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Militaries in the Middle East: Critical Factor in Hindering Political Change, Argues Steven Cook in New Book

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
May 21, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations


Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey provides valuable insight into the political dynamics that perpetuate authoritarian regimes and offers novel ways to promote democratic change. In this new CFR book, author and Council Douglas Dillon Fellow Steven A. Cook highlights the critical role that the military plays in the stability of the Egyptian, Algerian, and, until recently, Turkish political systems.

This in-depth study demonstrates that while the soldiers and materiel of Middle Eastern militaries form the obvious outer perimeter of regime protection, it is actually the less apparent, multilayered institutional legacies of military domination that play the decisive role in regime stability. Cook brings to light the officers’ compelling interest in both a façade of democracy and direct control of certain instruments of political authority—i.e., they want to rule, but not to govern. This allows the officers to shield themselves from the daily problems of governance while tolerating some demands from society for greater political participation without fundamentally altering the authoritarian nature of the political system.

Cook explores how authoritarian elites employ seemingly democratic practices such as elections, multiparty politics, and a relatively freer press as part of a strategy to ensure the durability of authoritarian systems. In Algeria dozens of political parties vie for seats in the National People’s Assembly, and Egypt has experienced a proliferation of opposition newspapers in recent years, but Algeria and Egypt are neither democracies nor are they undergoing democratic transitions. And in both countries, the military remains the primary defender and beneficiary of the status quo. Using Turkey’s recent reforms as a point of departure, Ruling But Not Governing examines ways external political actors can increase the likelihood of political change in Egypt and Algeria.

Advance Praise for Ruling But Not Governing

“Cook brings his immense knowledge and experience of political culture in the Middle East and North Africa to bear on one of the most important questions of the 21st Century: how to nurture democratic reform in the Muslim world. What makes Ruling But Not Governing so indispensable is that it focuses on the influence of the military elite, a group that has too often been ignored in many American studies of the region. Cook has addressed this vacuum by writing one of the most compelling and readable studies of Middle East politics to have come on the scene in more than a decade. This is a book that should be read by all Americans interested in the future of the Arab and Muslim world.” —Reza Aslan, author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

“One of the best books of its kind that I have read in years. It is not simply about militaries, it is about how informal politics itself limits the boundaries of formal democratic institutions. Cook’s command of the relevant languages and his capacity to summarize three critical Middle East cases in clear and engaging language makes this a compelling and indeed indispensable piece of work.” —Daniel Brumberg, Georgetown University, coeditor of Islam and Democracy in the Middle East.

Ordering Information: Published by Johns Hopkins University Press; 208 pages, $24.95 (pa), $55.00 (cloth)

ISBN 978-0-8018-8591-4 (pa), 978-0-8018-8590-7 (cloth)

CFR Communications: 212-434-9888;

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