Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, discusses why the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 and Turkey in 2013 failed to produce lasting democratic change and why political uncertainty and instability persist in the region.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.
We’re delighted to have Steven Cook with us to talk about the Arab Spring uprisings, and why they failed to produce lasting democratic change and why political uncertainty and instability persists in the region. Dr. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR. He’s an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy. He recently published a book, “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.” He’s also the author of “The Struggle for Egypt, from Nassar to Tahrir Square,” which won The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Gold Medal in 2012, as well as the book, “Ruling but not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.” He currently writes the CFR blog, “From the Potomac to the Euphrates,” which you can access on our website at CFR.org. And prior to coming to CFR, he held positions at Brookings Institution and The Washington Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @StevenACook.
Steven, thanks very much for being with us today. You know, you have just written this book on the Arab uprisings. It would be great if you could just start off with about why you wrote it.
COOK: Well, first of all, thanks, Irina. I appreciate the invitation to participate in this academic conference call. And my additional thanks for the very kind introduction. And thank you all who called in and are spending some time with me this afternoon—at least, it’s afternoon where I am—discussing the Arab uprisings and the aftermath.
And, Irina, it’s a really good question. What was the inspiration for the book? And, you know, people are always looking for what’s the inspiration and where it did it come from. And it really came from two events that happened to me that I witnessed in Egypt in 2011. The first was my time in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the January 25th uprising in Egypt. That uprising resulted in the fall of Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power in Egypt for almost 30 years. And I was there for the first three or four days of the uprising. And it was rather extraordinary event. Here were tens of thousands of young people, people who were about my age, a little bit younger, who had poured into the streets in Egypt to demand, in their own words: bread, freedom, and social justice. And there were just extraordinary demonstrations of unity, of empowerment, of people demanding their dignity from a government that had wielded power with arrogance and brutality over many, many years. And it was a time of tremendous, tremendous hope for everyone.
And when I—when I returned to Washington, and there was an expectation in Washington, as well as in the Middle East, that these uprisings would result in democratic transitions. And the frame of reference of the way in which I think the American foreign policy practitioners and members of Congress looked at what was happening—and people like me, analysts of the region and foreign policy analysts—we looked at it through the framework of the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe in the late ’80s and early 1990s, which did result in democratic transitions. Now, there’s some question these days about democracy in those countries, but there was a relatively quick and a relatively—a relatively easy transition to democracy in those countries. So that was the first thing. So there was this enormous outpouring and this hope and moment of empowerment.
And then just 11 months later I went back to Egypt. After Hosni Mubarak fell I was going back to Egypt quite a bit. And I found myself back there in December—mid-December 2011. So how this is 11 months after the uprising that toppled Mubarak began. And I was there at the same time as the—as the first round of—the first post-Hosni Mubarak parliamentary elections. So this was going to be, you know, free and fair elections. And this was a rather—another extraordinary moment in Egyptian—in Egyptian history. And during my time in Egypt, I remember it very, very well, it was December 16th, 2011, I came across another protest. This was quite close to Tahrir Square, along the street that borders where the Egyptian parliament is located and where the Egyptian Cabinet is located. In theory, the seat of Egyptian government. And there was a protest, a demonstration that was going on.
And rather than it being a kind of exhilarating, edifying moment, it was horrifying. It was essentially gang warfare. It was the police and the military police and what’s called the Central Security Forces squaring off against soccer fanatics that supported the Egyptian uprising and—but really there wasn’t a lot of principle involved. And instead of hearing, you know, chants like “hold up your head, you’re an Egyptian,” or “bread, freedom, social justice,” or “people demand the end of the regime,” the chants were death to the field marshal. And it was really—it was quite violent. Many people were hurt. And when the end of that protest—which became known as the battle of the Cabinet building, 12 people were dead.
Not the most violent protest in Egypt during the transition period or since, but nevertheless I witnessed and it had this profound impact on me, as much an impact as the uprising against Mubarak 11 months earlier. And that’s when I started to reevaluate our assumptions about what would happen in places like Egypt, or Libya, or Tunisia, or my non-Arab case, Turkey. What would happen if our assumptions about democratic transitions didn’t prove to be true? And why wouldn’t—if these countries didn’t meet transitions to democracy—why was that the case? And what are the consequences of it? And what should the United States do about it?
And so I started asking myself all these questions and got to work on writing a book that was actually the counterpoint to those very uplifting moments in the region where people seemed to be taking matters into their own hands to change—to change history. And if you look back, and if you read the book very carefully, one of the points that I make is that with all of the change that has happened in the Middle East over the course of the last six years, now almost seven years, there’s a lot more continuity than—in politics than we suspect.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much for that. I was going to see if we should possibly open up for questions.
