response to every crisis; but it was the generals who taught them that protest was the only tool that actually worked.

So when it comes to blame, save it for the military, the actor driving events and the sole authority responsible for Egypt. The act, now ragged, has the generals pretending to be reluctant rulers, eager to hand over the keys if only a responsible captain would materialize to steer the ship of state. The rest of the players in Egypt merit mere disappointment: the mediocre politicians; the Muslim Brothers who repeatedly passed up the opportunity to take a moral, national position rather than defend their narrow institutional self-interest; the activists who failed to weave a national culture movement in the aftermath of January 25; the Egyptian elites who didn’t invest their money and influence in revolutionary causes; the civil servants and state institutions that slavishly serve whoever is in power; and Washington, which has utterly failed to persuade its billion-dollar welfare ward, the SCAF, to behave responsibly.

Is Egypt’s revolution dead, beguiled by its own hype, endlessly occupying and fighting over meaningless patches of pavement while the rest of the country forgets about their utopian aims? “Symbols are nice, but they don’t solve anything,” Mahmoud Salem writes. “There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people. … Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table.”

Can persistent revolt eventually beget genuine revolution, like wind carving a valley through granite? I’m of two minds. The women’s marches this week fill me with hope. With determination and creativity, Egyptian women flooded the streets to shame their oppressors and reclaim the righteous narrative fraudulently hijacked by the SCAF. “Egypt’s women are a red line,” they chanted, and for once, the SCAF issued a formal apology. But another recent encounter, a private one, fills me with despair. A man I’ve known for some time, who used to work in the tourist trade and whose financial well-being teeters precariously between Spartan and destitute, confided in me that he saw only one option to provide for his children in the new Egypt: to rob an armored truck. At first I thought he was kidding, but he was not. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I have a plan. No one will get hurt. The bank can afford to lose the money. I will be able to be strong again for my children.”

I hope I dissuaded him, but for my friend and presumably many like him, this year of political turbulence has been more terrifying than inspiring, for reasons only tenuously connected to the SCAF’s abuses, the missed opportunity for a cultural revolution, or the birth of a new Arab politics. The junta’s propaganda habitually describes critics as unpatriotic, counter-revolutionary, or “not Egyptian,” eager to present a uniform mold of the “true Egyptian.” On the contrary, however, the proud marching women and the marauding soldiers are all Egyptian, just like the perplexed revolutionaries and the would-be bank robber. All of them will be aboard for the voyage.

6 Key Questions on Egypt’s Escalating Violence

Posted November 22nd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Many questions and mysteries as the military, police, and demonstrators wrangle over Egypt’s future; much too much that we don’t know, especially about who controls the police, and how the military makes decisions.

Does public opinion (or the silent majority) matter? The commentariat in Egypt and abroad places a lot of weight on the public opinion that is skeptical of protest, and always was — before January 25, during the initial uprising, and now. These voices, which are loud and important in Egypt, are apt to believe official protestations of “foreign agents,” “hidden hands,” or “secret agendas,” and quick to blame protests for destabilizing the country or hurting its economy, even if there’s no evidence to support that belief. While this view gets trotted out a lot, especially on Egyptian state television, it’s unclear whether it represents a force with any power in Egypt. This year, only a few forces have had any effect at all on politics: the army, the police, the ex-ruling party, the Islamists, and persistent street protesters. Arguably, liberal and other organized political parties have played a bit role. Note that none of these actors represents a huge swathe of society, with the exception of the Islamists. All of them have shaped events this year.

Read the whole thing at The Atlantic.

The End of Egypt’s Revolution, or the Start of Its Second?

Posted October 28th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Originally published here in The Atlantic.]

CAIRO, Egypt — Mina Daniel’s mother slumped over his coffin, sobbing and imprecating him one final time.

“We were supposed to be going to your wedding,” she keened, slapping her face and thighs in grief. Before he was killed, her son had assured her he would fine. “Don’t be afraid of the shooting, they are just trying to scare us,” he told her.

Mina, 25, was killed on October 9 outside Maspero, the headquarters of Egyptian state television and the symbol of the dictatorship’s propaganda leviathan. According to his autopsy, one bullet smashed the back of Mina’s head while another entered his shoulder, ripped through his lungs, and exited his back. He died within moments, but has fast become the symbol of what Egyptian activists hopefully call “the second revolution.”

His mother, Nadia Faltas Beshara, grieved as any mother would. She covers her head and speaks with the inflection of Upper Egypt, where she lived before moving to a working-class suburb north of Cairo where many poor Christians live. She is a stark riposte to the false claim that Egypt’s revolutionaries are feckless bourgeois, armchair socialists.

The dominant storyline to emerge in the weeks after the Maspero Massacre is that it marks the beginning of the end of Tahrir Square. The military has shed its inhibitions about using violence against the people, according to this pessimistic view, while a great number of Egyptians has proved ready to believe official propaganda and willing to organize flash sectarian lynch mobs at the beck and call of state television.

There’s another way of reading these events though, and it’s the one favored by Nadia Faltas and by the many friends of Mina Daniel.

“The government engineered this to divide us,” Nadia Faltas said even in the freshest hours of her mourning. With no self-consciousness, she has embraced the galvanizing role of the martyr’s mother.


Khaled’s mother with Mina’s mother / Cambanis

She has appeared in Tahrir Square and at other demonstrations with the mother of Khaled Said, the young man beaten to death by police in the summer of 2010, apparently in retribution for his efforts to publicize police brutality. The regime laughed off the weekly 2010 protests over Khaled Said’s killing, but within six months those small protests, and the Facebook pages connected to them, sparked the Tahrir Square uprising.

That is the model that Mina Daniel’s friends invoke as they contemplate his death and the sheer unmediated brutality with which it was meted out. In front of Maspero, 27 civilians were killed and according to the military some number of soldiers that it is keeping secret “in order to protect the feelings of the nation.”

“Mina’s death has now put a burden on us. His blood is on our necks,” his friend Kareem Mohammed, 20, said a week after the massacre, at a strategy meeting of the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom, the grassroots group of which Mina was a member. “We have to achieve what he dreamed of, a united nation free of military rule.”

Religious Copts sometimes come across as parochial and chauvinistic, concerned primarily with the oppression of their church. But Mina transcended that narrow categorization. He fought against military trials for civilians, and took part in all the major stages of the uprising against Mubarak’s regime. During the initial uprising, he was shot in Tahrir Square and struck in the head with rocks. He contested the institutionalized discrimination that prevents Copts from freely building churches, but he exhorted members of his sect to engage in the broader political struggle against authoritarian rule.

Many of Mina’s close friends were Muslims. After he was shot but before he died, he said he wanted his funeral to pass through Tahrir. Late on Monday night, after his autopsy and a rousing mass at the Abbasiya Cathedral, several hundred of Mina’s friends marched several miles back to Tahrir Square with his coffin. They ignored a few toughs who pelted them with rocks along the way.

