Thanassis Cambanis

Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation. He is a Boston Globe columnist and author of A Privilege to Die.

Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation. He is a Boston Globe columnist and author of A Privilege to Die.


How successful have the Camp David accords been in affecting civility in the region?

The Camp David accords, I think, have been a little bit brittle in the modern era. I think the way we understand them in the United States has created a lot of problems for us, for Israel, and for Egypt. Egypt and Israel agreed to the peace treaty in the ’70s for reasons of their own that endure to this day. One of the big problems with the Camp David accords is that they make us, in the United States, think that a piece of paper is the reason why Egypt does not attack Israel. In reality, Egypt does not going to war with Israel today because it is in their interest not to. Peace is in Egypt’s interest even if they don’t like Israel, even if they have a culture clash, even if they chafe at a lot of the things that Israel does in the neighborhood. So we have to understand that the Camp David accords really need to evolve and adapt to this new situation, where there’s going to be peace, but it’s going to be a different kind of peace than we had in the ’80s when everyone did what we told them to as the United States and we paid them to do that.

How have the Camp David accords benefited Israel?

Well look, from Israel’s perspective having peace with Egypt has been invaluable, and honestly since the last war in 1973 Israel has not had to face a major state actor as a military rival. They’ve had trouble with non-state groups, like Hamas or Hezbolla in Lebanon, but they have not had to face attack from a major Arab state. So for Israel, that’s an invaluable piece of stability that allows them to plan for their security and plan for their economic growth. Now from Egypt’s perspective, Egypt originally felt like it had made a great; it did make a great political sacrifice to sign this treaty. It was, for a decade, ostracized by the Arab world. And the money that came as part of the Camp David accords, the money that the United States gave them, was really the sweetener that made this deal make sense for the Egyptian elite. Now what’s changed today is a real basic shift in the power dynamics and a basic shift in how much tension we’re willing to tolerate in that region and feel like the region is still secure. So, a free Egypt is going to criticize Israel in a way that Mubarak’s Egypt never did. Mubarak’s Egypt honored core demands from the United States; which were stability with Israel, free passage of our goods through the Suez Canal, and tight military to military cooperation between the United States and Egypt. Those were the only three things that Washington cared about. So long as Mubarak honored those one hundred percent, we didn’t care what else he did. Now we’re suddenly dealing with an independent political sphere in Egypt, in which their leaders are going to have to address public opinion. A key tenet of public opinion is dissatisfaction with Israel. So short of attacking Israel and starting a war anew, Egypt is going to become a critical, recalcitrant, difficult, reluctant ally on issues that have to do with Israel; and that’s unto which Israel and the United States are going to have to adjust because it really can’t go any other way.

So how under threat is the agreement that we’ve had for thirty years?

The Egyptian government is likely to request amendments to the treaty. Most certainly they’re going to request change in the status of the Sinai; right now the Sinai is really not sovereign Egyptian territory. Egypt has to get permission from Israel, for example, if it wants to deploy military in the Sinai above a certain level. Imagine if Washington had to get permission from Mexico City before sending the National Guard to the border of Texas, and that’s where that is. Egypt and Israel retain common interest in the Sinai in getting rid of the jihadi extremist groups that are flared there. That’s one part of the treaty that’s going to be open to revision. There are a lot of other corollaries that have risen up over the years that we don’t think of as being part of the Camp David accords, but which actually, legally, are connected to it. For example, the relatively recent treaty governing the sale of natural gas form Egypt to Israel was on paper linked to the Camp David accords. That’s certainly a matter that the Egyptian government will revisit. That was a corrupt sweetheart deal negotiated by cronies of Mubarak. That deal will be revisited and technically that will be an alteration of some element of the Camp David accords as well.

Over the years, what are some of the milestones where this relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States benefited our interests in the region?

I think we’re at a pivotal moment in the way the United States relates to the Arab world in the Middle East. We are now beginning a long overdue process of understanding our interests there and changing our calculus about what our interests are there and also how much impact we have on what the region does. The U.S. has a clear policy addressed in Israeli security, and has a clear policy addressed in the free flow of natural resources, mainly oil from the Arab world. Beyond that, however, especially since 9/11, we’ve relied on tyrannical Arab governments to be our allies in the global war on terror. And we specifically drew on Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence services, Gaddafi’s intelligence services, and Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence services to help us pursue jihadists and often to indict prisoners captured by United State’s agents and often to torture them. That is a security relationship that I think has caused America more problems than benefits, and that’s one of the many planks of this relationship that we’re going to need to revisit. Another key insight that America needs to absorb is that oil producing countries have a great interest in getting their oil to market. They will want to sell their oil to the person that will pay the most for it, regardless of whether we’re giving them huge amounts of military aid or other economic incentives. They need to sell their oil, that’s how they make their money. If we understand that it changes the dynamic that we have, not only with Egypt, but with Saudi Arabia, with Bahrain, and with other smaller oil producers in the nation; because we realize they need us, whether as consumers or as military protectors, more than we need them.

