Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

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Showing posts for "Democracy"

Are We Experiencing a Slow-Motion, Turkish-Style Coup? Or Our Own Arab Spring?

by Steven A. Cook
A police officer walks past people as they gather to protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas (Laura Buckman/Reuters).

This article was originally published here on on Sunday, February 5, 2017. Read more »

Tunisia: Saving Democracy in the Middle East? Really?

by Steven A. Cook
An unemployed graduate clashes with riot police during a demonstration to demand the government provide them with job opportunities in Tunis, Tunisia (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters).

Last Wednesday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “We Can—And Must—Save Tunisia from its Troubling Recent Descent” under the byline of Marwan Muasher and William J. Burns. Muasher was Jordan’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2005, and now serves as vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Burns had one of the most distinguished careers in the U.S. foreign service, rising to become deputy secretary of state from 2011 to 2014. After he left government, he became Muasher’s boss as president of CEIP. Needless to say, these gentlemen know of what they speak. Their clarion call to help Tunisia is important for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the recognition that the country is not the “Arab Spring success” that it is often portrayed to be. The United States should help Tunisia, but mostly because it will help Tunisians, and not for the additional reasons that Muasher and Burns lay out, which amount to a reformulation of something called the “international demonstration effect.” Read more »

Beji Caid Essebsi and Tunisia’s Identity Politics

by Steven A. Cook
Beji Caid Essebsi, former Tunisian prime minister and leader of the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) secular party, speaks during a meeting on the third anniversary of the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali January 14, 2014 (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters).

The Tunisian president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is coming to Washington today for meetings with President Obama. It is a big moment. Tunisian leaders have visited multiple times since Zine El Abedine Ben Ali’s fall in January 2011, but Essebsi’s visit is more consequential if only because he is not saddled with “interim” in his title. As I have written before, there is a lot to like about what has happened in Tunisia—peaceful transfers of power, compromise, a sense of shared responsibility for the future of the country, and minimal violence. It is for all these reasons that one hears the constant refrain, “Tunisia is the Arab Spring success story.” Even by the low standards of the present (and future) Middle East, the Tunisians have accomplished much in a short period of time. Still, I am having a hard time bringing myself around to the perception that Tunisia is firmly on a democratic trajectory. This is not just because of the country’s serious economic challenges, center-periphery problems, the apparent appeal of extremism to a relatively large number of young educated Tunisian men, or my own terminal cynicism. It’s more straightforward than any of those explanations: I simply do not believe that Beji Caid Essebsi has any particular interest in building an inclusive, pluralist political system. He is not even shy about his intentions. Read more »

Weekend Reading: A Return to Idlib, Secular Politics in Egypt, and al-Qaeda in Syria

by Steven A. Cook
Civilians react as they wear gas masks after what activists said was a chlorine gas attack on Kansafra village at Idlib countryside, Syria (Abed Kontar/Courtesy Reuters).

Ahmad al-Akla writes about people’s return to rebel-controlled Idlib, Syria.

A new party in Egypt calls for a secular constitution. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Boutef Again, Bringing Democracy Back to Turkey, and Hep-C in Egypt

by Steven A. Cook
Members of a local dance troupe perform during a campaign rally for current Algerian President and candidate in the forthcoming presidential election, Abdelaziz Bouteflik, in Ain Ouassara southwest of Algiers April 10, 2014 (Louafi Larbi/Courtesy Reuters).

Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière examines how Algeria’s elections will influence regional politics, especially those in Tunisia.

The Turkish citizen journalism group “140journos” is trying to use technology to bring democracy back to Turkey, writes Burcu Baykurt for Jadaliyya. Read more »

Egypt’s Gotta Have It: Spending Bill Ambivalence

by Steven A. Cook
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 »

Turkey’s Democratic Mirage

by Steven A. Cook
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 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
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 »

Egypt: Anchors Away

by Steven A. Cook
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: Leadership in the Middle East, Syria’s Refugees, and Turkish Democracy

by Steven A. Cook
Free Syrian Army fighters run to take cover in a village in Aleppo's countryside September 12, 2013 (Hamid Khatib/Courtesy Reuters).

Daniel Lakin discusses how the Arab Spring has all but prevented any clear leader from emerging in the Middle East.

Gershom Gorenberg argues that the United States can help in Syria’s crisis by supplying money and visas to refugees. Read more »