Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

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 »

Weekend Reading: After the Uprisings, Egypt’s Despotism, and Yemen’s Meltdown

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 23, 2015
A Houthi fighter shouts slogans as he takes part in a demonstration to show support to the Houthi movement in Sanaa (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters). A Houthi fighter shouts slogans as he takes part in a demonstration to show support to the Houthi movement in Sanaa (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).

Karl Sharro presents a satirically “simple” diagram of the Arab uprisings and their aftermath.

Amro Ali looks at how the citizen contributes to the sustainability of despotism in Egypt. Read more »

Turkey Jerky

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Ankara (Adem Altan/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Ankara (Adem Altan/Courtesy Reuters).

Since the outbreak of the Gezi Park protests, which began in May 2013, there has been an inordinate amount of commentary in the newspapers of record, opinion magazines, policy journals, and blogs about Turkey. The vast majority of it has been overwhelmingly negative. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have responded in a fairly typical fashion: They have sought to mint nationalist political gold from this bad press. In a calculated effort to derive the most political benefit from a cascade of critical editorials and articles, the Turkish government has vowed to fight what it considers to be an international smear campaign. The Turks deserve a lot of criticism, but to be fair, there is also a good deal of it that is either the result of malign intent or ignorance. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Dogging It In Cairo, Lebanon’s Pretty Good Year, and Rethinking Syria Before The War

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 16, 2015
Dogs trot outside a mausoleum at the El'arafa cemetery located in the City of the Dead, near Cairo (Ahmed Jadallah/Courtesy Reuters). Dogs trot outside a mausoleum at the El'arafa cemetery located in the City of the Dead, near Cairo (Ahmed Jadallah/Courtesy Reuters).

Adham Elsherif presents a short, English-subtitled film on life in Cairo through the eyes of street dogs.

Elias Muhanna argues that, despite its troubles, Lebanon had a better year in 2014 that expected. Read more »

Ankara on Paris: Disturbingly Equivocal

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 12, 2015
French President Francois Hollande is surrounded by head of states including (LtoR) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and Queen Rania Al Abdullah as they attend the solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris (Yves Herman/Courtesy Reuters). French President Francois Hollande is surrounded by head of states including (LtoR) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and Queen Rania Al Abdullah as they attend the solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris (Yves Herman/Courtesy Reuters).

I have been reluctant to comment on the attacks in Paris. As with a whole host of people who have popped up on television to make sense of last week’s violence, terrorism and European Muslim communities are not my areas of expertise. There has also been so much excellent written commentary on the topic that even if I were inclined to write, I would not have much to add. That said, I find the Turkish leadership’s response to the events in France striking. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu took part in the solidarity rally in Paris on Sunday, but among the near universal denunciation of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent killings at the Hyper Cache market, the Turkish reaction was disturbingly equivocal. In a public statement after the assault on the magazine, the foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu declared, “Terrorism and all types of Islamophobia perpetuate each other and we stand against this.” It is hard to disagree. Islamophobia, of which there is much in Europe and the United States, is bad, and terrorism is bad. Both are scourges that need to be fought, albeit in different ways. And while Davutoglu was more direct in his condemnation, cloaked in Cavusoglu’s outrage against anti-Muslim bias and terrorism, the foreign minister was saying something else entirely: The people targeted specifically in the Charlie Hebdo attack were Islamophobes who brought Cherif and Said Kouachi on themselves, producing a cycle of more Islamophobia and thus more violence. More broadly, Cavusoglu was signaling that the West is to blame for terror because it is irredeemably anti-Islam. Read more »