How did our relationship with Mubarak’s regime kind of make us conflicted early on, or did it, when the Arab Spring was beginning, when the Egyptian uprising was starting?

When the Arab uprisings began, and when the protests spread to Egypt, the United States experienced a huge failure of imagination, very similar to the one that the Egyptian leadership itself experienced. Washington found it simply impossible to imagine that Mubarak’s regime could fall, and certainly found it impossible to imagine that it could fall to a grassroots popular revolt. The United States’ understanding of Egypt had been really shoehorned into a very narrow tunnel. America saw Egyptian politics and Egyptian lives through the eyes of Egypt’s ruling party, ruling class. And essentially it forfeited its own independent thinking and investigation and research to see what was really happening in Egypt. So America was just as blindsided as Egypt. The other failure, and the initial failure to understand, was that America could still see its interests served by Egypt, an Egypt governed by someone other than Mubarak or by a party other than Mubarak’s ruling party. That understanding slowly sank in and now we see, a year and a half after the uprising, American diplomats and military officials meeting with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, members of the secular opposition, and members of the old ruling class; and exhibiting an understanding that America can reach some kind of understanding or accommodation with any pragmatic actor, even if we disagree on some major things.

Can you explain the power struggle between the youth movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the military?

I find it helpful to think of Egyptian politics as operating on two different levels. One level is the struggle for power between the entities that already have power. So we have the military, which is huge, it has a sprawling economic empire. We have the police, which employs between one and two million people and until recently was in charge of vetting everything from who could be on the board of directors of a company to who can get tenure at a university. Then we have the old ruling party, we have Mubarak’s cronies. Very interestingly, this is different from America; we have a bureaucracy that has incredible powers unto itself that are really independent from whoever’s in charge of the government. And here I’m thinking especially of the court system, which has authorities that we can’t even begin to imagine when we think about our own system here in the United States. All these power centers have been fiercely struggling with one another since Mubarak’s fall, to emerge with the greatest possible share of power. So that’s one level on which Egypt is being contested.

Now the other level, which to me is much more exciting and interesting as an analyst and reporter, is the struggle between the status quo forces and the youth forces. The youth forces are what drove Tahrir Square, the youth forces are what made the uprising happen, and it was the youth with a wide variety of ideological backgrounds who came together and really changed the entire dynamics of Egyptian political life. They have yet, in any single sphere, to actually take power. So here is this contest between say, the young and the old, or progressive thinking and let’s say sclerotic, stuck thinking. And it has taken place in every ideological area. So within the Muslim Brotherhood, there are Muslim Brotherhood youth who are struggling against what they see as a crusty and regressive old guard. Same in the liberal opposition parties. Same in the labor movement. Same even in the ruling party, where there is a coterie of young authoritarians who are much more open minded and creative than the people who used to run the government. So that struggle is taking place in every place at every level. I think in twenty years time, when we survey the Egyptian political elite, again from the Islamists all the way to the hardcore secular sphere, we will find it dominated by people who today are in their early twenties and are at the forefront of the struggle of youth to modernize their country.

How big is the role of the military on the Egyptian economy?

The role of the military is too big in every way, in every sphere. It has too much influence in politics and it has far too much control over the economy. Now nobody actually knows how big the military’s economic empire is. But estimates, reasonable estimates, hover around thirty percent of Gross Domestic Product. The military builds major highways; the military bottles water, olive oil; it owns farms, it owns resorts; it owns entire cities, vacation cities on the coast. This is bad in a number of ways. First of all it retards Egypt’s economic development. It also vests the military with a whole set of interests that have nothing to do with its mission and that creates all kinds of fall on political problems. I think from an American point of view, we can compare it to our concern over a military industrial complex which has it’s in own address in, let’s say, weapons programs in multiple states and employing and funding various people. Now imagine that if, during a time of lean budgets, the United States had authorized the military to move into food production and clothing production as a way of supplementing their income in order to fund the construction of tanks and then years later when the crisis abated, the military had continued to dominate those industries. That is what, in fact, happened in Egypt and it’s going to be harder to reverse that and take longer to reverse that than it will to sideline the military from politics.

Who’s Mohamed Morsi and how is he viewed by U.S. policy makers?