•       •       •       •       •
That Sunday night has seared visceral, unforgettable images on the minds of Egyptians of a certain conscience. Slowly, indefatigably, it is steeling them for another revolution. Regardless of whether they succeed, the October 9 Maspero Massacre will mark a turning point in Egypt’s uprising.

On that Sunday, a march for the rights of Christians converged with a sit-in in front of Maspero, the squat concrete labyrinth that holds the headquarters of state television. Symbolically, it is the lungs of the regime, where its noxious but effective televised propaganda is authored. Among them were many revolutionary youth activists, hardly Coptic chauvinists, and Muslims who supported the protesters call for religious freedom and equality.

In short order, shots rang out. Plainclothes thugs milled among the demonstrators. Eyewitnesses saw men in civilian clothes shooting from passing vehicles. Military Police turned on the crowd. An armored personnel carrier drove over unarmed demonstrators, its driver appearing to hunt them down. State television reported — erroneously, without evidence, and possibly with malignant intent — that Christian mobs had attacked army conscripts. Announcers and officers summoned “honorable Egyptians” to Maspero to defend the army.

Lynch mobs quickly swarmed downtown. “The Muslims are here, where are the Christians?” they chanted. Christian men and women were beaten. The military police did nothing to control the murderous disorder for nearly six hours. Only after midnight did the army — which doesn’t technically need help from unruly thugs armed with swords and sticks — reestablished control of the streets, finally allowing Christians to take their wounded to the Coptic hospital on Ramses Street without fear of attack.

•       •       •       •       •
The aftermath, as so often here, has begun to seem even more important than the event itself, with all the traumas it ignited and reignited. Egyptians hadn’t seen such violence against peaceful demonstrators since the Battle of the Camels on February 2, a farcical and deadly dispatch to Tahrir of poor, paid thugs, many on horseback and some leading the camels they normally plied for the tourist trade in Giza. The Camel Battle exposed the regime’s venality and turned the tide in favor of Tahrir: a mafia move that backfired. Activists hope that Maspero will do the same, although there are unanswered questions that are cause for a more generalized fear.

To the demonstrators, it’s clear what happened.

“Tantawi is dealing with the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis and it will hurt the Christians,” said Nabil Mansoor, a psychologist who accompanied his friends to the hospital to pick up their son, who had been beaten on Sunday but has escaped with scabs on his forehead and a sprained shoulder. “They want the Copts to leave Egypt. They want ethnic cleansing like in Bosnia.”

The military has been tightening the screws of censorship while peddling a brew of lies, delusion, paranoia and justification. General Adel Emara said it simply wasn’t military doctrine to run people over, even though Egyptian police have been known to do so as a crowd-control technique. At a briefing intended to exculpate the army, Emara and another general showed the video of the predator-APC chasing down and crushing people to death; most of the viewers already had seen photos of the young teenage boy, his skull crushed into a lopsided cartoon shape but his face still intact. General Emara had a cosmically diametric interpretation of the APC video; the driver, he said, was trying to escape the frightening crowds — not to kill them. Of course, the general added, it was possible that a Christian fanatic had hijacked the APC and then killed his fellow marchers in order to incite anger against the military leadership. Among such claims — which offend logic — the military sprinkled dark accusations of a “hidden hand” at work, a favored rhetorical trope of Mubarak’s time. It reeked of misdirection, or worse.

“We are not circulating conspiracy theories, but there is no doubt that there are enemies of the revolution,” General Mahmoud Hegazy said.

As testimonies are collected and documentary evidence is amassed, and as time passes and the details and chronology come more clearly into focus, there is the stark suggestion of a hidden hand at work, though: the old secret police and their legions of minions.

Thousands of angry armed men materialized almost instantaneously the night of the Maspero killings. Some of the bullets collected by protesters appear not to be of standard military type. It’s entirely possible that the protesters and the military both are telling the truth — and that the violence was orchestrated by the veteran provocateurs and thugs who for the last two decades have unleashed themselves, with police permission, on political dissidents time and time again.

If this is the case, the revolutionaries and the military rulers have a common enemy: the feloul, or “remnants” of the ex-regime, who would be just as unhappy to lose power to a military dictatorship as to an elected civilian government.

•       •       •       •       •
Ola Shabha, a leader of Mina Daniel’s youth movement, helped organize a detailed rebuttal to the military presentation on Maspero. She’s collecting evidence, but more importantly, she’s using the incident as a catalyst for her peers.

“We can’t take our eyes off the bigger issue. The military is leading us toward fascism, especially by manipulating minorities,” Shabha told an emergency gathering of Youth for Justice and Freedom. Mina’s friends, most of them barely in their twenties argued about the most effective way to rebound from his death, and the murky massacre of which it was part. The room was filled with smoke, and some of the activists had tears in their eyes. After four hours of argument, they agreed to fight on in two arenas — within the system, they would run candidates for parliamentary elections; against the system, they would stage memorials as protests, hoping sympathy for the slain Che Guevara-look-alike would turn public opinion against the state and toward the revolution.

In the weeks since, Mina’s friends, and many who never met him, have held candlelight vigils across Cairo. Not just in Tahrir, but in other downtown squares like Talaat Harb, and far from the city center in rundown neighborhoods like Ezbet El-Nakhl at the end of the subway line.

“We have to go back to the streets and work with everybody, regardless of ideologies,” said Hossam Hafez, another Justice and Freedom activist. “Otherwise, tomorrow, the day after, we’ll all be Mina Daniel. Our nerves are strained, we’re empty handed nine months after the revolution. This is the only way to regain it.”

Some pre-Maspero Thoughts

Posted October 12th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Which way is Egypt’s revolution heading, and what is the ongoing military dictatorship doing? I wrote the following at the end of last week, before Sunday night’s killings at Maspero. Read with that in mind. The moment is a glum one, with the increasing evidence that the ruling junta won’t hesitate to use the most crude and violent methods of Mubarak and his predecessors. The military council has kept its goals opaque. None of this assessment is intended to be predictive. Egypt’s uprising already has defied unbelievable odds, and there’s no reason to think it will fail to change the system at this point, after only eight months. But there’s also no reason to think the old regime won’t fight for its own survival.


•       •       •       •       •

CAIRO, Egypt — The enraged crowd had a target: the satellite television transmission truck parked at the edge of Tahrir Square, by the Hardees. “Get out, get out!” screamed a hundred men, while the most agitated swarmed the truck, pounding it with their open palms. A half-dozen toughs fended them off. One brandished a pocket taser. Why, I asked a bystander, did this mob want the television signal silenced?

“Some channel broadcast there were only a few hundred people in Tahrir,” he explained. “We can’t have that.”

Except, of course, that it was true. This past Friday, October 7, was “The Friday of ‘Thank you, now please return to your barracks.'” It was intended as riposte to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which of late has reinstated many of the most decried and oppressive practices of the late Mubarak regime, and capped off its assertion of junta power with a grand martial celebration on Egypt’s national holiday to observe the victory against Israel on October 6, 1973.

