Journalist Thanassis Cambanis — Hezbollah, Israel And Egypt: What Happens Next? Journalist Thanassis Cambanis puts what has been going on in Egypt in a historical context — and explains what the popularity of other political parties, like Hezbollah, could mean for relations with Israel and the United States.
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Hezbollah, Israel And Egypt: What Happens Next?

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Hezbollah, Israel And Egypt: What Happens Next?

Hezbollah, Israel And Egypt: What Happens Next?

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Peaceful protestors in Cairo's Liberation Square have been under attack today by supporters of President Hosni Mubarak, after Mubarak's announcement last night that he intended to serve out the remainder of his term.

We're going to talk about Egypt and how the Middle East is changing. My guest, Thanassis Cambanis, is a former Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe, where he now writes a foreign affairs column. He's also reported from the Middle East for the New York Times and other publications. He's the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and their Endless War Against Israel." Cambanis teaches journalism and foreign policy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Thanassis Cambanis, welcome to FRESH AIR. What was your reaction waking up today to see pro-Mubarak demonstrators attacking peaceful demonstrators?

Mr. THANASSIS CAMBANIS (Journalist, The Boston Globe; Teacher, Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs; Author): I was saddened, but unfortunately not surprised.

This is a regime that's ruled by really raw coercion and hasn't shied away from using violence against its citizens for 30 years. It seemed -it seems impossible that it could confront this challenge to its power without resorting to its habitual tactics and techniques.

One of the questions we've all had since this protest movement began is: Exactly how much violence is the state willing to use in order to maintain its hold on power?

And that's a question that, to be honest, is not just going to be answered this week. It's going to be answered over months and months, because whatever unfolds in Egypt, it's clear now there's going to be some kind of transfer of power from Mubarak to - whether it's to other members of his inner circle or to some more representative group of people or parties.

No matter what, that means that groups of privileged people who had really limitless power for decades are going to have to negotiate new and presumably less amounts of power. They're going to have to share power with someone else, even if it's other members of the elite.

And there will be violence as a result of that transition, because these are state security members. These are secret police. These are regime cronies who profited enormously - not just in terms of power, but in terms of wealth - from the regime. And they're not going to go quietly.

GROSS: You're interpreting violence in part as saying the old order is insisting on still having a place at the table. They want a place in whatever new order is formed, assuming a new order is formed.

Mr. CAMBANIS: Yes. I mean, the old regime has stakeholders. So we're going to see at least two things. We're going to see rent-a-mobs, goons, hired thugs, people who might not have any genuine political convictions but who are paid by the regime to go out and sow disorder. We've already seen a lot of that with good evidence that it's orchestrated, destabilizing violence.

Then we're also going to see - let's call it - legitimate regime support, people who, whether it's through fear or genuine affection or self-interest, people who sincerely would like Mubarak or someone handpicked by Mubarak to run their country.

Now, I suspect they're a minority in Egypt, but they're a powerful minority, and they, too, have fears and grievances. And so when we see people taking to the streets in favor of the regime, we're going to have to distinguish between those two groups.

GROSS: If Mubarak stays in office till September, as he said he will do, what can he still do to slow down or perhaps to stop the democratic process?

Mr. CAMBANIS: I think it's obvious that his strategy is a waiting game, the idea that somehow, you know, popular protests are very difficult to translate into real power, and if he can just wait out the crowds, the crowds will get tired. They'll go home, and it won't matter what was said in late January because by the time September rolls around and the next presidential election, the police will be back in control of Egypt.

We'll note that he didn't promise that his son didn't run for president. And also, he promised he wouldn't run for president again, but people change their minds when the situation changes. And it's very possible, in my view, that if he feels like this protest movement will go away, and then once it goes away he can just roll back whatever changes were made under pressure, that he can retain the power he's had.

And to me, that seems - frankly, that seems to be a misreading of historical currents. It's not just people on the streets whose tenor has changed. It's an entire political order, starting with eroding support from the White House and eroding support from the military, all the way down to a suddenly energized, massive popular uprising in his own country.

So all those things, to me, signal really root changes in Egypt's political dynamics that won't go away, even if the protests eventually stop.

