Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Weekend Reading: Erdogan and Davutoglu, Egypt’s Prisons, and Negotiating with Assad?

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, February 21, 2015
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during the filming of an interview with the BBC, in Damascus (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters). Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during the filming of an interview with the BBC, in Damascus (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters).

Ismet Berkan examines how Turkey’s upcoming parliamentary elections might affect the relationship between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Read more »

American Leadership and the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, February 18, 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama is flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Secretary of State John Kerry (R) as he delivers a statement on legislation sent to Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama is flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Secretary of State John Kerry (R) as he delivers a statement on legislation sent to Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters).

It was hard to zero in on a topic to write about this week with all that is happening in the Middle East. There are now three countries that seem to be breaking apart—Libya, Yemen, and Iraq—and a certain permanence has settled over the horrific violence in Syria. The Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse. Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Qatar, are now involved in the conflict among various Libyan factions. Yes, it seems that yet another proxy war is underway in the Middle East. All of this happened against the backdrop of new ISIS horrors—a seemingly weekly event. I have not had the courage to bring myself to watch the video of the twenty-one Egyptian Christians slaughtered by the so-called Islamic State on a beach in Libya. It is too gruesome. Needless to say, they were beheaded for no other reason than they were Christians, which is not to diminish the fact that a vast majority of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Sisi Speaks, Libya’s Copts, and Vengeance in Jordan

by Steven A. Cook Friday, February 13, 2015
Jordan's King Abdullah (L) offers his condolences to Safi al-Kasaesbeh, the father of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, at the headquarters of the family's clan in the city of Karak (Petra News Agency/Courtesy Reuters). Jordan's King Abdullah (L) offers his condolences to Safi al-Kasaesbeh, the father of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, at the headquarters of the family's clan in the city of Karak (Petra News Agency/Courtesy Reuters).

Read Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s full interview with Der Spiegel. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Kurds in ISIS, Houthis in Sanaa, and Netanyahu in Washington

by Steven A. Cook Friday, February 6, 2015
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters). Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters).

Rebecca Collard reports on Kurdish men who have joined ISIS and attacked their own people.

Nabeel Khoury looks at who the Houthis are, their ambitions, and the options before them. Read more »

Emperor Erdogan

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media at the Presidential Palace in Ankara January 12, 2015 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media at the Presidential Palace in Ankara January 12, 2015 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on Politico.com on Tuesday, February 3, 2015.

Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did something so outrageous he went viral. On January 12, Erdogan was photographed at the bottom of a grand staircase in his new mega-palace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Behind them were 16 men wearing military garb celebrating pre-Ottoman Turkic and Ottoman-era warriors. From the picture it was unclear whether Abbas looked so painfully uncomfortable because he was meeting one of the leading patrons of his archrival Hamas or because of the awkward pageant unfolding around him that suggested he was standing next to the natural successor to the Ottoman sultans. Read more »

Revolutionizing Religion in Sisi’s Egypt

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Monday, February 2, 2015
An Egyptian Sufi Muslim practices ritualized Zikr (invocation) to celebrate "Mawlid al-Nabawi" or the birth of Prophet Mohammad in Al Azhar district, old Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). An Egyptian Sufi Muslim practices ritualized Zikr (invocation) to celebrate "Mawlid al-Nabawi" or the birth of Prophet Mohammad in Al Azhar district, old Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

This blog post was written by my research associate, Amr Leheta.

“We need a religious revolution!” Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi declared those words a month ago as he addressed senior religious leaders from al-Azhar University and elsewhere while Egyptians celebrated the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The speech was widely applauded in Egypt, particularly as it opened an ideological front to the battle against the Islamist violence that has troubled the country since the summer of 2013. His words seem especially significant after last week’s attack on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula that killed at least thirty and wounded many more. However, before Sisi is praised any more as a visionary and a reformer, observers should understand that Egypt and Sisi may not have the capacity to carry out much reform in Islamic thinking. Read more »

Weekend Reading: The Failure of January 25, Beirut’s Barbershops, and Zajal In Lebanon

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 30, 2015
A barber shaves Mohamed Ali from south Lebanon sheltering at a school in Beirut (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters). A barber shaves Mohamed Ali from south Lebanon sheltering at a school in Beirut (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters).

Wael Eskandar argues that the death of Egyptian activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh last week at the hands of security forces represents the complete failure of the January 25 revolution. Read more »

Saudi Arabia: How Do You Know?

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 26, 2015
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at Heathrow Airport in west London October 29, 2007 (Dylan Martinez/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at Heathrow Airport in west London October 29, 2007 (Dylan Martinez/Courtesy Reuters).

During one of my last semesters in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a course called “How Do You Know?” The goal of the class was to expose students to the way different disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and hard sciences evaluate evidence. It was a terrific course. The students loved it and the instructors loved it. I hope the University of Pennsylvania still offers it because many of the people writing about Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah’s death on Friday morning (Saudi time) should enroll. It may not help, however. In too many instances commentators, be they declared “experts” or run-of the-mill pundits, are not dealing with any evidence at all. They are just repeating rumors or making up deep-sounding pronouncements after apparently crash-watching David Lean’s 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, which, by the way, had nothing to do with the al-Saud family, but rather their Hejazi rivals, the Hashemites. Here is my advice: Let’s everyone step back from their metaphorical desert tent, take a deep breath, sip some cardamom coffee, munch on a date, and understand—as best we can—what has and what has not happened in Saudi Arabia. Read more »