Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Egypt and the Gulf: When a Free Lunch Is Not Free

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Minister of Interior Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of United Arab Emirates (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters). Minister of Interior Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of United Arab Emirates (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters).

Last Friday, the online version of the Egyptian daily, Al Ahram, reported that Egypt is slowing down its payments for commodities, especially food.   Apparently, because the country’s foreign currency reserves are currently about $17 billion—which means the Egyptians are coming close to the minimum amounts of reserves needed to cover imports for 3-4 months—the Central Bank has become “particularly cautious” about allocating these funds.  Upon hearing the news, one former IMF and Treasury Department official wrote to me: “So it begins…central bank has a delicate balancing act…withhold too long and it gets blamed, but it needs to slow the drain…often see this in advance of em [emerging market] crisis.” There has been some happy talk recently, most notably from IMF chief Christine LaGarde, about the state of Egypt’s finances, but it seems clear that the Egyptians are going to need additional assistance.  Their likely patrons will be the Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis who poured $12 billion in various forms into Egypt right after the July 3, 2013 coup and, in an implicit recognition that the Egyptian economy is in disastrous condition, the three Gulf states have committed an additional $8 billion.  The Gulfies may come to regret their investment in Egypt, but for now they remain unwavering in their support for Cairo.  It is true as some Emiratis have grumbled in private and stated publicly that they will not keep pouring money down a black hole, but for now at least  the assistance will continue to flow.  The funding from the Gulf is not just to keep the economy afloat but also to ensure that Egypt follows a particular political trajectory that does not pose a threat to the Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis or their common strategic interests. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Remembering Bassem Sabry

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, May 10, 2014
A man carries bread as he walks in front of al-Fatih mosque in Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A man carries bread as he walks in front of al-Fatih mosque in Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

My friend, Bassem Sabry, died suddenly on April 29.  There have been many moving tributes to his memory over the last few weeks.  I do not have much to add other than the fact that Bassem was a light unto Egyptians and all his friends around the world. Read more »

Social Work, Violence, and Palestinian Nationalism

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, May 8, 2014
An Islamic Jihad militant stands guard during a rally marking the 25th anniversary of the movement's foundation in Gaza City  (Suhaib Salem/Courtesy Reuters). An Islamic Jihad militant stands guard during a rally marking the 25th anniversary of the movement's foundation in Gaza City (Suhaib Salem/Courtesy Reuters).

Is Islamic Jihad getting soft?  Most likely not, but last Sunday, Jodi Rudoren had an interesting piece in the New York Times about the group. For those not familiar with the details of Islamic Jihad (sometimes referred to as Palestinian Islamic Jihad), it was founded in the late 1970s by Palestinian students studying in Egypt, frustrated that, for all the rhetorical demands in the Arab world and beyond for the establishment of a Palestine state, no one was doing much about it.  As the group’s name implies, its focus was exclusively liberating Palestine—from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean—through violence. Read more »

How Personal Politics Drive Conflict in the Gulf

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (Louafi Larbi/Courtesy Reuters). Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (Louafi Larbi/Courtesy Reuters).

David Roberts, lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, based at the Joaan Bin Jassim Staff College in Qatar, offers expert insight into the recent tensions among the major GCC states.

“I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me.” With this less than subtle statement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the vocal Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood scholar tried to do his part to repair regional relations in the Gulf that have badly frayed in recent weeks. Long-brewing discontent erupted in early March with the unprecedented withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar. Subsequent mediation from Kuwait’s Emir has led the protagonists to the cusp of a modus vivendi, and a vague document has been agreed upon. Read more »

Weekend Listening/Viewing/Reading: Satire in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s “Garden,” and Lebanese Relief Workers

by Steven A. Cook Friday, May 2, 2014
Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) employees count votes at an analysis centre in Baghdad May 2, 2014 (Thaier Al-Sudani/Courtesy Reuters). Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) employees count votes at an analysis centre in Baghdad May 2, 2014 (Thaier Al-Sudani/Courtesy Reuters).
Karl Sharro discusses Lebanese politics and the role of satire in political analysis of the Middle East on Karl Morand’s Middle East Week Podcast. Read more »

Egypt’s War on Honest Language

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, April 30, 2014
A soldier stands guard atop an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in front of murals of people killed during Egypt's uprising, at Mohammed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). A soldier stands guard atop an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in front of murals of people killed during Egypt's uprising, at Mohammed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. 

Egyptian officials will respond to the storm of criticism over the mass death sentences handed down to 683 Egyptians and the banning of the April 6 Movement — a youth movement that was influential in the 2011 uprising — by doing what they always do. They will insist that the country’s judiciary is independent from political forces, and that judges are merely following the letter of the law in handing down harsh sentences. Egypt, in this version of reality, is actually a country where rule of law is paramount. Read more »

The Myth of Obama’s Failure in the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, April 29, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters).

I wrote the following piece, which appeared here in Al Monitor yesterday with my friend, Michael Brooks. Michael is the host of the Intersection podcast on Aslan Media and a contributor for the award-winning daily political talk program the Majority Report.
Read more »

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

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, April 24, 2014
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 Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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 »