False Dawn

Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East

A sweeping narrative account of the last five years in the Middle East and a timely argument of how and why the Arab uprisings failed.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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Arab Spring

Political Transitions


Middle East and North Africa

Half a decade after Arabs across the Middle East poured into the streets to demand change, hopes for democracy have disappeared in a maelstrom of violence and renewed state repression. Egypt remains an authoritarian state, Syria and Yemen are in the midst of devastating civil wars, Libya has descended into anarchy, and the self-declared Islamic State rules a large swath of territory. Even Turkey, which also experienced large-scale protests, has abandoned its earlier shift toward openness and democracy and now more closely resembles an autocracy. 

How did things go so wrong so quickly across a wide range of regimes? In False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, noted Middle East regional expert Steven A. Cook looks at the trajectory of events across the region from the initial uprising in Tunisia to the failed coup in Turkey to explain why the Middle Eastern uprisings did not succeed. Despite appearances, there were no true revolutions in the Middle East five years ago: none of the affected societies underwent social revolutions, and the old structures of power were never eliminated. Even supposed successes like Tunisia still face significant barriers to democracy because of the continued strength of old regime players. Libya, the state that came closest to revolution, has fragmented into chaos, and Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has used the recent coup against him as grounds for a widespread crackdown on his opponents, reinforcing the Turkish leader's personal power.

After taking stock of how and why the uprisings failed to produce lasting change, Cook considers the role of the United States in the region. What Washington cannot do, Cook argues, is shape the politics of the Middle East going forward. Although many in the policymaking community believe that the United States must "get the Middle East right," American influence is actually quite limited; the future of the region lies in the hands of the people who live there. Authoritative and powerfully argued, False Dawn promises to be a major work on one of the most important historical events of the past quarter century.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book


Reviews and Endorsements

As one who frequently hosts programs about the Middle East and talks to all the players, I have wanted to know how the Arab Spring came and how it went with such speed since 2011. If journalism is the first draft, it’s time for the second. In False Dawn, you meet the characters and ideas that fueled the fast moving events of the Arab Spring. Steven Cook serves as a deft guide to helping you understand the factors that ground it to a halt.

Charlie Rose, host of Charlie Rose and CBS This Morning

Steven Cook is one of Washington’s most astute and informed observers of the Middle East, and anyone wanting to understand how the region has ended up in its current unraveling state would do well to read his new book False Dawn. The backlash—and Western misreadings of it—are all too real, and Cook’s book is a major contribution in understanding what we got wrong.

Susan Glasser, chief international affairs columnist, Politico, and former editor in chief, Foreign Policy

In this incisive book, Cook has masterfully applied the tools of the social sciences to separate fact from fiction in explaining how that moment of hope in the region turned into calamity. Intelligent and well-written, this is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the tumult that is unfolding in the Middle East today.

Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and author of The Shia Revival and The Dispensable Nation

Steven Cook’s latest work offers a smart and analytically compelling explanation for why the events of 2011 were bound to fall short of the promise and hopes they raised. Even those who may not fully subscribe to his policy prescription will profit highly from reading this very well-constructed and thoughtful book.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, William Davidson distinguished fellow and counselor, the Washington Institute

Steven Cook gives one of the best detailed accounts about the hope that was there and then never fulfilled. A must-read book for anyone who wants to know what happened and doesn’t want to get second-hand information from pundits.

Bassem Youssef, host of Democracy Handbook with Bassem Youssef

The promise of the ‘Arab Spring’ now seems a distant memory. False Dawn offers a sweeping account, a combination of on-the-ground narrative and deep historical analysis of what went wrong. Steven Cook’s excellent book opens with a quote from deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011 that seemed like a threat at the time but now reads more like a prophecy: ‘The youth who called for change and reform will be the first to suffer.’ Cook tells us why.

Deborah Amos, international correspondent, NPR News