The activists are terrified and energized, but the wider public does not seem to share their fears. So Tahrir, from Friday to Friday, seems emptier and emptier. What that proves is an entirely different question, but it is an observable fact that elicits anxiety to the Tahrir revolutionaries and satisfaction among supporters of the military council.

Revolutionary demonstrators are angry, and afraid their gains are slipping away. And like many Egyptian political players, they are not all instinctively liberal, as evidenced by the flashmob that would rather tear up a TV truck than admit that, this one time, state television was telling the truth about the paltry protest turnout.

I saw similar explosions of anger from skeptics of the revolution (or maybe just average, apolitical citizens) irritated by the disruptions caused by labor strikes. Workers are demanding living wages, and some of them are overtly trying to keep the revolutionary spirit alive while pressuring the regime, which at most levels has preserved the exact same stifling policies and personnel that Mubarak put in place.

In downtown Cairo, stranded commuters cursed the bus drivers, who are on strike because they want to earn a base salary higher than $100 a month. I was stranded overnight at the Luxor Airport after air traffic controller shut down Egypt’s airspace, and I heard travelers rail against the pampered workers who, emboldened by the revolution, were now heedlessly and selfishly inconveniencing their fellow Egyptians.


•       •       •       •       •

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Egypt’s January 25 Revolution is being eaten alive. It’s too soon to write it off, and too soon to predict that a full-fledged military dictatorship will rule the country for the foreseeable future; but that grisly outcome now is a solid possibility, perhaps as likely an outcome as a liberal, civilian Egypt or an authoritarian republic.

Eight months after a euphoric wave of people power stunned Egypt’s complacent and abusive elite, it’s possible to see the clear outlines of the players competing to take over from Mubarak and his circle, and to assess the likely outcomes. The scorecard is distasteful. The uprising — it can’t yet be fairly termed a revolution — forced the regime to jettison its CEO, Hosni Mubarak, in order to preserve its own prerogatives.

In the last two months, that regime has made clear how strong it feels. In September, in quick succession the military extended the hated state of emergency for another year, effectively rendering any notion of rule of law in Egypt meaningless; unilaterally published election rules that favor wealthy incumbents and remnants of the old regime, and that disadvantage new, post-Mubarak competitors; indefinitely postponed presidential elections, and refused any timetable for handing over authority to a civilian; reinstated full media censorship, threatening television stations and imposing a gag order on all reporting about the military; and the country’s authoritarian ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, unleashed a personal public relations campaign on state television odiously reminiscent of Mubarak’s image-making. Furthermore, the government advanced its investigation of “illegal NGOs” that allegedly took foreign money, including virtually every important and independent dissident organization.

Taken together, these moves show a military junta fully confident that it can impose measures of control as harsh — or, in the case of widespread military trials for civilians, harsher — than those employed by Mubarak.

Politically, the military council might seem incoherent, habitually announcing extreme positions and then undoing them after the next street protest, but the overall arc is unmistakable, if hopefully not inexorable.

The soundtrack for the SCAF and its millions of supporters in Egypt (because let’s not forget, the old regime had its loyalists and there are many more who remain convinced by state propaganda that the January 25 uprising was a plot against Egypt) could be the song from the satirical film Bob Roberts: “The Times they are a-changing back.”

Former ruling party members have regrouped. They have lots of cash and experience, and plan to run aggressively in the parliamentary elections that begin in just seven weeks, on November 28.

Meanwhile, the opposition to Mubarak is as fragmented as ever. The revolutionary zeal of Tahrir Square has flagged. Many of the most determined activists from January 25 have invested themselves in electoral politics, which they know is a long game. They’ve committed to build real political organizations, but it’s not clear how good they’ll be at doing so, or how quickly they can accomplish it.

The Muslim Brotherhood and a few tarnished, coopted official opposition parties like the Wafd already had nationwide organizations when Mubarak fell. The rest — the people who actually took to the streets in January — are struggling to make meaningful inroads and to learn the business of politics.

The Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which includes all the most credible groups from January 25, is trying this week to forge a unified slate of parliamentary candidates. But even if they’re wildly successful they won’t convince the crucial Islamists to join them.

With no experience of participatory politics, the parties are having to learn much too quickly, in a burning crucible. In September, leaders of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition accepted an invitation to meet with the head of state intelligence. The official, they said, tried to explain the government’s efforts to both secure the nation and to improve basic rights, and that the activists responded with their own demands for more reform. They deliberately publicized the meeting — and were then roundly rebuked by many of their own followers as sellouts.

A more extreme exercise in political trial-by-fire occurred the last weekend of September. The leading political parties negotiated with the military council over the authoritarian and opaque election law. They wrested some key concessions from the junta, including limits on former ruling party members running for office and a rule change that will allow political parties to run candidates for “independent” seats. But the final communiqué signed by the party heads included nothing solid about ending the state of emergency, retrying the civilians convicted in military courts, or most importantly, transitioning to civilian rule. In fact, the agreement between the political parties and the military left open a scenario in which a new civilian president won’t take office until 2013, more than two years after the Tahrir Square protests began. More woundingly, it included a sycophantic blessing to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

As soon as the document was published, there was an uproar. The leader of the liberal Adel Party rescinded his signature. The Egyptian Social Democrats, who had only tentatively endorsed it, eventually signed but only after several influential members resigned in protest. The agreement was widely viewed with disgust. Some pundits suggested that the activists were struggling to adjust to the messy give and take of politics. A more accurate analysis would say that the party leaders got snookered by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, signing a document when they could have trumpeted the concessions they won while pushing for more. Even more importantly, the parties got a lesson in accountability politics that will mark the more adaptive among them like a cattle brand. Even revolutionary politicians aren’t used to representing real constituents, who speak up, and speak up loud, when they don’t like their leaders’ decisions.

The September fiascos are a snap clinic in electoral politics, and are taking place in hothouse where rule of law and liberalism are at best tenuous aspirations. Revolutionary activists who profess to value liberalism and rule of law see no irony, and no danger, in calling for the application of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1950s Treason Law to block the return of the Mubarakistas. They forget, or ignore, that Nasser used that law to shut down political life entirely, and that criminalizing the “pollution of public life” endangers anyone who disagrees with the powers that be.

Time is short until elections, and recent events have established that the military controls the process, whatever it might be. That process changes from week to week; the uncertainty and backtracking and vagueness increasingly look like a strategy by the junta to keep everyone else off balance and maximize the divisions among any pretenders to authority.

It’s possible that the military doesn’t want a return of the old regime — perhaps because it has begin to enjoy the prospect of keeping for itself all the power that it accrued when Mubarak went away.