GROSS: You've written: When an authoritarian state collapses, it's wise to watch players with existing capacity. It's even wiser to recall that all bets are off. What do you mean by that?

Mr. CAMBANIS: Well, the way we understand the Arab world has just been turned on its head in the last month or so. And everything that the experts say and everything that really the activists and actors and politicians have taken for granted for a generation, at least, is really off the table because 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.

GROSS: Just as some context and background, let's look at some of the players in Egypt now, starting with the military. What are your impressions of the military from having talked to retired and current military leaders in Egypt?

Mr. CAMBANIS: It's - beyond the ruling regime's party, it's the only intact, strong civil society institution that remains. I mean, understand that for three decades at least, and maybe even further back, Egypt's rulers have intentionally and steadily tried to corrode any civil society institution and weaken it because they want no challenges to power. That applies to labor unions. That applies to political parties, even these student groups, anything.

The only institution allowed some autonomy and some independent power from the regime has been the military, and that's for obvious reasons. In a military dictatorship that's a police state, you have to have a dynamic and powerful military. But that means it's also - it's the one institution that can possibly survive a collapse of the current, you know, of one regime and remain powerful into the next.

Now all that said, the military is still a cipher. I mean, there are a million or men-at-arms in the military, plus their families and their dependents. It's a huge society, and in Egypt, they not only control all the tanks and the artillery shells and the airplanes, but they also control water-bottling plants, resorts, entire neighborhoods for military people - huge, huge portions of the economy.

So they really a force unto themselves and a state of their own, and no one knows for sure, for example, how much Islamism thrives within the military. No one knows for sure how nationalist or secular the rank-and-file of the military are. And these are the kinds of blind spots that will become clear over I would guess a few months or a coming year, as we see what kind of political forces are really going to shape Egypt.

GROSS: Now, you say that the names of generals aren't published, nor is the military's size, which has been considered a state secret. Who's in the military in Egypt? Do you have to, like, qualify? Do you have to be connected in order to get in? Or are most men conscripted to join? How does it work?

Mr. CAMBANIS: It's a conscript military. So that means that every man serves, and I believe the service term is about one year. But that's the - those are the people who fill out the lower ranks of the army.

Now, the professional - there's still a professional cadre, and that's the number we don't know the size of. Presumably, it would be a few hundred thousand. These are people who, after their mandatory service, choose to make the military their career and ultimately would rise up through the officer ranks.

And from people - people who are in the professional that I've talked to and people who've been watching the professional military, they, too, have a very confused sense of what is the culture inside the military.

The United States has been a crucial trainer of the military. So we have a lot of Americans who have bunked, say, for a year with a unit of the Egyptian military in the Sinai. They work as liaison officers.

And they'll say the guys they know well - fluent English speakers, maybe they've trained here - tend to be moderate, pro-reform, pro-modernization. But they'll say - they'll caution that they have no idea how representative those guys are, because those are the guys that chose to hang out with an American colleague. And they don't know who's an Islamist, who's a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who's a - harbors, you know, who knows what sentiments.

GROSS: Now, you were told by one military leader that the military still considered Israel a primary threat, even though the two nations have been at peace for about three decades. So can you elaborate on what you were told?

Mr. CAMBANIS: Well, the view that this general was articulating is very, I'd say, the common denominator, average view of a modern, secular member of the Arab elite - not just in Egypt, but anywhere.

So in his view, yes, Egypt and Israel are at peace, but it's a cold peace. And it's a peace that was mid-wifed by very powerful American bribes, essentially, the huge military aid packages to Egypt and Israel.

And the two nations, as nations, don't like each other. The security establishments of the two nations cooperate very nicely, especially when it comes to tracking groups like Hamas, whom they view as a common enemy. But there's deeply felt hostility toward the Jewish state at all levels in the Arab world. And that is true in Egypt, as well.