Mohamed Morsi is the newly elected president of Egypt. He’s a career, Muslim Brotherhood, I would call him bureaucrat. He’s not one of their most charismatic leaders, but he is a smart organization man. He has a Ph.D. from the United States and technically he’s a rocket scientist. He is viewed in Egypt as something of an unimaginative, but dependable, organization man. I think the United States is trying to figure out whether Morsi is going to be simply an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood, or whether he will be an independent leader in his own right. To me, there’s no doubt that whatever he began as, he will quickly evolve an independent power center of his own. The presidency in Egypt has a tremendous amount of authority; this man is sitting in that chair. It might take him some months or even half a year to get used to wielding that kind of power, but once he does I think we can expect him, like frankly all presidents who inherit an authoritarian system, to behave as a dynamic and bold leader that brings problems as well as benefits. Once a person realizes that they have total control on paper over the entire apparatus of the state, without the kinds of checks and balances that make for a healthy democracy, we can expect both rapid change in good ways, and rapid crack downs and escalating limits on freedom and other bad things.

What can we glean from the moves Morsi’s already made?

Well, first and foremost, Mohamed Morsi is a Muslim Brother; he believes in that organizations credo and he will use the power of the presidency to try and achieve one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s core aims, which is to make society more socially conservative, more Islamic, and more religious. That’s, at once, less nefarious than the kinds of aims Americans and Israelis think the Muslim Brotherhood will prioritize, but it’s also much more nefarious for Egyptians who aren’t already in that school of thought. So we can expect to see, in the short term, changes in education, changes in religious practice, perhaps limits on civil liberties and other freedoms, and limits on the minority rights of Christians; which will come as part of a package of ‘Islamicizing’ society, and I think that’s where we can expect the most change

If you were advising U.S. policy makers, what tact would you advise they take with Egypt in the next, over the next year?

One of the biggest shifts America needs to make is to realize the limits on its influence over the Arab world in the Middle East. We spent a lot of money in treasure, we spent a lot of military resources in Israel and the Arab world. And it’s become more and more clear over time that we have very limited ability to tell people what to do. As we recognize that, I think we will be able to shift the basket of policy options we attempt into a more realistic zone. So we have a lot of ability to influence what policy makers in the Arab world and in Egypt see as their options. We have very little ability to order them around and tell them what to do. So what we want is to promote our core aims and I think we need to redefine what those core aims are. One, of course, is always regional stability. That means peace with Israel. That also means peace between the different Arab states.

The second one is economic growth and improvement in governance, because one of the things we’ve learned in the Arab uprisings is that states that don’t delivery freedom, prosperity, and well being to their citizens are inherently unstable. So that becomes a security problem for the region and for the United States. So we really need to make that one of our central aims, along with strategic military security. That means, sometimes, directing money towards programs like that. Instead of sending, let’s say, another billion dollars worth of tank parts to assemble, we could send a tenth that much in terms of agricultural assistance or infrastructure assistance, which would actually have long term improvements for Egypt.

And finally, I think we need to begin to treat these countries as junior partners, rather than as vassals. We would never imagine having foreign policy relationships with European countries or Asian countries the way we try to have with countries in the Arab world, where we assume that their domestic politics don’t matter. We assume that what their people want doesn’t matter. We have to start to take that into account, even when the things that those people want run counter to what we like. So we don’t have to support what the people want, but we have to but we have to take it into account. If all the people in a country like Egypt want; if all the people in a country like Egypt oppose their government’s position towards Israel, we have to factor that in and figure out a way to sell our policy on Israel that makes sense to them. We don’t have to like what they think, but we also just can’t ignore it.

What can you tell us about Iran’s role in the Middle East?

For about ten years, a lot of people have understood there to be sort of a cold war in the Middle East; between Iran, on the one hand, and the Sunni Arab states on the other. Some people simplistically put it as cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. I think that’s a little too simple, a little too reductionist, but it’s largely true. I mean, there is a schism between the Shia Islamic world and the Sunni Islamic world; there’s certainly a battle for influence between the Sunni Arab oil producing states in the Gulf and the Shia Islamic theocracy of Iran on the other hand. And that battle has played itself out in some really horrible ways.

Iran has funded a trained terrorist splinter groups in the Palestinian territories, it’s been the overwhelming backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it’s been a major backer of the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria. It’s also been behind a lot of the instability in Iraq. This is a struggle with long term consequences. It plays out in whether Iran seeks a nuclear weapon. It also plays out in whether some of these non state actors like Hezbollah opt for greater violence rather than greater stability. This is largely a function of how secure Iran feels in its regional position.