Outside the Coptic Hospital

Posted October 10th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

This was the view from the 6 October overpass, looking down at Ramses Street just before midnight. Reporters saw 17 (or 16) bodies in the morgue in the Coptic Hospital there, some shot dead, others killed by being run over. Crowds surging toward the hospital from the direction of Tahrir Square chanted “Islamiya, Islamiya!” Many were carrying truncheons. They threw rocks. The people in front of the hospital threw rocks back. A bus burned, its engine parts and tires exploding every few moments while black smoke belched upward. Four cars were burning as well. Around midnight, the warring sides merged and began chanting “Muslims, Christians, one hand.” It was near impossible to approach the hospital itself. After I left, the military apparently deployed to the street, more than four hours after violence broke out.



Hezbollah after Bashar

Posted September 23rd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah supporters have been watching the turbulence next door in Syria with apprehension. Rhetorically, the Lebanese Party of God has backed its patron in Damascus, although its embrace has grown tepid of late. But Hezbollah was worried enough to shift its weapons caches from Syria into Lebanon, reportedly, and its emissaries have been working behind the scenes to mend relations with Syria’s opposition. At the core of their worry is a sectarian concern: Syria without Bashar al-Assad might be willing to jettison Hezbollah — after all, Syria is a majority Sunni nation, and Hezbollah is a Shia standard-bearer.

“The Islamists who are fighting against Bashar Assad are not going to support us if they take power,” one Hezbollah partisan told me recently in Lebanon. “They might believe in resistance against Israel, but they won’t support our resistance.”

If, or more likely when, Assad’s government finally falls to the uprising that has shaken Syria for more than half a year, its successor will renegotiate Syria’s regional relationships. Assad’s long-time friends and clients have good reason to feel insecure. A more democratic Syria would represent the country’s Sunni majority, which includes a fair number of Islamists. They likely won’t share all the priorities of Assad’s brutal minority regime, whose commitment to secular government conveniently justifies its manic clinging to absolute authority.

A Syria led in part by the Muslim Brotherhood, or by a confederation of anti-Assad forces, would probably continue to support resistance movements that fight Israel, and would likely continue relations with Iran (and, possibly, pursue warmer relations with Iraq). But it might be less vested in the ideological absolutism of the existing “Axis of Resistance,” led by Hezbollah and Iran, and more interested in a new Arab nationalist front, which could unite Egypt, the Palestinians, and other post-dictatorial Arab states in an alliance that opposes Israel and some American projects from a less bellicose footing.

The threat to Hezbollah is tangible, and has broad regional implications.

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

Egypt: Now What? (in The Guardian)

Posted August 14th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Youth activists Moaz Abd El-Kareem, Sally Moore and Mohammed Abbas. Photo: Platon (Human Rights Watch)

On a sweltering night shortly before the start of Ramadan, the Muslim Brotherhood convened a political rally in the Nile Delta town of Shibin El-Kom. Most Cairenes wouldn’t even drive through the capital of Monufiaprovince unless they had family there. Agriculture is the only business in this marshy area at the start of the maze of canals and river branches that marks Egypt‘s breadbasket. The peasants, or fellaheen, who till the land are religious, nationalistic and socially conservative. The elites who rule Egypt have their roots in such places – the previous two presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, were born in Monufia – but once in power dismiss them as backwaters. Among the nation’s power players, though, the Muslim Brothers are an exception; their leadership comes largely from the educated working classes and boasts an easy familiarity with the fellaheen.

The rally in Shibin El-Kom officially launched the parliamentary election campaign of the Muslim Brotherhood’s new political wing, the Freedom And Justice party. Informally, the Islamists were striving to distinguish themselves from the revolutionaries who had upended the country’s crusty political order in January and who were again occupying Tahrir Square – and naming the Muslim Brotherhood among their counter-revolutionary enemies. Activists had set up a utopian tent city in Cairo’s central plaza, trumpeting their vision for a civil state and decrying the fact that half a year after Mubarak’s resignation the nation was still governed by a military dictatorship. After a month in the square, however, they were drawing fewer people every day, their message drowning in a stream of dictates from an increasingly nasty Military Council and criticism from increasingly acerbic Islamists.

The scene couldn’t have looked more different in the Delta. The Brotherhood had selected for its rally a dirt track off the town’s main bypass. Several thousand people, mostly professionals, merchants or farmers, came with their families; volunteers were encouraged to donate blood at ambulances. On stage, party leaders paid tribute to the local families of the martyrs of the revolution – protesters killed in January and February – then moved on to business. A women’s committee chief outlined the jobs women held in the party; a farmer spoke about its agricultural cooperatives. Finally, party head Mohammed Morsy gave a rousing speech. “The people gave their revolution to the military to protect,” he thundered. “The only legitimacy in this country today comes from the people.” In closing, he ordered his audience to demonstrate the party’s discipline and breadth in their neighbourhoods – by picking up the garbage.

Six months after Mubarak surrendered to millions of Egyptians, the same generals still rule. Arbitrary detention and allegations of torture are commonplace, if less widespread than before. State media still demonises critics of the junta, and the military – without public consultation – will decide exactly what process is supposed to lead to democratic elections and a civilian government. Reformers and revolutionaries fear the military, stronger now than under Mubarak, will outmanoeuvre them. And they fear Islamists will sweep the elections and control the writing of a new constitution, leading to a democratic Egypt that’s neither secular nor liberal.

In short, the problem is this: idealistic revolutionaries dream of an Arab democracy that reflects popular values but opens its arms to Muslims, Christians and people who want a secular state. But they look outgunned by the religious right, which wants majority rule, and whose force was apparent on the last Friday in July when a million people flooded Tahrir Square demanding “Islamic state, not civil”. Above the fray, the generals rejoiced: the more profound the divisions between Islamist and secular opposition, the better for them.

The summertime scenes in Tahrir Square belie the sense that the revolution is increasingly marginalised and under threat. At its core, the revolution represents a force that is much more willing to criticise authority, and tolerate diversity, than perhaps mainstream public opinion. The original throngs that fought riot police drew on at least three major and messily overlapping constituencies. First were the activists – organisers of all political and religious stripes who had come to trust each other over years of strikes, tiny protests and mass arrests. Second were the politicised people previously afraid to challenge the regime but who brought to the protests a distinct agenda – labour unionists, socialists, liberal NGO workers and more conservative religious activists. Finally, there were the hundreds of thousands of angry and apolitical Egyptians sick of Mubarak’s police state.

Read the rest in The Guardian Weekend.

Mubarak on Trial

Posted August 3rd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Work,Writing

Lots of good copy out of Cairo on the opening day of Mubarak’s trial. What a sight! The indispensible leader on a hospital bed, in a cage, flanked by his sons and six of his top cops. Anthony Shadid captures the scene gracefully (and his set-up piece is also worth reading).

WNYC’s The Takeaway had me on this morning to talk about the trial; you can listen here.


