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In New Book, CFR’s Steven Cook Writes Egypt’s 2011 Revolt Was “If Not Predictable, Inevitable”

October 6, 2011


“There is a tendency to believe that Egyptians rebelled against Hosni Mubarak... That is true, but it is not entirely accurate,” writes Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Senior Fellow Steven Cook in The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He argues in the book that Egyptians “revolted against a regime—a political order” that, while led by Mubarak for three decades, was one he had inherited from former presidents Anwar el Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Cook, who was in Cairo when the revolts broke out, provides one of the first historical analyses explaining the reasons behind the uprising, which he calls “if not predictable, inevitable.”

The political upheaval of spring 2011 stemmed from the “intense debate to define what Egypt is, what it stands for, and what its relation to the world is.” Cook notes in a related Foreign Policy article that for the first time Egyptians can openly debate the structure of their social and political systems outside the “circumscribed contours of an authoritarian political system.”

Cook traces the “stirrings of Egyptian nationalism” back to the 1880s and culminates with the events in Tahrir Square in early 2011. He chronicles the end of the British occupation, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the rise of Nasser and his quest to become a pan-Arab leader in the 1960s, Egypt's decision to make peace with Israel and ally with United States, the subsequent assassination of Sadat in 1981, and the revolution that overthrew Mubarak.

Cook explains that Egyptian politics have been influenced by internal forces such as Islamists, Nasserists, and liberals, in addition to pressures from the “foreign component”—in particular, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States. It is against this complex ideological backdrop that the Egyptians are trying to answer the central questions about their national identity, such as: What principles and values should guide Egypt at home and abroad? What is the role of religion and nationalism in the life of the country?

While there is “great hope that the Egyptians can construct a new political system and rebuild their society peacefully, that is unlikely as long as the underlying and antecedent debates about Egypt and what it stands for remain unresolved,” asserts Cook.

With the fall of Mubarak, Cook stresses that the United States should “come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship” with Egypt. He adds that Washington “risks playing a malevolent role in the transition if it tries to interfere. This is not only because of the mistrust many Egyptians have for the United States, but also because the trajectory of Egyptian politics is unknowable and is likely to stay that way for some time.”

He concludes, “Against the broad sweep of contemporary Egyptian political history, the demands for change from Tahrir Square are yet another manifestation of the struggle for Egypt that has been going on since at least the late nineteenth century.”

To order the book, visit


Steven A. Cook is CFR's Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies. He is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. In addition to The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, Cook is the author of Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. He currently writes the blog, “From the Potomac to the Euphrates.” Previously, Cook was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.


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