Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Turkey Comes Undone

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) holds a ballot paper at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Istanbul (Yagiz Karahan/Reuters). Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) holds a ballot paper at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Istanbul (Yagiz Karahan/Reuters).

This article was originally published here on The American Interest on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

Turks can be forgiven for the party they threw themselves late Sunday, stretching into Monday morning. They voted in droves in what was widely regarded as the most important general election in more than a decade and dealt the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a significant blow. After garnering nearly 50 percent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections, the AKP ceded about 9 percentage points to a combination of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a new Kurdish-based group that will enter the Grand National Assembly for the first time. The AKP’s result translates into a loss of either 68 or 69 seats (officials results have yet to be released), meaning that the party will need to find a coalition partner if it wants to continue governing—something it has never had to do. It is true that the AKP still commands the largest number of votes by a significant percentage, but it no longer seems so invincible. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the central figure in Turkish politics, who made the elections about himself and his ambition to transform Turkey from a hybrid parliamentary-presidential system to a purely presidential system is no doubt diminished by the result. Erdogan, who once rode to power on a broad coalition of liberals, the pious, Kurds, big business, and average Turks, is now a deeply polarizing figure for many. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Debunking Iraq’s Myth, Demolishing History in Egypt, and Biking Syria’s Civil War

by Steven A. Cook Friday, June 5, 2015
The word "Mubarak" is seen inside the burnt headquarters of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's political party National Democratic Party (NDP) during its demolition in Cairo, Egypt (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters). The word "Mubarak" is seen inside the burnt headquarters of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's political party National Democratic Party (NDP) during its demolition in Cairo, Egypt (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters).

Sara Pursley, in a two-part report on Jadaliyya, debunks the myth of Iraq as an artificial state.

Mahmoud Riad protests the demolition of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters in Cairo. Read more »

“Is Egypt Stable?”

by Steven A. Cook Monday, June 1, 2015
Ramadan lanterns, known as "fanous", made in the likeness of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are displayed for sale at a market in Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters). Ramadan lanterns, known as "fanous", made in the likeness of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are displayed for sale at a market in Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters).

I do not know how many times over how many months that question has been put to my colleagues and me at an endless number of panel discussions, roundtables, hearings, and meetings with our friends in government. It is actually a question more about durability—will President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egypt’s new/old political order exist anywhere from one year to five years from now?—than stability. The intellectually honest answer is: Maybe, maybe not. That is about as wishy–washy as one can get, but analytically that is likely the best we are going to do. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Egypt’s Money Pit, Morocco’s Jewish Community, and Saudi Civil Society

by Steven A. Cook Friday, May 29, 2015
Moroccan Jewish men pray at a synagogue in Tetouan (Rafael Marchante/Reuters). Moroccan Jewish men pray at a synagogue in Tetouan (Rafael Marchante/Reuters).

Nizar Manek and Jeremy Hodge chase after $9.4 billion worth of secret accounts and special funds hidden away by top Egyptian officials.

Evelyn Crunden examines how one group in Morocco remembers and revives the country’s Jewish heritage. Read more »

Lost in Iraq

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, May 26, 2015
An Iraqi soldier carries a displaced kid from Ramadi on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). An Iraqi soldier carries a displaced kid from Ramadi on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter appeared on CNN’s State of the Union during which he reflected on the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces in the recent battle for Ramadi. “What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” he said. “They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight.” It was a stunning admission. The United States has been retraining and reequipping the Iraqi military (again) since last summer and its ignominious performance in Mosul, Tikrit, and every place in between. The defeat in Ramadi and Secretary Carter’s blunt assessment suggests that the Obama administration’s return on investment is close to nil. It is extraordinarily worrisome because the White House’s entire strategy is based on providing local actors, primarily the Iraqi Security Forces, the means to “degrade and defeat” the self-proclaimed Islamic State instead of deploying American soldiers to do the job. The secretary’s statement was particularly surprising since Secretary of State John Kerry assured the press a few days earlier that the Islamic State’s grip on Ramadi would be temporary, while the White House called it a “tactical setback.” Perhaps Carter was responding to the Iraqis who blamed Washington for the defeat. Or maybe he knows better than anyone what is what in Iraq, and when the inevitable accounting is done, Carter and the Pentagon do not want to take the blame for who lost Iraq (again). The most straightforward explanation for the administration’s mixed signals, however, is this: No one really knows or understands what is happening in Iraq. Read more »

Beji Caid Essebsi and Tunisia’s Identity Politics

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, May 20, 2015
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). 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: AKP and the Kurds, IS in Syria, and Arab Cartoonists

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, May 16, 2015
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Sebahat Tuncel (1st row, 3rd L) and her party members are surrounded by riot police as they hold a sit-in protest near Gezi Park in central Istanbul July 28, 2013 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters). Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Sebahat Tuncel (1st row, 3rd L) and her party members are surrounded by riot police as they hold a sit-in protest near Gezi Park in central Istanbul July 28, 2013 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

Serkan Demirtas writes about the AKP and the quest for peace with the Kurds

Mohammad Raba’a discusses Wadi Barada, an Islamic State foothold in Syria. Read more »

Mothers of the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook Monday, May 11, 2015
An Egyptian boy attends evening prayers called "Tarawih", during Laylat al-Qadr outside Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque, the first and oldest mosque ever built on the land of Egypt, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo September 16, 2009 (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). An Egyptian boy attends evening prayers called "Tarawih", during Laylat al-Qadr outside Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque, the first and oldest mosque ever built on the land of Egypt, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo September 16, 2009 (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

As I write, Mother’s Day 2015 is coming to a close. It was a special day. Who is better than Mom? I called my mother, made breakfast in bed for my wife, spoke to my mother-in-law, and cheered all the Moms whose photos showed up on my Facebook feed. Yet for all of the celebration of Mom, there remain a few Mothers who—to the best of my knowledge— have gone without recognition this year, which is a bummer for them. So here goes, my favorite Middle Eastern Moms: Read more »

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

by Steven A. Cook Friday, May 8, 2015
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). 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 »

Hasbara…Hasbara Everywhere

by Steven A. Cook Monday, May 4, 2015
Doctors help an injured resident at the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) field hospital following Saturday's earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal (Danish Siddiqui/Courtesy Reuters). Doctors help an injured resident at the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) field hospital following Saturday's earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal (Danish Siddiqui/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week Israel took criticism for sending a contingent of doctors and search and rescue specialists to Nepal to participate in the earthquake relief efforts. Read that again. There is no “not” in between “for” and “sending.” The Israel Defense Forces sent 260 doctors, nurses, and personnel trained in finding disaster victims to Katmandu after the major (7.8 on the Richter scale) earthquake…and it was quickly dismissed as propaganda to deflect attention from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis have a lot to answer for when it comes to the Palestinians, from continued expropriation of Palestinian land in the West Bank to death and destruction in Gaza, but what do those issues have to do with earthquake relief in Nepal? Apparently everything the Israelis do is hasbara. Read more »