WBUR’s Here & Now talked to Mahmoud Salem (author of the Sandmonkey blog) and then me at noon Eastern time, mainly about the prospect and peril of Egypt’s revolution turning to violence.

Mubarak Trial: Justice or Revenge?

Posted August 3rd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Hosni Mubarak liked to imply that he united otherwise ungovernable Egyptians under his rule by sheer force of will. As he makes his debut in the defendant’s cage on Wednesday (a barbaric if quite photogenic tradition of the Egyptian justice system), he is bringing together a fractious coalition of Egyptians but not in the manner he intended: baying for his blood.

The most important question, though, isn’t whether Mubarak pays for his past deeds with his life, but how he pays, and for which of his regime’s alleged misdeeds.

A surprising number of people across the spectrum of class and political persuasion told me they’d like to see the dirtiest laundry of Mubarak’s reign aired at trial, followed by a cathartic public execution.

“I want him to hang in Tahrir Square,” a car parts dealer in the Cairo neighborhood of Boulaq told me, adding something blush-worthy about what he’d do to Mubarak if he could get his hands on the former president, which ended with the phrase “I’d make him my bride.”

With more sophisticated language, the revolutionary groups that until recently occupied Tahrir Square have made justice for Mubarak a central demand. Even the military presently ruling Egypt seems to have decided to cast its former chief to the wolves. The judiciary, some of whose key members owe their positions to Mubarak, have expediently and belatedly lent their support to a quick, public trial, perhaps realizing it is the key to their own future viability.

Families of martyrs circulate Tahrir Square demanding an accounting of their missing relatives, like Sayed Goma, 52, who has carried a portrait of his missing teenage son around his neck for the last six months. Nearly crazed with grief, Goma has quit his job as a driver, and talks incessantly of vengeance. “I want them all to go to hell,” he says of Mubarak and his entire ruling apparatus.

But this most unifying demand – that Mubarak be tried for the deaths of 846 or more Egyptians during the uprising that began on January 25 – avoids a reckoning of three decades of complex, nefarious and corrupt authoritarian misrule. A thorough accounting of the Mubarak era would require investigations and likely prosecutions for rampant torture, extrajudicial detention, manipulation of elections, state-sanctioned distortion, blackmail and infiltration of civic institutions ranging from universities and labor unions to professional syndicates and religious organizations. Then there’s the nearly ubiquitous corruption of economic life, in which the first-hand role of Mubarak’s family and inner-circle would barely amount to a prologue.

A sound and thorough judicial inquiry into all these abuses might take years, and certainly would require a renaissance in Egypt’s legal system, which still enjoys wide respect but has been tarnished by decades of crony appointments and arbitrary laws issued by Mubarak and regularly whitewashed by some quarters of the judiciary. It also would require the presumption of innocence for Mubarak, and at least the possibility of guilt for others, including senior military officers, currently enjoying full freedom.

How Mubarak is tried is just as important as what he is tried for. If the former president is charged only for the killing of demonstrators in 2011, or for the illegal enrichment of his nuclear family, the proceedings will tacitly condone the authoritarian system that Mubarak built and the excesses it promoted. Similarly, if the judicial process reeks of vengeance (or to the contrary, if it gives the former president a free pass), it will fail to pave the way toward a new standard of rule of law in Egypt.

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

A Call to Arms

Posted August 1st, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Read the original in The Boston Globe.]

CAIRO – When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned after 18 days of public demonstrations here last winter, Tahrir Square instantly took its place in the world’s iconography of peaceful protest. Young men and women brandishing nothing more lethal than shoes and placards had toppled a dictator. One subversive slogan – “The people want the fall of the regime” – in the mouths of a million people overpowered a merciless police state.

It was not bloodless; some 846 people were killed by police and regime thugs, according to an Egyptian government inquiry. But for the protesters, and for people watching around the world, Egypt’s uprising appeared a heartening entry in the history of successful nonviolent movements stretching from Gandhi and Martin Luther King to the “velvet revolutions” that unraveled the Iron Curtain in 1989.

That was half a year ago. Today, Mubarak’s military council runs the country, wielding even more power than before when it had to share authority with the president’s family and civilian inner circle. The military has detained thousands of people after secret trials, accused protesters of sedition, and issued only opaque directives about the country’s path toward a constitution and a new elected civilian government.

As time passes and revolutionary momentum fades in the broader public, a new current of thought is arising among the protesters who still occupy Tahrir Square, demanding civilian rule and accountability for former regime figures. Many are now asking an unsettling question: What if nonviolence isn’t the solution? What if it’s the problem?

“We have not yet had a true revolution,” said Ayman Abouzaid, a 25-year-old cardiologist who has taken part in every stage of the revolution so far. At the start, Abouzaid wholeheartedly embraced nonviolence, but now believes that only armed vigilante attacks will force the regime to purge the secret police and other operatives who still retain their jobs from the Mubarak era. “We need to take our rights with our own hands,” he says.

Among the dedicated core of Egyptian street activists who have been at the forefront of the protests since the beginning, an increasing number have begun to argue that a regime steeped in violence will respond only to force. Egypt’s revolution appeared nonviolent, they argue, only because it wasn’t a revolution at all: it was a quiet military coup that followed the resignation of the president. They cast a glance at nearby Syria and Libya, still racked by sustained violent revolts against their authoritarian leaders, and wonder if that may be what a true revolution looks like.

Leftist political thinkers have turned to the history of the French and Russian Revolutions to argue that a full break from Egypt’s authoritarian past will ultimately require the use of force against the regime. Rank-and-file activists in Tahrir Square invoke a more visceral rule of power, pointing out that riot troops and secret police agents will yield only to the raw strength of popular confrontation.

Egypt’s trajectory is also raising a bigger question about revolutions: Is the modern view of regime change naive and inaccurate, reading too much into the uprisings that swept Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union? Perhaps these swift and largely peaceful overthrows of former Communist regimes are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to revolution. And if that’s true, Egypt and the other countries driving the Arab Awakening might be heading not toward something better, but something worse.

Nonviolence was philosophically at the heart of Egypt’s revolution since the beginning, and it’s part of why Tahrir Square appealed not only to millions of Egyptians but to so many in the West. January 25 fit nicely on a bumper sticker, signifying a gentle, acceptable kind of popular uprising for the modern age.

But some in Egypt – even among those who don’t want to see a more violent turn now – are already saying we need to see last winter’s events differently. The days that led to Mubarak’s fall were starkly violent, they point out, and the youth who battled their way into Tahrir Square in January did so by overpowering riot police with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

“We did use violence, but we never started violence,” says Alaa Abd El Fattah, an influential labor activist and blogger who has been organizing teach-ins and impromptu conferences on his country’s future. He has pushed a less utopian narrative of the revolution’s origins, although he still believes that protesters today need to remain nonviolent to achieve their goals.