Now, it's important also to understand that when this general says they view Israel as Egypt's first primary threat, that doesn't mean he thinks they should go to war with Israel. He just - what he means - I mean, and then he elaborated - is, yes, they exist in this cold peace. But if Israel's calculus changed, they would - he believes they would attack Egypt in a second, and Egypt has to be prepared for that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thanassis Cambanis, and he's the former Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe. He writes a foreign policy column for the Globe now. He teaches at Columbia University and is the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and their Endless War Against Israel."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thanassis Cambanis, and he's a former Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe. He now writes a foreign policy column for the Globe. He's also covered the Middle East for the New York Times, and he teaches at Columbia University. He's the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and their Endless War Against Israel."

So we're talking about some of the people - some of the cast of characters in Egypt now. Let's look at Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, he is emerging. He has emerged as one of the public faces of a coalition of forces in Egypt.

We know him in America largely as the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, inspecting weapons, at great odds with the Bush administration during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. When he wanted to keep inspecting, the Bush administration wanted to invade -won a Nobel Prize. So what's Mohamed ElBaradei's political history in Egypt?

Mr. CAMBANIS: He has almost none. And among Egyptians, he's somewhat of a source of annoyance and disappointment.

He returned to Egypt with a lot of fanfare just over a year ago, pledging to campaign for reform and possibly to challenge Mubarak in the next presidential race.

He quickly - the love affair with him quickly soured, because he came, he gave a few speeches, and then he went back to Vienna and then to France and worked on his memoirs. And he was largely absent from Egypt for the entire past year.

When I was talking to opposition activists last summer, they had given up on him. They said this guy has, you know, he's got 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 sort of opposition coalition, and he hasn't been put there by 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.

GROSS: Why does that appeal to the leadership, that he's weak?

Mr. CAMBANIS: If the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular today 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, for example, would be wary of delegating its negotiating authority to him, and the same would go for the secular parties.

GROSS: I guess he's also a good public face for the West.

Mr. CAMBANIS: That's been - that's what some people in the West have said. I think there's some truth to that. I mean, he obviously speaks great English. He has great contacts in the international community. He seems like an unthreatening figure.

On the other hand, it seems that Washington it still somewhat allergic to this guy because of the lead-up to the Iraq war. And so I'm not sure in the long run how much of a difference it makes, but I guess it helps mollify some of the concern in, especially in Washington, where there's almost a paranoia that whoever comes after Mubarak would destroy America's strategic calculus in the Middle East.

GROSS: Let's talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. They were founded in 1928. What have they stood for over the years in Egypt?

Mr. CAMBANIS: When they were founded, they were quite radical, and they wanted to overthrow the Egyptian government and establish an Islamic state. In the '50s, they were crushed almost out of existence, and they made a slow and gradual comeback.

By the time they re-emerged as a meaningful force in Egypt, by the 1980s, they were quite a conservative group - and I mean conservative in the sense of being very risk-averse.

They - one of the lessons they learned from being crushed by Nasser was that frontal challenges to the state authority would destroy them. So their entire position for the past 30 years has been startlingly accommodationist, and that's oddly lost them the support of a lot of their young membership.

So they've been in a paradoxical position. They're the only meaningful opposition that Mubarak has allowed, and he did that by design because he wanted to be able to turn to the outside world and say it's either me or these Islamists, and there's nothing in between. So that will encourage you to support me.

GROSS: I thought they were illegal, but no, I guess they're not illegal. They're in parliament.

Mr. CAMBANIS: They are illegal but tolerated.

GROSS: But haven't they had members in parliament?

Mr. CAMBANIS: They - so this is part of the fiction or sort of gray area in which Egyptian politics takes place. They are banned, but tolerated. So members of the Muslim Brotherhood were in parliament as independents.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. CAMBANIS: You know, everyone knew they were Brothers, and they worked out of the Muslim Brotherhood office. They were independents, and they knew, always, that they, at some level, served at the pleasure of the regime.

They had 88 seats in parliament in 2005. In the last round of elections this past fall, they won zero seats. Nobody thinks that that's a - that either of those results was - represented the actual voters' will. That's just the number that the regime was willing to allow in, into parliament.

So they've been allowed a presence, but they've been allowed no real power. Any time the regime saw a political threat from the Brotherhood, they would crack down on them, arresting as many as 8,000 at a time, and this would happen in waves.

