Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Weekend Reading: Fade to Black

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 31, 2014
A shopkeeper sells copies of the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A shopkeeper sells copies of the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Flipboard.com’s  booklet of news related to press and media freedom across the Arab world.

Turkey’s internet problem. 

Reporters Without Borders worries about the lack of freedom of information in Libya and its effect on the prospects for democracy.

Grading Mearsheimer

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 27, 2014
Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (L) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama next to Egypt's Minister of Finance Samir Radwan (C) before posing for a group photo at the G8 summit in Deauville (Philippe Wojazer/Courtesy Reuters). Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (L) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama next to Egypt's Minister of Finance Samir Radwan (C) before posing for a group photo at the G8 summit in Deauville (Philippe Wojazer/Courtesy Reuters).

When I was at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I enrolled in a seminar on the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe with Professor Michael Mandelbaum.  The Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czecholsolvakia were not quite my thing, but the course was an interesting diversion from the Middle East and it was topical (this was 1994).  When Mandelbaum—who is now a friend and mentor—returned my first paper, he scratched along the bottom of the last page, “Your conclusions are surely correct, but you make a series of dubious assertions along the way.”  I had the same reaction when I read John J. Mearsheimer’s recent contribution to The National Interest, “America Unhinged.” Read more »

Weekend Listening: Mideastunes and Rapping in Turkey and Iran

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 24, 2014
A teacher plays the saz, a traditional musical instrument, during a music class at the Arbat refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Sulaimaniya (Yahya Ahmad/Courtesy Reuters). A teacher plays the saz, a traditional musical instrument, during a music class at the Arbat refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Sulaimaniya (Yahya Ahmad/Courtesy Reuters).

Mideastunes.com, a “search engine,” of sorts, for finding music from the Middle East.

Jenna Krajeski profiles Tahribad-i Isyan, a Turkish rap group from Sulukule, Istanbul and discusses the urban development and minority experience that inspire their songs. Read more »

Erdogan for the Win

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, January 23, 2014
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a meeting in Istanbul January 17, 2014 (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a meeting in Istanbul January 17, 2014 (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a stunningly gifted politician.  He can be thuggish, high-handed, painfully arrogant, but he also seems to have an innate sense of what makes many Turks tick and how to connect with them.  The Gezi Park protests that began last spring—and never really ended—brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, as well as smaller demonstrations in other cities to denounce the Turkish leader and his AK Party, but Erdogan was able to muster hundreds of thousands of supporters in response.  At the time I wrote that Erdogan was weak and vulnerable precisely because the prime minister felt compelled to stage rallies to prove his popularity.  That piece seems to dovetail well with more recent articles wondering if the current corruption scandal roiling Turkey means the “end of Erdogan” or whether his days “are numbered.” I stand by everything I wrote in “The Strong Man at His Weakest,” but Erdogan is not going anywhere.  He may even be the prime minister again. That does not mean that the apparent slugfest has not damaged Erdogan, it certainly has. Yet these injuries (mostly self-inflicted) are offset by the fact that the prime minister’s opponents have some significant political disadvantages and constraints of their own.  It may not seem that way, but upon close inspection Tayyip Bey may very well ride out this scandal. Read more »

Egypt’s Gotta Have It: Spending Bill Ambivalence

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 20, 2014
A soldier rests while on guard atop an armoured personnel carrier (APC) after night clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A soldier rests while on guard atop an armoured personnel carrier (APC) after night clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week the Congress passed the omnibus spending bill for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.  In one sense, this was very good news as it staves off a budget stalemate and another possible government shutdown until after the November elections.  Still, there was not much for anyone of any political persuasion to like about the bill, which seems to be a combination of unnecessary spending and gratuitous cuts. Many Egypt watchers in Washington also found a reason to groan buried deep within the 1,582-page legislation.  After the Obama administration delayed delivery of some military equipment because of the July 3 coup d’état, the Congress has paved the way for a full resumption of the assistance program to Egypt including $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million of economic assistance.   The spending bill may have done away with the national security waiver that made it easy for an administration to overcome congressional efforts to withhold aid (see Rice, Condoleezza circa 2007) in favor of criteria that Cairo must meet to receive assistance, but it is back to business as usual.  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on State Department, foreign operations, and related programs, tried to make the best of the spending bill declaring that it represented the “toughest conditions the Congress has imposed on aid to the Egyptian military.”  This seems a rather low bar given that Washington has never actually imposed any conditions on military aid to Egypt.  What Leahy does not mention, of course, is the fact that the new law exempts Egypt from Section 7008 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Law, which says that the United States will not aid governments that come to power as a result of coups d’ état. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Saharawi Self-Determination, Press Freedoms in Tunisia, and Arabic Lessons

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 17, 2014
A supporter of the constitution gestures in front of a statue of Egypt's former Army Chief of Staff Abdel Moneim Riad near Tahrir square, during the final stage of a referendum on Egypt's new constitution in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). A supporter of the constitution gestures in front of a statue of Egypt's former Army Chief of Staff Abdel Moneim Riad near Tahrir square, during the final stage of a referendum on Egypt's new constitution in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Matthew Vickery discusses the Saharawis, people of the Western Sahara, and their largely unheard calls for self-determination.