Recent events, however, have convinced some revolutionaries to feel otherwise. Since Mubarak resigned in February, the military has taken charge of internal security and run the show with the same caprice and impunity that characterized the reign of Mubarak’s secret police. Little headway has been made on the demand that unifies protesters and the Egyptian public – that police officers who killed or abused civilians under the old regime be removed from their jobs and held accountable. Egyptian citizens who express political dissent are still routinely denounced on state-run television as foreign agents and spies. And on June 28, the riot police deployed for the first time since Mubarak left office, and with apparent relish pummeled demonstrators with tear gas, birdshot, and plastic bullets. YouTube videos capture police in and out of uniform taunting demonstrators with swords and sarcastically chanting one of the uprising’s own slogans back to them: “Raise your head, you’re Egyptian.”

Since then, a persistent chorus has started to call for a more violent challenge to the regime’s behavior. Core activists in Tahrir Square point out that it was the brute force of people fighting riot police in January that startled the regime and forced Mubarak’s resignation; they argue that the mostly peaceful manifestations since then have allowed the military dictatorship to survive intact. During the initial uprising, Abouzaid, the cardiologist, slept in front of Egyptian Army tanks to stop them advancing into Tahrir Square. In the past month he has come to embrace an even more radical approach. “Freedom means death,” Abouzaid said. “That is the equation of a true revolution. You know the police officer who killed your son? You go and kill him.”

Families of those killed in the initial uprising have organized a major pressure campaign to force the government account for the missing and put on trial all the officials involved in attacking demonstrators. Otherwise, they say, they will have every right to take justice into their own hands.

“I want them all to go to hell,” says Sayed Goma, 52, who has been wandering through Tahrir Square since January with a picture of his son, who disappeared in the Jan. 28 clashes with police and is presumed dead. Goma blames the government coroner he accuses of burying unidentified bodies of slain protesters in secret mass graves.

“I will kill his son and not give him the body,” Goma says.

Some street-fight veterans talk of assaulting police stations. Others, including some leaders, say that targeted assassinations of murderous police would spur the regime into action.

The pressure to escalate resistance and employ violence has driven a rift through the disparate coalition of groups still occupying Tahrir Square. Leaders of the April 6 movement, a driving force behind the revolution that commands deep support in working-class areas because of its history of labor activism, have studiously shut down any talk of violent action. April 6 has embraced mainstream positions, even tempering criticism of the military junta while generals were accusing the movement of subversion. But rank-and-file members of the group in Egypt, like Joe Gabra, chafe: “We need to take up arms,” says Gabra, a young organizer. “If you get shot at, this peaceful stuff doesn’t work.”

Even Abd El Fattah, the labor activist and blogger who argues against a revolutionary embrace of violence, muses publicly about using it. “I talk about killing police officers all the time. It’s a fantasy,” he says. “It could solve our problems, but it doesn’t mean I am planning to do it.”

The argument in Tahrir Square is more than a local debate over tactics; it reflects a real divide among political thinkers over what works best when challenging a police state. Though revolutions have long been associated with bloodshed, the astonishing success of the “soft” revolutions of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and later the Ukraine drove much policy and social science research in the post-Cold War era. An influential study published in 2008 made a strong case that peaceful protest was the most effective way to challenge authoritarian regimes. In “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth studied 323 resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006, and concluded that nonviolent efforts succeeded twice as often as violent ones. Violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters tended to backfire, Stephan and Chenoweth argued, and nonviolent resistance garnered greater international support.

This line of thinking has apparently been compelling not only to academics but to authoritarian rulers in places like China and Russia, who have deployed the full force of the state against even tiny, marginal civil disobedience campaigns, unnerved at the prospect that they might swell into massive nonviolent uprisings. And the philosophy of the Eastern European “velvet” or “color” revolutions infused some of the drivers of the Arab Awakening itself: April 6 leaders even traveled to Europe to meet leaders of Otpor, the nonviolent Serbian movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic.

But these gentle revolutions, it turns out, might be exceptions rather than the rule. There’s a backlash among some historians and political scientists that echoes the gut feeling of Egypt’s frustrated revolutionaries. They suggest, sometimes reluctantly, that regimes that insist on ruling by the gun, so to speak, might only be pushed aside by the gun.

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist, studied terrorist attacks, aerial bombing, and other forms of coercion, and concluded that violence achieves strategic goals far more effectively than peaceful means. Ivan Arreguín-Toft, a political scientist at Boston University, makes a similar argument about the critical role of violence for opposition movements in his book “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict.”

Some analysts and academics seeking to understand the forces at play in the Arab Awakening look less to the gentle power transitions in contemporary Europe than to the fiery, radical and violent regime changes in Iran in 1979 and France in 1789. These scholars say that the French Revolution, with its guillotine and counterrevolutionary backlash, might be a more useful example of a true break with the past than the measured transitions two centuries later in Eastern Europe. The French Revolution swept aside an entire system, not only removing the royal family from power but smashing the feudal economy and the monarchical philosophy on which it was built. Arab activists have also noted that Iran’s revolution – whose theocratic aims they do not share – successfully remade the entire state because it brooked no dissent and warmly embraced violent tactics.

The gentler Eastern European uprisings, by contrast, are now seen as a different kind of regime change: not so much revolutions as restorations, a return to a broader European trajectory interrupted by Soviet domination at the end of World War II. Other uprisings, like the “people power” waves that overthrew dictators in the Philippines and Indonesia, largely avoided violence because they demanded incremental reform rather than the toppling of an entire system, and the military didn’t defend the regime. It is usually when the dictator’s ruling apparatus refuses any compromise at all that reformist opposition morphs into violent revolution – as is the case today in Syria, where rebellion is veering toward open conflict, and Libya, fully in the throes of civil war. Most Egyptians, it is clear from the public conversation here, would prefer the smoother kind of transition: a revolution without the sturm und drang. The question is whether that will be enough to unseat the military.

Theda Skocpol, the Harvard sociologist who redefined the study of comparative revolutions, cautioned that “there is no one ‘paradigm’ for a revolution.”

“Egypt seems to me to be going through a kind of political change, but not a full-blown revolution,” Skocpol says. With the army still in charge, she argues, nonviolent protests may yet be the most effective approach, especially since the military establishment, which depends on US support, will be sensitive to international public opinion.

Back in Tahrir Square, conversations are rife with historical analogies, as activists trade theories about revolutions past, in France, Russia, and Eastern Europe, and ongoing fights elsewhere in the Arab world.

“We need patience,” Sayed Radwan, a 52-year-old airline counter representative, said on a recent afternoon. “The French Revolution took 30 years.”

“Yes,” snapped his friend, “but first, they killed all the leaders.”

Egyptian Doctor on Hunger Strike

Posted July 19th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Dr. Ayman Abouzaid hospitalized in Sharm El Sheikh, where he demands a floor all to himself like Hosni Mubarak. Photo courtesy of Ayman Abouzaid.