If the Brotherhood became too critical of the regime, its top leaders would be thrown in jail for a period and its street organizers, as well. And that dynamic created a very quiescent Brotherhood.

GROSS: My guest, Thanassis Cambanis, will be back in the second half of the show. He's a foreign affairs columnist for the Boston Globe, where he formerly worked as the Middle East bureau chief. He's the author of "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and their Endless War Against Israel."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Thanassis Cambanis. We're talking about the uprising in Egypt, and in a few minutes, we'll talk about another big change in the Middle East. Last month, the militant group Hezbollah forced the collapse of the government in Lebanon and put together a ruling coalition. Cambanis is the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel." He's also a foreign affairs columnist for the Boston Globe and formerly worked as the paper's Middle East bureau chief. He teaches at Columbia University.

When we left off, we were talking about the Egyptian opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood. Cambanis says the brotherhood has its own internal divisions.

Prof. CAMBANIS: In the last year, what's been happening - and this is very relevant to the immediate future - is a rift within the Muslim Brotherhood between, let's call it a - I don't want to call it a youth wing, because a lot of its members are grownups. But there was a wing of the brotherhood, an activist wing that said it's time for us to oppose Mubarak and call for his downfall. And they lost the internal power struggle to the conservative old guard that said absolutely not. We're not going to endanger the little position that we've carved out for ourselves. We're going to work steadily and slowly for an increased share of power without doing anything that will be perceived as radical and which will threaten the regime. So...

GROSS: So take away the authoritarian regime, and then what does the Muslim Brotherhood stand for? Do we know?

Prof. CAMBANIS: Well, we're going to see that same fight I just described between the old guard and the new guard play out once -presumably once there is some political openness in Egypt and people can actually stake out their real positions. I think we'll see that same rift play out in terms of contemporary politics.

Now, one of the other divisive issues was the brotherhood's charter - or not charter, but constitution - which the one they approved said that women and Coptic Christians can't serve as president of Egypt. This was also a decision that the younger wing took exception to. They said, look. Egypt's a majority Muslim country, sure, and we're the Muslim Brotherhood, sure. But we don't need to exclude half the population, women, from the presidency and the 10 percent of Egypt that Cops high office. That's divisive. It's, in a way, un-Islamic. And they lost that power struggle. I assume what we'll see...

GROSS: But which side lost the power struggle?

Prof. CAMBANIS: The moderate side. The side - the young side said that said we don't need to be, you know, fundamentalist in that way. Now, what I think we'll see is Islamic politics, once they're practiced openly, are going to be evenly divided between Islamists who are sort of in the model of Turkey. You know, they're religious. They're devout. They're pious, but they're not militant, threatening fundamentalists who, you know, want who strip minorities of their rights. And then we'll have old guard Islamists, whose secret dream is sort of like the nightmare of the West, you know, a belligerent, very, very fundamentalist and sort of authoritarian Islamic rule.

I have no idea if they are the majority of the brothers or the minority of the brothers. And frankly, I don't think they do, either.

GROSS: What about the brotherhood's position on Israel? Is there a split within the brotherhood about that?

Prof. CAMBANIS: Well, nobody - I mean, going back to earlier comments, nobody in the Brotherhood is sympathetic to Israel. And nobody in the Brotherhood - and probably very few people in Egypt and the Arab world, period - want to embrace Israel. So the starting point is nobody likes Israel's policies. Nobody likes America's support of Israel. The meaningful question for us to ask is: What do they think should be done about it?

The people we consider moderates from an American vantage point are the ones who might dislike Israel's policies, but don't want to fight Israel. And I think that's sort of the best we can hope for. Any representative government in the Arab world is going to be hostile to Israel, rhetorically and culturally.

So the question is: Will they be hostile, but accept a grudging, cold peace? Or will they be hostile and support, say, the approach of Hezbollah, and say - try to turn this back into a military conflict like we saw in the '60s and '70s? That, of course, would be tremendously stabilizing. But I think there's, frankly, no evidence that any of the powerful constituencies in Egypt want a return to hot war with Israel. I think what they want is an end to this cozy relationship between their police state and Israel's security state.

