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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Revolutionizing Religion in Sisi’s Egypt

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
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 »

Washington Can’t Solve the Identity Crisis in Middle East Nations

by Steven A. Cook
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters). Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters).

I published the following piece in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. I hope you find it interesting and useful! Read more »

Closing the Channels of the Military’s Economic Influence in Turkey

by Steven A. Cook
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R) is flanked by Ground Forces Commander and acting Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel (C), Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz (R) and top military officials (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R) is flanked by Ground Forces Commander and acting Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel (C), Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz (R) and top military officials (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here as part of the Middle East Institute’s Middle East-Asia Project on civilianizing the state. 

Since the patterns of civil-military relations in Turkey began to change a decade ago, analysts have focused on the modalities and the durability of civilian control of the armed forces, the consequences of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases on the cohesion of the armed forces, and how the transformation of the officer corps’ historic relationship with the political system has affected the capabilities of the armed forces. Observers have given significantly less attention to the military’s role in the economy. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the military has deployed its power in this area through indirect means. First, during relatively brief periods of military rule, the officers influenced economic policy without dictating the details of policymaking. Second, the military’s pension fund invests its members’ funds in the economy. Finally, until the mid-1980s, the senior command exercised control over the military procurement process through various military foundations. Over time, however, the military’s ability to shape economic policies has changed and the officers’ role in the economy has become normalized. Read more »

Arab Spring Reality Check

by Steven A. Cook
Protesters from Tunisia's marginalised rural heartlands hold a hunger strike as they prepare to spend their second night outside the Prime Minister's office in Tunis January 24, 2011 (Zohra Bensemra/Courtesy Reuters). Protesters from Tunisia's marginalised rural heartlands hold a hunger strike as they prepare to spend their second night outside the Prime Minister's office in Tunis January 24, 2011 (Zohra Bensemra/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on Muftah on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. 

It has been more than three years since the uprisings in the Arab world began.  The civil war in Syria, the persistent conflict between rebel militias and the government in Libya, the return of authoritarianism in Egypt, and the ongoing bloody crackdown in Bahrain all make for considerable hand-wringing among regional observers—to say nothing of Middle Easterners themselves, who once hoped for a better future. 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). 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 »

Mubarak Still Rules

by Steven A. Cook
Protesters cheer with Egyptian flags and a banner of army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, seen between former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, as they gather for a mass protest to support the army in front of the presidential palace in Cairo (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters). Protesters cheer with Egyptian flags and a banner of army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, seen between former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, as they gather for a mass protest to support the army in front of the presidential palace in Cairo (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here at ForeignPolicy.com on Wednesday, August 14, 2013. 

My friend, the late Hassan El Sawaf, was correct. When I spoke to him on the evening of February 11, 2011, he was exuberant. After years of a lonely and personal struggle against Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the dictator was suddenly gone. A new era had begun. The prospects for democracy had never seemed so bright. Read more »

The Strong Man at His Weakest

by Steven A. Cook
Supporters hold a poster of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul June 16, 2013 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters). Supporters hold a poster of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul June 16, 2013 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.

“Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan! Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan!” chanted supporters of the Turkish prime minister, as a friend and I made our way through the absolutely mammoth crowd that descended on the Kazlicesme area of Istanbul last Sunday to hear their leader speak. As with Erdogan’s rally in the capital, Ankara, the day before, the people who turned out here, many of whom were decked out in scarves, T-shirts, and masks supporting the prime minister, vastly outnumbered the Gezi Park protesters who have captured global headlines. Young, old, well-to-do, decidedly modest, religious, and secular all declared their devotion to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan. When the prime minister surveyed the 295,000 souls who had come to express their devotion and thundered, “Taksim Square is not Turkey!” it was a vindication of his vision, his economic policies, and the strength of his leadership. Yet the irony was that at Kazlicesme, Erdogan’s demonstration of strength revealed his profound weakness and political vulnerability. Read more »

How Europe Can Save Turkey

by Steven A. Cook
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan gestures during the Ministry for European Union Affairs' EU-Istanbul Conference in Istanbul June 7, 2013 (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters). Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan gestures during the Ministry for European Union Affairs' EU-Istanbul Conference in Istanbul June 7, 2013 (Osman Orsal/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on Friday, June 7, 2013.

In the past five years, Turkey has veered from what was once a promising path of liberal democracy — and the European Union can pull it back. Read more »

Egypt: Could the Military Intervene?

by Steven A. Cook
Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, gather near a military tank as they take part in a march during a nighttime curfew in the city of Port Said January 28, 2013 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, gather near a military tank as they take part in a march during a nighttime curfew in the city of Port Said January 28, 2013 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces handed power to President Mohammed Morsi last June it seemed that everyone in Egypt, especially the officers, breathed a huge sigh of relief.  The transition from Mubarak to Morsi had been long, difficult, and sometimes violent.  The SCAF under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his deputy, Lt. General Sami Ennan, were manifestly ill-equipped to govern Egypt on a day-to-day basis and it showed.  By the spring of 2012, the officers were counting down the days to when they could hand-off the whole problem that Egyptian politics had become to anyone who would relieve them of the burdens of government.  Of course, the military exacted its price.  Egypt’s constitution gives the senior command autonomy in defense policy, budgeting, and personnel.  In addition, the Ministry of Defense held onto its robust economic interests. Read more »