Crazy times call for crazy gestures, and Ayman Abouzaid has found himself playing an increasingly high-risk game of chicken with the Egyptian regime. The young cardiologist jumped out of his apolitical cocoon right into the roiling waters of revolution in January. When he wasn’t on call at the Qasr Ayni hospital, he spent his nights sleeping under the treads of Egyptian army tanks to prevent them moving into Tahrir Square.

That sentiment kept him on the streets for weeks then, and kept him shouting and railing about all the enduring injustices of his system, from the impunity still enjoyed by Hosni Mubarak’s coterie to the petty corruption that he says allowed supervisors at Qasr Ayni to falsify autopsy results on protesters murdered by the police.

Ayman Abouzaid’s rage might yet make him a bellwether of where Egypt’s revolution is headed now.

At 25, he had given up on a future in Egypt and was looking to continue his medical training in Germany. But the revolution watered anew his love for country. When I first met him, arrayed with a few dozen men beneath a tank by the Egyptian Museum, he was nearly euphoric. It was a few days before Mubarak acceded to people power and resigned, but Abouzaid already was convinced it would happen.

“The people here will only leave in two situations,” he told me. “When Hosni Mubarak and the National Democratic Party are judged and executed, or we all have to be dead.”

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

The Split in April 6

Posted July 14th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

On his blog yesterday, CFR’s Steven Cook revealed that a founder of the April 6 youth movement in Egypt, Ahmed Maher, was working with a Beverly Hills public relations company. Although the company appears to be donating its work, Cook speculates April 6 will look out of touch, vainly self-promotional, or even tainted as too tied to foreign interests.

In fact, such accusations have been levied at Maher, a dedicated movement activist whose early work in 2008 to organize striking textile workers was a pivotal step in Egypt’s path to revolution. April 6 has become a formidable movement with lots of grassroots urban activists. They’ve had street muscle and staying power since January, and often appear more in touch with mainstream Egyptian public opinion than other revolutionary activists, who can come across as too intellectual and even at times, as elitist. Maher was featured in a PBS Frontline documentary, and has been one of the revolution’s media stars.

In the last few months, a rift emerged between Maher’s circle and other April 6 leaders. The movement now has effectively split, although there hasn’t been a public announcement of it and both factions use similar logos and names. The breakaway faction, which calls itself the April 6 Movement and is prioritizing protest and political mobilization, appears by far larger. “There was no internal democracy,” said Tarek El-Khouly, one of the leaders. “There was no transparency. [Ahmed Maher] wouldn’t tell us if he was getting foreign funds.”

Ahmed Maher and his associates are known in the activist community now as the April 6 foundation or NGO, and are focusing more on public education and outreach about the democratic process.

The split says something about the entropy and divisiveness among Egypt’s activists, whose courage and persistence is sadly, but not unexpectedly, matched by interpersonal rivalries.

There’s also a long history of tarnishing activists and dissidents as foreign agents; it was a common slander tactic of the Mubarak regime, and it resonates with the widespread xenophobia and paranoia in Egypt (fueled of course by the long track record of foreign manipulation of Egyptian politics).

Reinvigorating Egypt’s Revolution

Posted July 10th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

CAIRO, Egypt — Friday’s “Day of Determination” (or “Day of Persistence”) continued overnight and into Saturday as a sit-in in Tahrir Square. It was the largest since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and it marked a sort of inflection point for the popular uprising that began on January 25.

For the first time since mid-February, the crowd filled the entire square, and drew scores of regular folk who wouldn’t normally define themselves as political activists. The demonstration swelled to revolutionary size, to a large extent, because its organizers consciously eschewed politics.  Instead they resorted to a lowest-common denominator appeal to prosecute Hosni Mubarak and his henchmen. Justice for the crimes of the past, and for the crimes that continue, including police brutality, unaccountable government, and military detentions of protesters. Two words echoed above all: justice, and revenge.

That simple call galvanized the protest, although to some was its Achilles heel.

“The blood of the martyrs won’t be wasted,” the crowds chanted. Protesters carried pictures of Hosni Mubarak hanging from a noose (a common motif, also stenciled on walls around Tahrir).

A performer named Waleed Sheikh held a Mubarak marionette wearing the traditional red Egyptian death row suit, a star of David on the front. “I am manipulating him like he used to manipulate us!” Waleed said as he made the Mubarak doll dance, to the wild applause of onlookers.

Many of those in crowd said they hadn’t joined a protest since February, but were galvanized by the ruling junta’s foot-dragging on trials for Mubarak cronies and on police reform.

“I thought the government would be purified after the revolution,” said chemist Mahmoud Fathy, 29. “They are trying to outsmart the revolution, to outwait us and change nothing.”

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

Back in Tahrir for Tear Gas and Detention

Posted June 30th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

I returned to Egypt on Tuesday, escaping the tear gas and riots in Athens for the Cairene edition. I followed the parallel clashes on Twitter, and then headed out to Tahrir. The scene felt different than in February — a somewhat hard to parse mix of earnest protesters, activists, disenfranchised Egyptians, thugs, and soccer hooligans. As I tried to interview the father of a martyr from January, a pair of middle-aged men confronted me, with a mix of bullying, menace and manhandling that I’ve come to associate with regime figures or their henchmen. “How do we know you’re not a Jew?” one of them demanded. He had white hair and wore a light blue suit. With prompting from the crowd that assembled he demanded my Egyptian press card, which he grabbed, crumpled up, and stuffed in his pocket. After some shoving and shouting, he resolved to present me to the police — obviously, he said, I was a spy and not a journalist. (You can see him in the middle of the group pictured here; I snapped this with my iPhone while the citizens brigade contemplated what to do with me.)

The police officers at Marouf Street were unimpressed. They sent the man and his small mob on their way, and after a short time, the duty officer turned to me. “Imshee,” he said, “leave”* — one of the chants the crowds in Tahrir used to direct at Hosni Mubarak when he still was president.

You can read more detail about the day in my dispatch at The Atlantic.

CAIRO, Egypt — The city is combustible. On Tuesday night, seemingly out of nowhere, fighting engulfed Cairo at a pitch not seen since the Days of Rage in January and February that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

A group of families had gathered in another neighborhood to celebrate the martyrs killed during the revolution; no one knows who organized the event and who attended. No one knows exactly what happened next either — just that police tangled with the families, who then decided to march on the Ministry of the Interior in downtown Cairo. After nightfall, the fighting took on a momentum of its own. Hundreds of demonstrators massed at the interior ministry and later in Tahrir Square. Riot police shot tear gas and, according to protesters, rubber bullets. Demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. The fighting surged on throughout the night, unabated.

By noon on Wednesday, several thousands of demonstrators were still battling the riot police. Reinforcements had arrived, including 20 ambulances. The fighting raged on Mohammed Mahmoud, the spur street off the southern end of Tahrir Square leading to the interior ministry. Men on ambulances ferried the hundreds of wounded back to the ambulances. The sting of tear gas stretched half a mile from the clashes, enveloping the entire square. Helpful men offered vinegar and Kleenex to alleviate the pain of inhaling the gas.

