All of our assumptions about the Arab world have been turned on their heads in the past month, says veteran Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis.
"Everything that the experts say and everything that the activists and politicians have taken for granted for a generation, at least, is really off the table," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "What's been happening, first in Lebanon and then in Tunisia and now in Egypt and who knows further afield, suggests that new forces have been unleashed and we have no idea where they might lead and what new dynamics they might create."
On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Cambanis puts what has been going on in Egypt in a historical context — and explains the rising influence of the political party Hezbollah in the region. He says the recent explosion of popular anger and activism in Egypt opens up the possibility for a new political movement — one not endorsed by autocratic regimes or rooted in Hezbollah's Islamist ideology.
"There are a lot of people, both dispossessed and powerful, who want dignity but they don't necessarily want endless war — which is what the Hezbollah school of thought advocates," he says. "I think they would be hungry for, and very receptive to, an Egypt-centered political movement that talks about Arab empowerment but not endless war."
Cambanis is the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, which traces the growth of Hezbollah and its ideological-based militancy across the Middle East. He explains that Hezbollah has thrived because of a complete vacuum of Arab leadership in the region.
"That's why it's had tremendous influence in regions way beyond its context," he says. "Though it's a small Shia group, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is the most popular leader in the entire Arab world. Sunni Arabs in Egypt admire him. Christians in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria admire him. Atheists — who have no truck with religious movements at all — admire him and this movement that's called the Party of God. That frankly speaks to a region that has been stripped of meaningful discourse and is really open, receptive or vulnerable — depending on your perspective — to this kind of ideology."
In Cambanis' view, Hezbollah has two goals: to construct an Islamic resistance society and to continue a perpetual war against Israel. Cambanis says leaders and members of Hezbollah have told him that they're ready for a war with Israel because they've restored their rocket arsenal, their militia strength is back, and they feel like they're militarily much stronger than in 2006.
"They'll engineer it at the moment that is most propitious to them," says Cambanis. "In their ideal world, they manage to engineer a situation in which Israel attacks and they can blame the beginning of the war on Israel. ... They seem to feel like they've changed the balance of power between Hezbollah and Israel — not that they could defeat Israel, but they think they can inflict so much damage on Israel in another war with missiles on Tel Aviv, or much more destructive missiles on Haifa, that [Hezbollah] will hold the cards."
But Cambanis says it's unlikely that other military forces in the Middle East will join Hezbollah in attacking Israel — at least, for the time being.
"In terms of timing, I think it's unlikely that we'll see something like 1967, where all the Arab armies were coordinating to attack Israel at the same time. On the other hand, what we could see, in five or 10 years, we're likely to see an array of Arab governments that today are sympathetic to the West and Israel changing allegiance and being more sympathetic to this axis of resistance, or Hezbollah, mindset. That will have very real consequences for Israel's security and for the projection of American power in the region."
Thanassis Cambanis, the former Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe, contributes regularly to The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He also teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
Thanassis Cambanis regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Foreign Affairs.
Thanassis Cambanis regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Foreign Affairs.
On Mohamed ElBaradei
"When I was talking to opposition activists last summer, they had given up on him. They said this guy has nice ideas but he doesn't have a popular following, he doesn't have the charisma, he doesn't have the drive to do the kinds of things necessary to make an impact in Egypt. That detachment and weakness has, in an odd sense, propelled him to the front of the protest movement now, but not as its leader, by any stretch of the imagination. He's been put at the front of the opposition coalition, and he hasn't been put there by the mass of people on the street. He's been put there by the small, organized political parties that are supporting the uprising, and he has been agreed to because he's a weak figure."
"If the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular party and the traditional leftist parties want one figure who can negotiate on their behalf, it's got to be someone who's not allied with any of them and who's not powerful enough to threaten any of their political bases. That's why Baradei is a consensus choice. If he were someone who had a tremendous current and popular support to tap into, the Brotherhood [and secular parties] would be wary of delegating its negotiating authority to him."
