When the revolution erupted in Egypt in 2011, journalist Thanassis Cambanis *00 knew he had to be there: “It was clearly a historical moment for the Arab world.” In Once Upon a Revolution, Cambanis tells the story of two ordinary Egyptians who threw themselves into overthrowing President Hosni Mubarak and championing democracy, in different ways.
Basem Kamel, a 40-year-old architect, had been working 16-hour days at his architecture firm. His father always had told him that political participation was a ticket to prison. But Kamel devoted himself to overturning the corrupt Egyptian political system. Described by Cambanis as “a study in steadiness,” he focused on working toward democratic elections rather than protest. He soon decided — with the grudging consent of his family — to run for Parliament, and won a seat.
Moaz Abdelkarim was a charismatic career activist who focused on street revolt. Having grown up in a family immersed in politics and Islam, the 26-year-old pharmacist was deeply committed to his ideals and faith. Though Abdelkarim had held leadership roles in the Muslim Brotherhood since high school, he defied his party to help establish a revolutionary group that advocated a secular state.
Cambanis writes about Abdelkarim and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition leading a protest when the new Parliament was sworn in early in 2012. They were surrounded by riot police, but the protesters failed to draw supporters. “It was such an encapsulation of the helplessness of this beautiful idealistic movement that was completely outgunned and wasn’t sure how to get where it wanted to go,” he says.
Cambanis developed a strong interest in the Middle East while covering the Iraq war for The Boston Globe. The fact that so many Egyptians upended their lives to pursue political reform was extraordinary, he says. Kamel continues his political work and will make another run for Parliament this year. Abdelkarim left Egypt to avoid arrest and lives in exile in Istanbul, but is reluctant to settle there. Says Cambanis, “He doesn’t want to admit that there’s a chance he won’t be able to go back home anytime soon.”