I was eager to talk to some of the martyrs’ families, find out how the whole melee began, and see how they felt it would affect their cause. Men and women huddled in knots, ignoring the tear gas, arguing about whether these clashes would undermine the revolution by alienating a wider Egyptian public that is tiring of protests. None of them were relatives of martyrs. Many of them were wary.

“I’ve been in Tahrir since January 25, and a lot of the faces I see out here today are not the usual faces,” said a 27-year-old accountant named Mahmoud. “A lot of them look like thugs.”

Read the rest here.

*In the original post, I had incorrectly written “emsha” for “imshee.”

Discouraging Lessons of History

Posted June 15th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

CAIRO, Egypt — Old ways die hard.

It only requires a quick glance at the new Egyptian junta — as most of the country’s citizens see it — to understand how the military rulers see their inviolable position. On its Facebook page, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issues terse directives. Egyptian citizens post comments by the tens of the thousands, but there’s never any response. The military’s high-handed public outreach is similarly one-sided. One general appears on television to read the same directives, stony-faced, to a camera. And every now and again, the military stages public “dialogues,” which come across, intentionally or not, as patronizing lectures.

How does the military view its future in Egypt? What internal dynamics are shaping the military’s political strategy, which could in large part determine whether February’s revolution is a success? Within the officer corps, there are diverse views as to how much power the Egyptian army should wield, and how much it should yield to elected civilians.

It can be difficult to get answers to these questions from the military, perhaps in part because they themselves don’t yet know. So I’ve turned to reading history, hoping to find answers there, and was struck once again by the tight congruity between present-day Egypt and the critical points it has experienced over the last century and a half. During much of that time, Egypt has politically lain fallow, either because of self-induced paralysis as during Hosni Mubarak’s rule or long periods of colonial subjugation, as during the era of the British-orchestrated Veiled Protectorate.

Read the rest in The Atlantic.


Now What?

Posted May 31st, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In The Boston Globe I write about the competing schools of thought over what Egypt’s next government should look like. This debate will only get more complicated as the year wears on, with different philosophies vying for predominance on the surface, while powerful and silent vested interests struggle for power below.

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.”

Read the rest here.

End the Addiction to Stability

Posted April 3rd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

An obsession with “stability” — and an erroneous, narrow definition of the term — has warped American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Washington’s struggle to adjust to the rapid transformation of the region in part reflects a calcified mindset that for decades had to account for little change. Now, with the Arab political landscape barely recognizable, American policymakers are trying to adjust quickly. Imagine, American client regimes toppling one by one, while absolute monarchies in the Gulf are taking part in military interventions to unseat one dictator in Libya while propping up another in Bahrain. Some people will argue that all this turmoil amounts to an even stronger argument for stability; I’d say events suggest the opposite. That’s the subject of my latest Internationalist column in The Boston Globe.

America’s main goals in the Middle East have remained constant at least since the Carter years: We want a region in which oil flows as freely as possible, Israel is protected, and citizens enjoy basic human rights — or at least aren’t so unhappy that they begin to attack our interests.

In working toward these goals, the byword and the cornerstone of the entire venture has been stability. Washington has invested heavily — with money, weapons, and political cover — to guarantee the stability of supposedly friendly regimes in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The idea is simple: A regime, even a distasteful and autocratic one, is more likely to help America, and even to treat its own people with a modicum of decency, if it doesn’t feel threatened. Instability creates insecurity, the thinking goes, and insecurity breeds danger.

But the unrest and dramatic changes of the past months are offering a very different lesson. An overemphasis on stability — and, perhaps, an erroneous definition of what “stability” even is — has begun harming, rather than helping, American interests in several current crisis spots. Our desire to keep a naval base in a stable Bahrain, for example, has allied us with the marginalized and increasingly radical Bahraini royal family, and even led us to acquiesce to a Saudi Arabian invasion of the tiny island to quell protests last month. To keep Syria stable, American policy has largely deferred to the existing Assad regime, supporting one of the nastiest despots in the region even as his troops have fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters. In a moral sense, this “stability first” policy has been putting America on the wrong side of the democratic transitions in one Arab country after another. And in the contest for pure influence, it is the more flexible approaches of other nations that seem to be gaining ground in such a fast-changing environment. If we’re serious about our goals in the Middle East, “stability” is looking less and less like the right way to achieve them.

Foreign policy shifts slowly, and it’s hard to replace such a familiar, if flawed, approach to the world. But recent events have strengthened the ranks of thinkers who argue that there may be more effective and less costly ways to press our interests in the Middle East. We could take an arm’s length approach, allowing that not every turn of the screw in the Middle East amounts to a core national interest for the United States — in effect, abstaining from some of the region’s conflicts so we have more credibility when we do intervene. We could embrace a more dynamic slate of alliances that allows the United States to shift its support as regimes evolve or decay. Finally, we could redefine stability entirely and downgrade it as a priority, so that we recognize its value as simply one of many avenues toward achieving US interests.

Read the rest in The Boston Globe.



Michael Hanna on Egypt

Posted March 2nd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Michael Hanna at The Century Foundation has a smart oped in The Christian Science Monitor about the steps necessary to translate Egypt’s revolution into lasting reforms. He argues that the rushed timeline imposed by the military might thwart the systemic changes needed to institute a credible constitution and initiate electoral politics.

Progress based solely on a hasty electoral transition would be an illusion – which might undercut efforts at real reform. Instead of accepting a transition process implemented and dictated solely by the armed forces,Egypt’s opposition should remain united in seeking immediate actions that will preclude diversion to military-led governance, while allowing for a more realistic transitional period.

The country’s opposition groups are keen to ensure that the armed force’s custodianship is, in fact, temporary, and not a prelude to consolidation of a revamped, military-led regime. This concern – and broader and well-justified concerns about a counter-revolution – are understandable based on Egypt’s history and recent developments. Yet, these very same concerns could lead to support for a transition process that will actually undermine the core goals of the Egyptian uprising and subvert thorough reform. A six-month timetable for popular elections, as was announced by the Egyptian military, will dictate that reform in the interim period will be shallow and that even free and fair elections will not be an opportunity for true representational politics. Read the rest here.

We had a panel discussion at The Century Foundation last week where we discussed some of the implications of the revolution for Egypt going forward and for the Arab world as a whole. My favorite part of the evening came when the Yemeni ambassador to the U.N. Abdullah Al-Saidi diagnosed the central problem of the region as “leaders who have tried to transform republics into monarchies” — a malady from which he did not exempt his own country (you can watch the q & a here). That’s a fair enough way to summarize the ills of regimes in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. It doesn’t address the failure to govern, which is at root what plagues all the Arab states, including those that are avowedly hereditary monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco). You can watch the event at The Century Foundation here.