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Alexander Kazamias: A Greek Political Scientist in Britain Talks about the Egyptian Revolution, the ‘Movement of the Indignant’ and the Greek Left

By Zdravka Mihaylova

Following a well-established academic career in the UK, like a fair number of diaspora Greeks, Alexander Kazamias has been a successful scholar abroad. He was born in 1969 in Cairo of Greek parents and grew up in Egypt until the age of 17.  In 1986 he moved to Britain, where he studied Politics, International Relations and History at the universities of Coventry, Birmingham and London. Although he never lived in Greece, as he says, this is the only country where he is never treated as a foreigner. Since 1993 he has been teaching Politics at Coventry University, but he also taught briefly at the universities of Warwick, Moscow, Princeton and Oxford.  He has written several articles and book chapters on the politics and history of modern Greece and modern Egypt and is author of the forthcoming book “Greece and the Cold War”, published in London by Tauris in 2012.  Between 1993 and 2008, he contributed regularly to the Athens-based magazine Anti.

In your recent article “The ‘Anger Revolutions’ in the Middle East: An Answer to Decades of Failed Reform” (Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, June 2011), you refer to the US administration’s attempt to portray the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as popular calls for ‘reform’. You also remind us that a century ago, Egypt’s colonial ruler, Lord Cromer, wrote a book describing his own autocratic policies in the Nile Valley as “the history of reform in Egypt”. What steps beyond overthrowing these countries’ authoritarian regimes are needed to make them function in a truly democratic way?

In the article you mention, I drew parallels between the discourse on ‘reform’ by the current US administration and Lord Cromer’s writings a century ago in order to stress two things. First, that despite the end of colonialism, the dominant way of thinking and talking about the Arab World has changed little since Cromer’s days. My second point relates to the remarks made half-a-century ago by the liberal political thinker, Hannah Arendt. In her book “On Revolution” (1962), she notes that although 19th century liberalism was immersed in revolutionary activity, in the 20th century it developed a phobic attitude towards it. This was, of course, a reaction to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the fear of communism during the Cold War. In my article I imply quite clearly that even today, 22 years after the end of the Cold War, US liberalism still suffers from the same phobia, even though revolution is a perfectly legitimate way of bringing about change in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. However, the attempt of American policy-makers to sanitise the Middle East revolutions by calling them ‘protests’ or ‘reform movements’ confirms that the US has failed to reinvent itself since the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, this is happening under the leadership of the first Black-American president, an educated man who three years ago seemed determined to introduce a genuine liberal agenda to the politics of his country.

It is now six months since the start of the ‘Arab Spring’. Sadly, a strong counter-revolutionary current is slowing down the drive towards change. What is required in Tunisia and Egypt is unity among the progressive elements which led the revolutions, because it is perfectly clear that this is going to be a very long struggle. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of these forces into numerous political parties weakens the dynamic for change. I have several friends who recently joined parties in Egypt. In our discussions, we agree about the changes needed in the next few years, but unfortunately, these people are scattered across four different parties. This division plays into the hands of the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brothers, who appear to be the main beneficiaries of the Revolution so far.

The Greek media often refer to another “third dimension” of the economic and social crisis that hit Greece since 2008, that is a crisis in moral values. In an interview last year with the Slovak newspaper Pravda you expressed the opinion that Greece is in a pre-revolutionary situation. What makes you think so?