GROSS: Ever since this uprising in Egypt started, we've seen so many different groups represented in the crowds united in their demand for the overthrow of Mubarak. But yet, just shortly before that uprising started, Coptic Christians seemed under attack in Egypt. Several churches were burned. So can you connect the dots to me from that period, with Coptic Christian under attack and now so many groups seeming united, including Coptic Christians?

Prof. CAMBANIS: Well, we're in an early phase of a revolutionary process. And as we know from history, the, you know, the overthrow of the tyrant phase or the opposition to a tyrant phase is one in which differences are set aside. Those differences tend to emerge later. And inevitably, in Egypt, as throughout the region, several rifts have been playing out and will continue to play out. One is the sectarian rift that's within the Islamic community, the rift between Shia and Sunni. And wider, it's the rift between Christians and Muslims, which was flaring somewhat violently in Egypt over Christmas.

Another axis along which this is playing out is what I call the rift between the axis of accommodation and the axis of resistance. And that's essentially resistance is the axis that allies with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Mahdi Army in Iraq, the sort of axis of people against American and Israeli influence.

And the axis of accommodation are the compromisers who are willing to do deal with the West. It's, you know, the Saudi regime, Mubarak, Israel, of course, the Iraqi leadership and the Jordanian leadership, and so on. And this has been - even while we're not paying attention, this has been the fundamental, divisive spat between two sides of Arab politics.

When the events in Egypt calm down and politics is waged again, that will be the fundamental debate that the old-new order or the new-new order is going to have to sort out and take a position on.

GROSS: Do you think Egypt is one of the countries where, when you take away the dictator, things fall apart?

Prof. CAMBANIS: Well, I mean, that's - I'm not sure. I somehow think fears of Egypt collapsing are overblown. This is not - I mean, it's a rickety state, but it's a state nonetheless. This is not Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where by 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 if 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 love, but it will be something that I think will be enduring.

GROSS: One more thing about Egypt: You know, I've read so many horrifying things about the Egyptian police and their use of torture. And when you were reporting in Egypt, did you fear them? Did you meet people who were tortured? Do you feel their presence, the police's presence, on the streets?

Prof. CAMBANIS: Oh, I'd say by far it's the most oppressive environment that I've worked in the Arab world. And I didn't work in Saddam's Iraq, so I can't compare it to that. But unlike other police states, unlike Syria, for example, where the regime just trusts people to say what the regime wants and keeps their distance, 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 - we were shadowed by members of 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. And these were meetings that had been set up with an attempt at subtlety, by text message, by email, so that we wouldn't face this. And, you know, in functioning in Egyptian society, you come across, constantly, stories of, you know, people beaten or 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. And that's part of what - part of their daily goal is to - 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, as they see it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thanassis Cambanis and he's the former Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe. He writes a foreign policy column for the Globe. Now he teaches at Columbia University and is the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thanassis Cambanis, and he's the former Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe. He now writes the foreign policy column for the Globe. He teaches at Columbia University and is the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel."

Now you covered the war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006. You continued to cover Lebanon after that. You've covered the entire Middle East. So, Hezbollah is now an important part of the picture in terms of how the Middle East is changing in such a rapid way. Hezbollah now controls the government in Lebanon. So let me start by just asking you to connect the dots a little bit. Since you're looking at the region, I'm not sure what my question is here, so...

Prof. CAMBANIS: I have an idea of what the answer might be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CAMBANIS: ...or the beginning of the answer.

GROSS: Okay. Then just take it. Go ahead.

Prof. CAMBANIS: So Hezbollah, for a long time, has been, I think, the only force that's articulated a real clear, ideological alternative to collaboration or accommodation, or even - in the views of the Arab public - defeat. So for a decade or more, really, there have been two schools of thought in the Arab world. One is, look, we just have to do what we can to get along and hope that America and Israel will help us improve our lives a little bit, and we just need to move past decades of conflict.