On whether Egypt's government could collapse
"I think fears of Egypt collapsing are overblown. This is a rickety state, but it's a state nonetheless. This is not Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where the time Saddam was toppled, his government was a shell of a state and really lacked any meaningful institutional reach. Egypt is a creaky, poorly run but pervasive unitary state, and I think even if the leadership is decapitated, that state will remain. And it just doesn't seem to me a likely candidate for years of instability and looting and successive governments. I think we'll see some form of stability in Egypt in the near future. It might not be one that we like or love, but it will be something that will be enduring."
On Egypt's secret police force
"In Egypt, the secret police are ubiquitous, and they make a point of not being all that secret. Several of my interviews with Muslim Brothers this summer were shadowed by the secret police who came and sat at the next table and ostentatiously made a point of letting us know that they were watching us. ... In functioning Egyptian society, you come across stories constantly of people beaten and harassed by the police for everything from political activism, to being gay, to smoking marijuana, to being from the wrong class in the eyes of a policeman, and they have untrammeled authority. Part of their daily goal has been to remind the people that the police have complete power over their lives and are ready and willing to use any brutality necessary to keep order."
A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel By Thanassis Cambanis Hardcover, 336 pages Free Press List Price: $27
Privilege to Die
Chapter 1 - The Party of God
Hezbollah has captivated the Arab world with a radical new belief, decisively changing an entire region's dynamics and paving the way to a long path of wars. Put simply, Hezbollah has convinced legions of common men and women that Israel can be defeated and destroyed — and not just in the distant future, but soon. With more success than any other Islamist group, Hezbollah has harnessed modern politics and warfare to mobilize millions of dedicated supporters and soft sympathizers under its banner of resistance against Israel. Theirs is not a quixotic quest for dignity, a symbolic but doomed fight for the sake of empowerment; Hezbollah's militancy has had concrete consequences for Israel and has propagated a new wave of aggressive Islamist action. Hezbollah has achieved military success in nearly three decades of guerilla war against Israel, first expelling the Israel Defense Forces from the "security zone" they occupied in South Lebanon for nearly two decades, and then frustrating Israel's objectives in the war it fought against Hezbollah in 2006. Now Hezbollah has the Islamic world's ear, and is spreading a gospel of perpetual war. Hezbollah is persuading a growing swath of Arab society to follow its example: militarize fully and confront Israel at every opportunity. In 2006, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and provoked a war that left Lebanon physically in shambles. But Hezbollah emerged euphoric. Its militia had thwarted Israel's land advance, and the Jewish state failed to reach any of its declared war aims — the release of its captured soldiers, stopping Hezbollah from firing rockets, and dismantling Hezbollah's militia along the border. Hezbollah moved from the backbenches to the center of power within the Lebanese government. And Hezbollah's rise thwarted the United States' carefully laid plans for a friendly, secular, liberal Lebanon securely at peace with Israel. Today Hezbollah preaches humility to its followers while acting anything but humble to expand its power and influence across the Islamic world.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general and charismatic supreme leader of Hezbollah, commands more popularity in the Middle East than any other leader.1 Unusual among the region's militants, he has frequently shown restraint and political savvy, but Nasrallah has encountered his greatest political success through confrontation. Speaking in November 2009 on the annual holiday that commemorates the "martyrs" of the Islamic Resistance, Nasrallah sounded like he was spoiling for another war with Israel:
I say we are ready. Here I vow again before the souls of the martyrs, whichare alive and present, saying: O Barak, Ashkenazi, Netanyahu and Obama! Let the whole world listen. Send as many squads as you want: five, seven or the whole Israeli army. We will destroy them in our hills, valleys and mountains.
Well into another millennium, Nasrallah and Hezbollah have woven a new reality for their followers, built on ideology, identity, faith, and practice. Hezbollah has delivered tangible social gains for its followers, like the $400 million reconstruction of the onetime refugee slums of southern Beirut to be completed in 2010, replete with gleaming glass residential towers that resemble luxury hotels. It has won tactical military victories against Israel, unlike the other Middle Eastern regimes that ineffectually rail against Israel. As a growing movement with transnational appeal, Hezbollah has broken the crusty traditions of Arab politics to craft a big-tent party platform that speaks to people's mundane aspirations: economic reform, affordable health care, round-the-clock electricity, efficient courts, and community policing. Most important of all, however, Hezbollah has shifted the norms of Middle Eastern politics with its fast-spreading ideology of perpetual war. Hezbollah has inculcated millions — including many beyond Lebanon's borders — into its ideology of Islamic Resistance. The credo is catchy and thoroughly thought out; and it is coupled to an unusually effective program of militancy and mobilization. That recipe has put Hezbollah in the pilot's seat in the Middle East, steering the region into a thicket of wars to come. And it has made Hezbollah dangerous not only in the short term, as a military threat to Israel and to the pragmatic, compromise-seeking Arabs in its neighborhood, but over the long term as the progenitor of an infectious ideology of violent confrontation against Israel and the United States, which is vilified as the ultimate backer of the Jewish State.