A moral crisis in public life began to emerge in Greece in the 1980s. If Federico Fellini were a Greek filmmaker, he would have made La dolce Vita in 1989, the year in which several ministers from the ruling PASOK party had their immunity lifted by Parliament on suspicion of involvement in corruption scandals. Some were even found guilty, like deputy prime minister Menios Koutsogiorgas, who had received $2 million from George Koskotas, a Greek-American crook who later spent 12 years in jail in the US. Yet PASOK and its supporters still believe that 1989 was a conspiracy against them orchestrated by their opponents! Greece’s serving prime minister, George Papandreou, the politician in charge of clearing the country from its present mess, is reportedly the man who introduced Koskotas to his father Andreas when the latter was also prime minister in the 1980s. But let me refer you to the statement made last year by the President of the Republic, Karolos Papoulias, himself a former PASOK minister. On the eve of Greece’s recourse to the IMF in Μay 2010, Papoulias called upon the country’s politicians to “recognise our mistakes which we have made in the past, no one excepted, including myself”. Unfortunately, no other politician has found the courage to come out and apologise to the Greek people.

On EU-funded projects and borrowed money, Greece grew economically between 1994 and 2008 at a rate approaching 4 percent per annum, the second highest in the EU15. As long as some of this money trickled down to most – but not all – Greeks, the media and the electorate tolerated the growing corruption involving politicians. I recall that in 2000 I wrote the first of several articles in Anti magazine on political corruption under the Simitis government. In 2005 I also wrote a chapter in Theodore Pelagidis’s book, “The Entanglement of Reform in Greece”, referring to the regime of ‘cleptocracy’ which dominated Greece from 2000 to 2004. Although some New Democracy ministers quoted it in Parliament a couple of times – obviously because the only thing they cared about was that it criticised PASOK – their party turned out to be even more shameful in its record of corruption when it formed a government between 2004 and 2009.

In the interview to the Slovak Pravda 12 months ago, I said that “Greece is on the verge of a revolutionary situation”. This is more obvious today, as tens of thousands of angry citizens gather every day in Syntagma Square, the so-called “Μovement of the Indignant”. Of course, I fully share their hatred and disgust towards the corrupt politicians who run the country and when I was in Athens recently, I joined their protest. I cannot recall such levels of popular dissent in Greece since the establishment of democracy in 1974. World media channels, like the BBC, portray these protests merely as a reaction to the IΜF measures, but this is a very superficial analysis. These people are mainly repulsed to see the same politicians who presided over decades of embezzlement, mismanagement and nepotism now introduce the biggest tax cuts in Greek history with broad smiles on their faces. I am thinking specifically about George Papaconstantinou, the arrogant Finance Μinister, who seems to be enjoying every moment of his meetings with leading EU statesmen and officials, as if his regular visits to Brussels are a sort of achievement or happy occasion to smile about.

Popular anger is also evident in the fact that for the first time in Greece’s 37-year-old democracy, former and current government ministers are physically attacked in the streets by ordinary citizens, including some, like Apostolos Kaklamanis, Costis Hatjidakis and Andeas Loverdos, who are among the least likely suspects of involvement in corruption. The same is also happening to leading trade unionists who are regarded as lackeys of the PASOK government or to journalists who write for the establishment press. The other day, Greek ΜPs were forced to leave Parliament late at night, through the back doors leading to the National Park, because they feared the angry demonstrators. It is clear from these and other incidents that the hoards of unemployed and underpaid young men and women consider most parliamentarians, trade union bosses and journalists as belonging to the same corrupt elite which brought Greece to its financial ruin.

You are a Cairo-born Greek and lived there until you left school in 1986. The Greeks of Egypt are known to be amongst the most open-minded in the Greek Diaspora. Their contribution to the progress of the Greek nation, both economic and intellectual, is immense. What was the fate of the Greek-Egyptian community after Nasser came to power in 1952? You have a non-standard opinion about the dissolution of the Greek community in Egypt during the Nasserite period. What, if not a de jure expulsion, were the reasons for it?

Yes, I grew up in Cairo in the 1970s and 1980s in a Greek community of a few thousand members. In the early 1980s, my school, one of three Greek schools still functioning in Egypt, had over 250 pupils. When I later discovered that practically every Greek in the world thinks that Egypt’s Greek community, which produced great writers like Cavafy and Tsirkas, was expelled from Egypt by Nasser – my wife even heard it from a taxi driver in London (!) – I began to wonder: if this is so, then who were these people I grew up with? If the Greeks were indeed expelled by Nasser, how did these thousands, most of whom I remember by name, manage to stay in Egypt?

