Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Ten Whats With…Thanassis Cambanis

by Micah Zenko
February 27, 2015

"Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story," by Thanassis Cambanis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015). "Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story," by Thanassis Cambanis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

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Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation and a columnist at the Boston Globe. He is the author of a new book, Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.

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

Interesting to whom?

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

2. What got you started in your career?

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What was the last book you finished reading?

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

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

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

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

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

8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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