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.
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."