My father, Stefanos, a perceptive man who served as vice-president of the Greek Community in Cairo during the 1990s, often recalled that Nasser’s nationalisations in 1961 triggered mass panic among the Greeks. In 1961, when many Greeks decided to leave Egypt, my father was an employee of an Egyptian private firm that had been just nationalised. He did not hold Egyptian nationality, only Greek, and had to renew his residency permit every 10 years. Yet by the early 1970s, he became branch manager of the nationalised Tractor and Engineering Co. and won several state awards for his service. As a child, I remember his office in Bab El-Looq Square, overlooking about 20 Egyptian employees behind a glass wall and above his head were the portraits of presidents Nasser and Sadat. There was nothing abnormal about this image in my mind. In fact, until his death in 2007, my father continued to live in Egypt, while my mother was there during the ‘25 January’ Revolution and voted for the first time in her life in the Egyptian constitutional referendum last Μarch. None of this would have happened if the Greeks had been expelled by Nasser.

After I studied history in Britain and understood how the view that the Greeks were expelled from Egypt was constructed, I felt I had the duty to research the subject and support the version of events which I witnessed as a child. However, since I began to say that there is scant evidence behind the claim that the Greeks were expelled from Egypt and that a host of other sources suggest a different story, I found myself under pressure. For example, before a talk I gave at Princeton University on this subject in 2005, I received a few e-mails from American-Jews I never met, who more or less advised me to say that Nasser expelled the Greeks from Egypt, like he did with the Jews. Of course, the two cases are very different, but these individuals did not seem to care much about the historical truth. I suspect that they worked for the notorious “Jewish Lobby” in the US.

You were actively involved in organizing two conferences and a special issue of Anti magazine on the acclaimed Egyptian-Greek writer Stratis Tsirkas (1911-1980), whose three-volume novel “Drifting Cities” was described by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre as “a great rich novel of the sort that is hardly written any more”. Three cities – Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria – serve as a World War II backdrop to the activities of the protagonist, Manos, an army hero, poet, lover of life and underground resistance operative. Have you met Tsirkas (an Alexandrian Greek who later resided in Athens)? What kind of man was he and what were the accents you put in the events on his life and work you organized?

When Tsirkas died I was 11 years old. I therefore never met him, but had the pleasure of meeting his wife, Antigoni – who is in her late 90s now – and I also knew Tsirkas’s younger sister, Alexandra, a wonderful woman who sadly died in 2001. For years, I would regularly visit Alexandra’s husband, Pavlos Maloukatos, a very interesting and affable man who worked closely with Tsirkas in the leadership of the ‘Antifascist Vanguard’, the underground communist organization of Egypt’s Greeks from 1944 to 1961. Sadly, Pavlos also died last December, aged 92.

Regarding your question, I must point out that strictly speaking Tsirkas is not an ‘Alexandrian’, although he is often thought of as one because he lived for 25 years in that city. Tsirkas was born and raised in the Cairo district of ‘Abdeen, and my mother’s father, Nicolas Paparoditis, knew him well in the 1930s as a neighbour and fellow communist. Together with the Cypriot writers, Nicos Nicolaidis and Theodosis and Yiorgos Pieridis, they formed a leftist group around the legendary figure of interwar Egyptian communism, Sakellaris Yannakakis. The second novel of Tsirkas’s Trilogy, “Ariagne”, is set in the notorious Balaxa Alley in ‘Abdeen, which lies about 200 meters away from his first home in ‘Abdel Dayem Street and even closer to my grandparents’ flat, where I often stayed as a child. The incredible characters of children like Naboulion, Tolba and Shekh Saltam, are based on Tsirkas’s childhood friends. In the 1970s, when I used to go with my grandmother to the Balaxa, I often met kids who behaved like Tolba and Naboulion.