During six years of reporting in the Middle East I encountered no popular movement that rivaled Hezbollah as a militia or an ideological force. In Lebanon I met men and women prepared to die, or sacrifice their children, for Hezbollah's program, but they defied the mold of dreary desperation that characterized other extremists. Educated middle-class types populated Hezbollah's legions, professionals with alternatives and aspirations, who lived multidimensional lives not much different from those of my friends in America. They were engineers, teachers, merchants, landlords, drivers, construction workers; they had jobs and children. They weren't broken miserable people, turning in their hopelessness to Hezbollah; they were willing actors who had come to embrace Hezbollah's view of the world, a heady mix of religion, self-improvement, and self-defense that translated into a sustained wave of toxic and powerful militancy. I met mothers who grieved their dead children but encouraged their surviving brood to join Hezbollah's militia; they differed from Palestinians I'd met in the confidence they projected. These Hezbollah mothers sometimes sounded sad, but never unhinged or cornered. Hezbollah's followers were as notable for their discipline and restraint as for their willingness to die. Israel occupied about one-tenth of Lebanon's territory from 1982 to 2000, a strip of South Lebanon that Israel euphemistically termed "the security zone." When Israel left the occupied area under fire from Hezbollah in May 2000, it left behind thousands of collaborators, including men who had beaten and tortured Hezbollah fighters on behalf of the Israelis. Nasrallah ordered his followers to keep their hands off all collaborators, leaving their judgment to Lebanese courts. I met Hezbollah fighters who recalled years later how instead of meting out vigilante justice they cordoned off the collaborator villages and protected their erstwhile tormentors from harm — an act less of mercy than of political calculation, which ultimately gained Hezbollah more power than it ever before had possessed. Nasrallah's personal charisma has played a major role in Hezbollah's rise. He has run the party since 1992, steadily consolidating the fidelity of its inner ranks while expanding Hezbollah's reach among soft supporters. A pudgy man with a handsome mouth, a mellifluous voice, and the black turban that signals direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed, Nasrallah has come of age along with the Islamist Party that he took over almost two decades ago when he was only thirty-one years old. His speeches alternate between humor and invective, steady exposition of Arab politics and appeals to gut anger, systematic analyses of Israeli policy, and racist hatred of Jews.
Under Nasrallah's leadership, Hezbollah steadily has expanded its number of followers and its share of political power, in no large part because the Party of God is just as happy to use the tools of coercion as of persuasion. Within its primary target constituency of Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah ruthlessly quashes any serious threat to its monopoly on force and power. Hezbollah has thwarted any attempt to organize alternative Shia parties, either religious or secular. It has crushed as potential traitors individuals who publicly doubt whether Hezbollah's militant approach best serves its supporters' interests. The party tolerates free speech and political dissent only from weak actors, to forge the impression of openness. But Hezbollah will allow no competing organization to provide social services. It brooks no political challenges, accepting only one other Shia politial party, the Amal Movement, which has long been subsumed into Hezbollah's ambit as a junior partner. Those who dare question Hezbollah's policies or bona fides face the withering power of the party to ostracize and economically marginalize them. Those who challenge the party more forcefully, or are suspected of disloyalty, might disappear or end up imprisoned. Hezbollah's constituency and its skeptical neighbors know that the hand extended in invitation easily turns into a fist. But Hezbollah has convinced many audiences to overlook or forgive its brutal side as an unavoidable consequence of war, highlighting instead the party's humanitarian wing and ideas-based agenda.
Excerpted from A Privilege To Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel by Thanassis Cambanis. Copyright 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.