Shaimaa Abu Elkhir says that Tunisia’s draft constitution needs stronger guarantees for press freedom. Read more »

Do Not Run, al-Sisi…Do Not Run

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al Sisi (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al Sisi (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Gamal Mubarak or Omar Suleiman?  Omar Suleiman or Gamal Mubarak?  Not too long ago this was what many Egyptians and virtually any westerner  who had an interest in Egypt  were asking.   Everyone had an answer based on the Cairo rumor mill, multiple dodgy sources like a neighbor who revealed Hosni Mubarak’s inner most thoughts based on what he had heard from his wife’s uncle who was friends with a journalist with close ties to the presidency, and sheer creativity.  We are back at it again, but this time is obviously not about Omar Pasha who died suddenly in the summer of 2012 nor Gamal who continues to languish in Tora prison, waiting for appeals to be heard in various corruption cases.  No, now everyone is asking “Will he or won’t he?”  The “he” is, of course, Major-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man behind the July 3 coup d’état and apparently the object of much adoration among various segments of the Egyptian population and the question is whether he will run for president.  It seems that every day there is some new indication—imagined or otherwise—that the general will run. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Why Shiites Fight, Egyptian Time Warp, and Militia Madness in Libya

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 10, 2014
Army soldiers guard the streets during a Coptic Christmas eve mass at the main cathedral in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Army soldiers guard the streets during a Coptic Christmas eve mass at the main cathedral in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Rodger Shanahan says that Shiites fighting in Syria are doing so not for sectarian reasons, but rather for reasons of geopolitics and self-preservation. Read more »

Turkey’s Democratic Mirage

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, January 9, 2014
Shadows of protesters fall on a Turkish flag during a demonstration against terrorism and land mines in Ankara October 28, 2006 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters). Shadows of protesters fall on a Turkish flag during a demonstration against terrorism and land mines in Ankara October 28, 2006 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally posted here on ForeignAffairs.com on Thursday, January 9, 2014. 

In 1996, Ergun Ozbudun, a well-known and well-regarded Turkish academic, published an article in the Journal of Democracy called “Turkey: How Far from Consolidation?” Jumping off from the work of the political scientists Guillermo O’Donnell, Adam Przeworski, and Samuel Huntington, Ozbudun sought to examine the challenges to the development of consolidated democracy in Turkey. At the time Ozbudun was writing, Turkey had enjoyed multiparty politics since 1946 and had conducted 12 consecutive free and fair elections, and Turks had internalized democratic norms. But the country could still not be considered a consolidated democracy, a state of affairs in which democracy, has, in Przeworski’s words, “become the only game in town, when no one can imagine acting outside the democratic institutions, when all the losers want to do is to try again within the same institutions under which they have lost.” Ozbudun and other analysts of the era identified four primary obstacles: the fragmentation of party politics, the influential role of the military, Islamism and the lack of elite convergence between Islamist politicians and their secular counterparts, and Kurdish nationalism. Read more »

Some Clarity on Egypt

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 6, 2014
Riot police take their positions during clashes with Al-Azhar University students who support the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed President Mohammed Morsi (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). Riot police take their positions during clashes with Al-Azhar University students who support the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed President Mohammed Morsi (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

It may be me, but I am a little surprised that much of the commentary I have read about Egypt recently is shocked—just shocked—about the current turn of events.  I was blessedly offline for about nine days before and after Christmas so it is entirely possible that I am missing something or my vacation dulled my analytic skills, but what is happening in Egypt—the violence, the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jacobin-like discourse—is perfectly consistent with the July 3 coup d’état, Major-General Abdel Fatah el Sisi’s July 24 speech, and the August 14 crackdown on Rabaa al Adawiyya Square.  It was easy enough to understand that the consequences of July would produce January or so I thought.  Thinking back over the last six months, a combination of wishful thinking, brutal realism, and the rush to comment on every twist and turn in Egypt’s ongoing drama has produced, with some notable exceptions, analytic muddle. Read more »