I don’t know exactly what kind of man Tsirkas was, but I heard numerous stories about him from people who knew him well. Μost of these people enjoyed his company, because he was a great story teller and a bon viveur, but it seems that he was also very disciplined in his work and difficult to deal with in certain situations, especially as local party leader. It is ironic that he should write so much against communist authoritarianism when, according to some, he never broke fully with that tradition himself. But it is clear that he was deeply torn between his democratic and humanist values on one hand, and a manner which was sometimes aggressive and disciplinarian on the other. Before these stories fade away, I think that someone should attempt to write a biography of Tsirkas. According to many critics, he is the most important modern Greek novelist, more so than even Kazantzakis.

From 1993 to 2008 you were a regular contributor to the Athens-based Anti magazine, perhaps the only truly independent leftist publication in the country. Its first issue was suppressed by the junta upon publication in 1972, but after the restoration of democracy its editor Christos Papoutsakis (1934-2009) resumed publication uninterruptedly for 36 years. Throughout its existence Anti was a tribune as much as a ‘school’ for a number of contrarian Greek journalists. What was your experience of working together with Christos Papoutsakis?

Christos Papoutsakis was a personality that one rarely meets in life. When I first met him in 1993, Anti was a much quieter place than it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the intellectuals who wrote for it in earlier years had either become career politicians or were in the last years of their lives. Although I was in my mid-20s at the time, Christos always introduced me to known intellectuals and artists associated with the magazine, which was his own way of instilling in me certain values and a deeper intellectual confidence. I vividly recall taking part in interesting conversations with the acclaimed novelist Andreas Frangias, the distinguished literary critic Panos Μoullas, the veteran journalist Sofianos Chrysostomidis, the famous singer Aliki Kagialoglou, the Romanian movie star Maya Morgenstern and others! Thanks to Christos, I was able to meet these remarkable people at a fairly young age and this experience influenced me profoundly.

As I am sure you recall, Papoutsakis never sounded didactic or over the top. Whenever I was in Athens, he would say on the phone: “Come by this afternoon; we will work a bit on the next issue (of Anti) and then go out”. As soon as I arrived, he would read my article, make a few comments, and then hand me a pile of other articles to read and discuss with him and the other editors. Then he might ask me to write an anonymous comment or a couple of paragraphs which he could later incorporate into the ‘editorial’. This was how you learnt things in the magazine, very empirically. I found this amusing, because it contrasted sharply with my academic education and, of course, I knew nothing about journalism. Christos, who was also not a journalist, but an architect by training, moved in this environment like the supervisor of a collective design project. He would suggest a change here, another there, ask two people to work together on something, hold a consultation briefing to formulate a clearer position on a complex issue, etc. Later, I realized that this was how he learnt himself at Athens Polytechnic, when he was taught in a small class of about a dozen students by some of the leading architects of the day. In fact, the offices of Anti were his design studio, where he supervised young architects in this way before he started producing the magazine in the 1970s. Christos used to say that he ran Anti “in a centralized manner”, but I think that much of the work was carried out collectively under a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke, heated discussions, jokes and ringing phones. Meanwhile, an army of journalists, academics, writers, artists and cartoonists would pass by and at about 10 p.m. those who still had the energy would go to the local taverna, where more people would normally turn up!

I know, many regret that Anti suspended its publication in 2008. I miss it, too. But I feel that the end was inescapable, because Christos was very ill by that time and I recall that he edited the last issue from his hospital bed. I therefore share the view of other contributors who say that Anti has fulfilled its role in Greek public life. In its last years, fewer and fewer young people read it and the influence it once had was difficult to revive. Having said this, I should also point out that in early 2008 the magazine’s circulation was picking up again. I say this because I want to clarify that what was said in the Greek Parliament at the time, that the magazine closed down because of the heavy court fine imposed on it in 2007 over the Frysiras libel case, is not accurate. The magazine launched a successful campaign and the fine was finally paid, largely through the readers’ significant donations. Anti suspended its publication one year later because Papoutsakis’s health had deteriorated.

