Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Weekend Reading: Egypt’s Real Challenges, Lessons for Libya, and Palestinian Protests

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 30, 2012
Emarati boy recites verses from the Quran in Dubai. (Anwar Mirza/Courtesy Reuters)

Guest Post: Why I Feel Disappointed By Egypt’s New Constituent Assembly

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Egyptian protesters shout slogans against the formation of a constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution during a rally outside the Cairo convention centre (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters)

My friend, Bassem Sabry, weighs in on Egypt’s recently selected constituent assembly, the body charged with drafting the country’s next constitution. Bassem blogs at An Arab Citizen.

As I regard the final list of the 100 members of Egypt’s constituent assembly for the constitution and the dominance of two hegemonic political powers over it, I cannot help but experience a bitter feeling. All I see is another potentially glorious moment squandered by a nation that’s in desperate need of one. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Gulen and Gender Equality, Tribulations in Tripoli, and Essential Economics in Yemen

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 23, 2012
Bahraini woman protester reads Quran after evening prayers at Pearl Square in Bahraini capital of Manama (Hamad I Mohammed/Courtesy Reuters)

Turkey: You Say You Want a Constitution

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Parliamentarians attend a swearing-in ceremony in the Turkish Parliament in Ankara (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters)

There has been a fair amount of media attention devoted to Egypt’s upcoming efforts to write a new constitution as well as a few stories here and there about the Libyan government’s plans to form a constitutional committee.  Both projects deserve whatever attention they are getting and much more given how new constitutions will shape the trajectory of Egyptian and Libyan politics.  There is another constitutional exercise going on in the region that has received far less attention.  Indeed, Turks convened a constitutional commission last October, keeping with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to scrap the 1982 constitution, which was written at the behest of the military junta that took over the country in September of 1980.   The drafting of the constitution will unfold in four stages and is supposed to be complete at the end of 2012. The lack of attention—even in the Turkish press—is no doubt a function of both editorial decisions and the sense that Turkey is a good story, already a democracy, and even a model for those countries in the Arab world undergoing transitions. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Lebanon in Limbo, Egypt’s NGOs Report, and the Abaya Remix

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 16, 2012
Khalil recites verses from the Koran at the Jamia Binoria Al-Alamia Seminary Islamic Study School in Karachi (Athar Hussain/Courtesy Reuters)

Makram Rabah looks at the possible effect of Syria’s revolution on Lebanon.

The Project on Middle East Democracy’s report: The Campaign Against NGOs in Egypt. Read more »

Ugly Israelis?

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, March 15, 2012
A pro-Israel supporter waves behind an Israel flag (Edgard Garrido/Courtesy Reuters)

I rarely write about Israel.  It’s important politically, but intellectually for me a bit of a bore. What more can be said about the country that has not already been said, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict of which the Palestinian problem is the core? You could pile the books, papers, and articles from floor to ceiling on the topic. Israel-Iran?  It’s covered. The ethnic and sectarian differences in the Holy Land? It’s been done.  Israel’s changing demographics?  Lots of smart folks have weighed in. The durability of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty after the Egyptian uprising?  I am sort of/halfway intrigued, but only because I once drank the water from the Nile and now I can’t quit Egypt.  Every now and again though, something comes across my desk on Israel that interests me.  In the last week or so, colleagues have suggested I read two short opinion pieces–one by Avi Shlaim Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, and one by the New Yorker’s David Remnick. Both pieces were a revelation—who writes better than Remnick?—but not necessarily because they offered any new or interesting insights about Israeli politics or society, but rather because of the fascinating way Shlaim and Remnick treat their subject. Read more »

Egypt: Being Fayza Aboulnaga

by Steven A. Cook Monday, March 12, 2012
Activists who accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial, in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters)

On Saturday, the Washington Post published an op-ed under the byline of Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Aboulnaga, titled, “Why Egypt moved against unregistered NGOs.”   The Minister’s defense of her government’s actions is what one would call “lawyerly.” The NGOs were not registered under Egypt’s Law 84, there is evidence of wrongdoing, and no other government in the world would permit unregistered foreign and domestic NGOs to undertake the types of activities that Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and three Egyptian organizations were engaged in.  Yet, at its base, the issue is not a legal one.  Rather, it is political and the NGO affair suggests that neither Aboulnaga nor the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—the Minister is widely believed to be close to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi—are very much interested in paving the way for a democratic Egypt, despite protestations to the contrary.  That is not to suggest that NGOs, like those currently under fire, will be a linchpin of an Egyptian transition to democracy, but civil society groups as a whole make up part of the fabric of democratic societies.  Destroying some of them through the legal system (which, in Egypt’s case, is geared more toward political control than justice) and thereby intimidating other non-governmental groups in the process reflects the open secret of Egypt’s transition—the inherently authoritarian worldview of the SCAF and its civilian allies. Read more »

Weekend Reading:Yemen’s Terrorism Problem, Egypt’s Presidential Candidates, and Syria’s War Criminals

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 9, 2012
Lebanese Shi'ite sheikh Hassan al-Zayyat marks punctuation on Koranic verses that he hand copied ( Ali Hashisho/Courtesy Reuters)

Blogger NoonArabia for Bikya Masr says the United States must reevaluate its counterterrorism policy in Yemen.

Sandmonkey looks at a few major presidential candidates on the eve of registration for the race in Egypt. Read more »

Syria: The Post-Assad Unknowns

by Steven A. Cook Monday, March 5, 2012
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad waves to the crowd (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters)

With all the discussion of diplomacy (and its limits) and the robust debate about military action in Syria, the issue that haunts both is the nature of post-Assad Syria.  Will Syria end up like Iraq?  Like Lebanon of the 1970s-1980s?  Both countries have suffered much from sectarian and ethnic differences that politicians have manipulated for their own ends.  Or might Syria suffer far worse? Such has been the commentary about what might befall Syrians in a world without the Assad regime.  Few observers have looked at the deeply divided Syrian opposition without a credible leader and declared that post-Assad Syria will be a better place at least in the short run.  It is all about Sunni-Alawi bloodletting, especially.  I have come to support international action in Syria, but the big unknowns of post-Assad Syria—the political, ethnic, and sectarian dynamics—give me pause. Read more »

Weekend Reading: The Palestinian Question, Yemen’s New Leader, and Religious Minorities

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 2, 2012
Man reads Koran beside shelf stacked with them at Masjid Al Kabir, also known as Grand Mosque, during Ramadan in old city of Sanaa (Jumana El-Heloueh/Courtesy Reuters)

Ahmed Nagi says Egypt’s new government lacks a vision for resolving the Palestinian question.

Sami Moubayed takes a look at Yemen’s new president. Read more »