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A Conversation with International Journalist Thanassis Cambanis


Thanassis Cambanis is an international journalist specializing in the Middle East and in American foreign policy. He writes for The Boston Globe Ideas section, is a correspondent for The Atlantic and regularly contributes to The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and The National Interest. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation and teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and at the New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs. His new book, Once Upon A Revolution, frankly explores the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath through stories of those who participated. Drawn to see this extraordinary moment in time for himself, Cambanis reveals a universal story of people willing to transform themselves in order to transform their society. Cambanis lives in Beirut with his wife, Anne Barnard, a reporter for The New York Times, and their two children. Stay Thirsty Magazine spent time with him at his home for this insightful conversation.


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

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

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


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

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


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

Tahrir Square (2011)

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


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

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


Tahrir Square (2011) (credit: Jonathan Rashad)

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Protesting in Tahrir Square (2011)

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

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


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

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


STAY THIRSTY: What can we expect next from you?

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



Thanassis Cambanis

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