Your forthcoming book “Greece and the Cold War” (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012) analyses milestone developments in post-WWII history: the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the US involvement in Greek affairs, the support of Greek right-wing governments for enosis with Cyprus, etc. These are addressed from the novel perspective of critical international theory which promises to reveal the unexplored connections between dependence and nationalism in Greek foreign policy. What are these connections?

In response to factors like the War in former Yugoslavia, the new theories on nationalism, the discourse on ‘globalisation’ and the mass frenzy in Greece against the use of Μacedonia’s name by FYROΜ, a significant amount of new research on Greek nationalism has emerged. As a critic of nationalism, I sympathise with much of this work and I see it as a healthy reaction to the tradition of ‘Helleno-centric’ scholarship which still dominates Greek culture and education. As you know, I recently wrote a chapter with A. Stouraiti in a book co-edited by Professor Thalia Dragonas, who was recently targeted by the far right in Parliament because of her contribution to the critical study of nationalism.

At the same time, however, I think that there is a tendency among many of the historians who lead this trend to reduce most things to the influence of Greek nationalism. I find that there is something distinctly simplistic in this approach and I try to avoid it in my own work. Not that I consider Greek nationalism to be less of a problem than these historians do. On the contrary! I am as critical of it as they are, but unlike them, I do not regard it as the only source of evil for the Balkans in general and for Greece in particular. I say this for two reasons. First, as your compatriot, Μaria Todorova, has argued in her book, Imagining the Balkans (1996), countries like Greece and Bulgaria were also influenced by the European discourse of ‘Balkanism’ and by a history of external intervention which kept them peripheral, dependent and culturally frustrated. This important dimension is missing from the recent critical scholarship on Greek nationalism and it is something which I try to restore through the perspective I adopt in Greece and the Cold War. Secondly, if you study Greek nationalism closely, as I do in this book, you will find that especially after 1944 it never existed in the pure form presented by much of the recent scholarship. After the Truman Doctrine, Greek nationalism became inextricably linked with another, equally powerful ideology, Atlanticism, also known as ‘Cold War liberalism’. Consequently, a mainstream Greek nationalist in the 1950s could no longer advocate his/her nationalist ideas without thinking very seriously about their implications on Greece’s relations with the United States. What I therefore argue in the book is that the dominant ideology and foreign policy doctrine of Greece after 1947 became transformed into what I call a ‘dependent’ type of nationalism.

I must stress here that although the Greek governments of the post-Civil War period embraced ‘dependent nationalism’ as an ideal synthesis, this doctrine was in fact a disastrous contradiction in terms. Atlanticism is an internationalist ideology which turned against nationalism in a decisive way, while traditional nationalists, both on the far right (like Colonel Grivas) and on the moderate left (like Archbishop Μakarios) favoured a policy of ‘neutrality’ in the Cold War, precisely because they saw Atlanticism as an enemy to their programme. Nevertheless, the Greek governments of Μarshal Papagos (1952-55), Constantine Karamanlis (1955-63 and 1974-80) and George Papandreou (1963-65) sought to combine Atlanticist and nationalist principles in a single policy, as if they were somehow compatible. What I try to show in the book is that this contradictory policy carries the chief responsibility for the outbreak of the Cyprus Question and the re-emergence of the Greek-Turkish dispute from 1955 onwards. As you know, despite the significant and welcome improvement in Greek-Turkish relations since 1999, the main areas of dispute between the two states, i.e. Cyprus and the Aegean, are still unresolved. I therefore hope that this book could contribute to a better understanding of the deeper causes of these problems and, in so doing, improve the chances of resolving Greece’s long-standing disputes with Turkey.

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