Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Egypt and Turkey: Nightmares

by Steven A. Cook Monday, November 25, 2013
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) hosts ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (L) in Ankara on September 30, 2012. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) hosts President Mohammed Morsi (L) in Ankara on September 30, 2012 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

I remember sitting in the lobby of the Kempinski hotel in Cairo on a late afternoon in September 2011 chatting with an Egyptian friend and an American colleague when I became distracted and lost the train of the conversation.  I was hearing familiar sounds, but they were totally out of place.  In a few split desperate seconds, I asked myself, “Who?  What? Where?” until I regained my composure and thought, “Oh, that’s right…The Turks are here.”  In Cairo, where I am programmed to hear only Arabic or English, the out-of-place singsong of Turkish threw me momentarily.  This was the eve of what was billed as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s triumphant visit to Egypt and members of Turkey’s press corps were starting to fill up the capital’s hotels.  Huge posters with Erdogan’s visage and interwoven Egyptian and Turkish flags were placed around Cairo’s thoroughfares declaring “With United Hands for the Future.” It was a nice sentiment, but mutual enmity and strategic competition turned out to be the future of Egypt-Turkey relations.  Prime Minister Erdogan’s ongoing criticism of the July 3 coup d’etat and his continuing support for the Muslim Brotherhood are the immediate cause for the Egyptian decision to downgrade relations with Turkey, but this is a spat that has long been in the making. Read more »

Egypt: Anchors Away

by Steven A. Cook Monday, November 18, 2013
Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdel Fatah al Sisi (R) in Cairo on November 3, 2013. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdel Fatah al Sisi (R) in Cairo on November 3, 2013 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the last week or so, there have been more than a few stinging indictments of U.S.-Middle East policy.  Whether it is Iran’s nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, or Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to push Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Obama administration is near universally derided as both timorous and out-classed in the face of formidable adversaries. It’s been an impressive pile-on even if some of this commentary is actually more about politics than analysis.  Among the various op-eds, columns, and articles, two caught my attention.  On November 8 in his regular column for Foreign Policy, James Traub skewered the White House for failing to talk tough to the Egyptian military about its blatantly un-democratic approach to post-Morsi Egypt.  A few days later, the Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Jackson Diehl, published a stem-winder of a column that ripped Kerry on every important issue in the Middle East, including the Secretary’s apparent willingness to accommodate what is shaping up to be Egypt’s non-democratic transition. Read more »

Weekend Reading: The GCC and Iran,The Tale of Two Generals, and Deserts…The Final Frontier

by Steven A. Cook Friday, November 15, 2013
A Palestinian shop owner reads a book as he waits for customers at his shop in a market in the Old City of the West Bank town of Hebron (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters). A Palestinian shop owner reads a book as he waits for customers at his shop in a market in the Old City of the West Bank town of Hebron (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters).

Marwan Kabalan says that GCC countries will need to rely on their own power to ward off Iranian influence.

The European Space Agency posts photos of Middle Eastern deserts from space. Read more »

Red Star Over Cairo?

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, November 14, 2013
MiG-29 "Strizhi" fighter planes fly in formation during the international air show MAKS-2007 in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow (Sergei Karpukhin/Courtesy Reuters). MiG-29 "Strizhi" fighter planes fly in formation during the international air show MAKS-2007 in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow (Sergei Karpukhin/Courtesy Reuters).

When I heard that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his colleague Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, were to visit Cairo, I dusted off my copies of Mohammed Hassanein Heikal’s The Sphinx and the Commissar and Soviet Policy Toward the Middle East since 1970 by Robert O. Freedman. I am glad I still have these books.  They remind those of us too young to remember fully the extent of Moscow’s once rather robust presence in Egypt.   Against the background of fraught relations between Washington and Cairo, an underlying theme of the press coverage—in both Egypt and the West—of the Lavrov/Shoigu visit is the potential for Russia “to replace” the United States as Egypt’s patron.  I understand why the media like this angle, but the idea that Russia will supplant Washington lacks historical context and is impractical for the Egyptians.  Those wistful for the days when Moscow financed and helped build the Aswan High Dam and provided copious amounts of weaponry to Cairo have allowed time to romanticize what was often a difficult relationship.  They also fail to grasp how important American political, diplomatic, and especially military support is for the Egyptians.  All that said, there are three important reasons why the Russian foreign and defense ministers have suddenly appeared in Cairo: Read more »

Yasser Arafat: Dead Again

by Steven A. Cook Monday, November 11, 2013
Photo by Steven Cook. Photo by Steven Cook.

With all the important news going on in the Middle East this past week, Al Jazeera took time out to remind its audience that Yasser Arafat is still dead. It has been nine years since the Palestinian leader passed away in a French hospital, yet Abu Ammar is still making news, of sorts.  This week a Swiss investigative team reported that there are indications that Arafat was poisoned with polonium, yet others who took part in the examination of the remains and soil samples around the man’s grave at the Muqata’a in Ramallah have not been so definitive nor willing to release their findings.  Sounds suspicious. Read more »

Weekend Reading/Viewing: Lingo in Morocco, Lights Out in Yemen, and Urban Housing in Cairo

by Steven A. Cook Friday, November 8, 2013
Framed by the Egyptian flag, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shouts slogans outside the police academy, where Morsi's trial took place, on the outskirts of Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). Framed by the Egyptian flag, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shouts slogans outside the police academy, where Morsi's trial took place, on the outskirts of Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Mohamed Kasmi discusses the linguistic richness in Morocco, and the related linguistic policies the government has enacted over the years. Read more »

Turkey: Hello, I Must Be Going

by Steven A. Cook Monday, November 4, 2013
A Turkish Airlines plane takes off at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters). A Turkish Airlines plane takes off at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).

I first arrived in Turkey on a chilly, gray afternoon in early October 1992.  I had been living in Jerusalem studying Arabic and Hebrew—this was during my Arab-Israeli conflict stage—when the guy with whom I was sharing a flat suggested that we backpack through Turkey during the month that Israel was essentially closed for Jewish holidays.  When we landed in Istanbul, we pulled out a used Lonely Planet, and somehow managed to communicate—Mark, who is now a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech, spoke pretty good German, which helped a bit—to a taxi driver that we wanted to go to the Orient Hostel in Sultanahmet.  We knew nothing about the place, just that it was cheap and sounded decent.  Wistful for my early twenties, whenever I find myself in Sultanahmet, which is pretty rare these days, I take a stroll past the place. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Egypt’s Al-Azhar, Syria’s Refugees, and Turkey’s Chinese Missiles

by Steven A. Cook Friday, November 1, 2013
Pro-Islamist demonstrators shout slogans during a rally to protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and in support of Egypt's deposed President Mohammed Morsi at the courtyard of the Fatih mosque in Istanbul (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters). Pro-Islamist demonstrators shout slogans during a rally to protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and in support of Egypt's deposed President Mohammed Morsi at the courtyard of the Fatih mosque in Istanbul (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).

Mai Shams El-Din looks at clashes between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood from the angle of al-Azhar, where the student body supports the Brotherhood but the leadership allies with the state. Read more »