The other view - the Hezbollah view, the resistance view, as they call it is one that has really wide appeal, and it appeals to the Islamists and to non-Islamists alike. And that message, at its root, is: We can beat Israel by force. And secondly, we can control our own destiny as the Arab world. They have other subsidiary messages that they direct just at their Islamist audiences, and that's a sort of powerful, faith-based message of using their vision of Islam to organize and create a constructive new society that's sort of like an Islamic prosperity gospel.

But in a complete vacuum of era leadership, and a complete vacuum of Arab politics, Hezbollah has been really a lone voice in the region, and that's why it has had tremendous influence in areas really way beyond its context.

GROSS: Now that Hezbollah has genuine political responsibility, leadership power, do you think its number one goal is going to be to attack Israel or to create some kind of stability and forward momentum economically, culturally, socially, politically in Lebanon?

Prof. CAMBANIS: Well, in my view, Hezbollah has always had a two-pronged project and is never going to discard one or the other. One prong is perpetual war against Israel. The other is a construction of an Islamic resistance society.

That doesn't - that society, by the way, doesn't exclude non-Muslims, but it's dominated by Hezbollah's Islamic resistance. So in my view, they're never going to become a quote/unquote "normal political party." They're never going to disband their militia and just run a parliamentary delegation and a bunch of ministries. They are a war organization. At their heart that's how they were created. That sort of - that's their raison d'etre.

Now that doesn't mean they want to have war all the time. They want to have war when they think it's to their advantage, when it suits them. So for the last few years they've enjoyed a period of respite to rebuild all that was destroyed in 2006, to rearm, to re-train. Now it seems they're ready for another war with Israel and they'll engineer it at the moment that is most propitious to them in their view, or I mean in their ideal world, they've managed to engineer a situation in which Israel attacks and they can blame the beginning of the war on Israel.

GROSS: Hezbollah supports an Islamist state in Lebanon. What movement...

Prof. CAMBANIS: That's one of those facts to correct, they don't support an Islamic state in Lebanon.

GROSS: I thought they did. Tell me why they don't?

Prof. CAMBANIS: When they were founded that was in their original - in their 1985 open letter. They've backed away from that in practice. In 1992 and in the charter, the revised charter they released in 2009, they had taken that out. So they - I mean they've - but 1992 was when Hassan Nasrallah publicly said we're not going to try and create an Islamic state in Lebanon. The conditions aren't right. This isn't anything like Iran. It doesn't make sense here, so we're quite to stop trying for that.

GROSS: How much popular support does Hezbollah have among people who aren't Shia, among people who are Sunni or Christian?

Prof. CAMBANIS: A lot of Hezbollah's recipe for popular support has been success. They're popular so long as they're perceived to be winning and so long as they're succeeding. They have a very - they've established this great track record militarily against Israel in the last 10 or 20 years and that has won them huge amounts of support from Christians, from Druze and from Sunni Lebanese and other Arabs.

It's unclear to me how much of that support they retain if their military project stops succeeding. But for the time being, they've really, they've unified a huge block of alliances with non-Shia groups. I mean, when you look at today's government in Lebanon, the government that Hezbollah picked and that was formed after Hezbollah toppled the old government, the prime minister is a Sunni, most of the ministers are Christians from Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and it's got ministers from an allied Druze group, from Armenian groups and so on.

These are all political parties that are based in other sects or other ethnicities and who have cast their lot 100 percent with Hezbollah and that have accepted Hezbollah's political leadership and they've accepted Hezbollah's militant belligerent position towards Israel. So it has legs and it has broad appeal.

Again, my sense is that a lot of that has to do with people picking a winner. I mean, if Hezbollah were getting shellacked on the battlefield by Israel and then failing to rebuild afterwards and were in a financial tailspin and didn't have the deep pockets of Iran and the help of Syria to allow it to reconstitute its militia so quickly, I'm not sure all these outside people would love the idea of Hezbollah so much.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thanassis Cambanis and he's the former Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe. He now writes a foreign affairs policy column for the Globe. He teaches at Columbia University and is the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thanassis Cambanis and he's a former Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe. He now writes a foreign policy column for the Globe. He's also covered the Middle East for The New York Times and he teaches at Columbia University.

Your book about Hezbollah is called "A Privilege to Die," which refers to people in the Hezbollah who are willing to die for their cause, and that would include suicide bombers?

Prof. CAMBANIS: Hezbollah hasn't deployed a suicide bomber since 1999.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CAMBANIS: And throughout the '90s they actually curtailed their use of suicide bombing and used it only against military targets. Even that, they realized was helping, was contributing to their being branded a terrorist group, so they abandoned the tactic. And not because they think there's anything wrong with it, but simply because they thought it wasn't worth the political price they had to pay. And I think that's one of the many signs of what kind of adaptive organization it has - it is.

They have this very extreme ideology but they have an credibly pragmatic view of tactics. So the title as well evokes this idea that legions of Hezbollah members are willing to die for Hezbollah. And as a result, Hezbollah doesn't ask too many of them to actually do so.

And that's one of the sort of interesting touches of the organization Hezbollah has created. It acts as if it values the lives of its members, so that on the infrequent occasions when Hezbollah says, okay, we're going to start a war now or we started a war and now we ask you to do X, Y, or Z that may lose you your life, it's the rank-and-file say absolutely, we're happy to do it because we know you wouldn't ask us to do this on a lark. And we also know that if we're killed or if our houses are destroyed you're going to come back and rebuild it, you're going to come back and pay our families and support them. We trust you to take care of us institutionally not just ideologically.

GROSS: Let's look at Israel for a moment as the Mideast changes. How does that change Israel's position?

Prof. CAMBANIS: If you accept this idea that the Middle East is swinging right now, the pendulum of the Middle East is swinging between an axis of accommodation and an axis of resistance, for Israel that has very, very direct and perhaps distressing consequences. I mean, if the axis of resistance that currently encompasses Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah grows to include the entire Lebanese government, say, or gain sympathy from a new Egyptian government, if Jordan is forced to moderate its currently unconditional support for Israel because of popular outcry, any of those changes is possible and any of those changes means a serious reconsideration for Israel of its positions.

First and foremost, it might force Israel to consider re-engaging seriously in peace talks with the Palestinians. It would also have to force them, I think, to reassess their defense posture because, you know, right now, Israel has been - is so much more powerful than all its nearby enemies that it can sort of go for a zero threat, it can aim for a zero threat environment.

And if they face a stronger array of allies or they faced a sort of enemies or if they faced a nuclear Iran they would have to deal in a much more uncertain climate, and a climate in which even if they were by far the strongest they wouldn't be completely dominant.

GROSS: As we see things changing in the Middle East in Egypt, in Lebanon, protests in Jordan, what's on your mind?

Prof. CAMBANIS: I mean, I've always seen the Middle East as a struggle between American-backed autocrats on one side and these Islamists on the other, led most articulately by Hezbollah. But the explosion of popular anger and activism in Egypt opens up a really intriguing third possibility, and that's the possibility that a real, a truly popular secular mass political movement could emerge as an alternative to either of those two poles that we've been sort of captive to for the last several decades.

If that's the case, that could really write a new chapter in Arab politics because 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. And I think they would be hungry for and very receptive to, say, an Egypt-centered political movement that talks about Arab empowerment but not about endless war.

GROSS: Say the pro-democracy uprising in Egypt fails and a crackdown succeeds, has that movement still changed things in the Arab world? Will that movement have changed things?

Prof. CAMBANIS: No matter how much power these protests end up taking they have injected conclusively a new idea and a new force in Arab politics. And that force is going to remain on the stage a long with the old forces, the forces of Islamic resistance and of autocracy. Their demand for popular accountability, for some kind of transparency, for improved standards of living, is going to become part of the political dialogue and it'll be jostling with the ideas of the old Islamists and perpetual war supporters and it's going to be jostling with the ideas of the old regime stability supporters and it's going to create a new language that they're all going to have to use.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. CAMBANIS: Thank you.

GROSS: Thanassis Cambanis is a foreign affairs columnist for the Boston Globe where he formally worked as Middle East bureau chief. He teaches at Columbia University and is the author of the book "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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