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question comes from Boston University.
Q: Yeah, hello. Good morning. Thank you so much for the introduction. My name is Adam Grada (ph) from Boston University.
I’m particularly interested in the case of Libya. And I’ve always thought that Libya is kind of special among the other countries that witnessed the Arab Spring in that it has a very weak national identity. There’s no cohesive national identity, or it didn’t take enough time to form. And also, it’s a tribal society, largely tribal society, and you know, there’s—there are competing ideologies that prevent formation of a national identity, such—like Arab nationalism and also political Islam. Both of them are supranational identities that just are not national because they cross the borders. So, I mean, what do you think—where do you see Libya as heading towards? Is there hope for democracy, or do you think that it might revert to kind of a(n) authoritarian transition or some sort of despotism? Thank you.
COOK: Well, thank you very much for the question. It’s a terrific question. And I—one of the great things about writing my book was that I got to learn a lot about Libya, a country that I knew something about but now I understand a lot more about Libyan politics. And let me just give you a little bit of context.
When Moammar Gadhafi was driven from Tripoli and then subsequently killed in October 2011, there was tremendous expectation and hope that Libya would be able to make a transition to democracy because the idea was that Libya—that the political system that Moammar Gadhafi had established, which was a kind of elaborate system of direct democracy in which decisions would flow from the bottom up and the top down, and then be implemented from the top, it was not—it didn’t actually function that way. Libya was actually ruled by a clique—a military clique around Moammar Gadhafi and loyal tribes. But the idea was is that, as a result, with his death and the end of this—you know, this clique and these loyal tribes and this—and of course everybody understood this—exercising direct democracy was essentially a ruse, that Libyans would have what people were calling a blank slate in which to build democratic institutions; and that, in contrast to a place like Egypt or a place like Tunisia, Libyans would not have to face the institutions that represented the old way of doing things, the old political system. And so there was a tremendous expectation.
But what people were missing is exactly what you were—what you were hitting on, that the idea of being Libyan or Libyanness wasn’t very strong. And throughout much of the Gadhafi period, despite all of this discussion of direct democracy, what did Libyans do? They sought support, they sought security, they sought welfare in their tribes, and often tribes were coterminous with regions or parts of the country. So that, after the fall of Gadhafi, it made more sense to think in terms of one being, you know, Misuratan or from some other part of the country. And this resulted in the importance of tribal—informal tribal institutions. The way in which people had always looked to tribe for this support actually had this fragmentary pressure on the country. It was really just the way in which Gadhafi ruled, through this military clique and loyal tribes, that kept Libya together. And once that was gone—once that was gone and people responded by continuing to look towards tribe and region for their security and welfare, it plunged the country into this fragmentary dynamic. That was helped along by violence and the emergence of extremist groups in Libya, which had been there for quite some time. But this gave them an opportunity.
And it was interesting, you know, the person who foreshadowed this more than anything else was Moammar Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam al-Gadhafi, who was for quite some time held out as a—as a reformer. He proved to be anything but. And he went on Libyan national television five days after the Libyan uprising began and said to Libyans, you know—and he looked straight at the camera and he said: Libyans, we need to settle our differences because we’re not Egyptians and we’re not Tunisians; we will fight each other for the next 40 years. And what he was getting at there was that there wasn’t this sense of Libyanness, that there was this very strong pull of—towards disintegration along the lines of tribe and region.
So my prognosis for Libya is, one, the continuation of fragmentation of the country while there’s a competition among politicians over who can unify the country. But the only way, really, to unify the country at this point is through violence. And so he who controls the most weaponry and the most international support is likely to emerge—is likely to emerge.
One of the people who is making a bid for that, the one that’s most—the person who’s most well-known, is a former Gadhafi military officer named Khalifa Haftar. He broke with Gadhafi in the 1980s, he returned after Gadhafi fell, and he’s raised an army in the eastern part of the country and is making a bid—a rather violent bid for power.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Steven.
I think we all assumed that these uprisings would lead to democratic change, and that hasn’t come to pass. So can you talk about why they didn’t produce lasting change and the implications now of renewed autocracy in the region?
COOK: Well, it’s a great question. It’s really the heart of what—of what I’m arguing in my book, is, you know, if they didn’t—if these countries didn’t make the transition to democracy, why didn’t they make the transition to democracy?
But before I answer the question, I want to make it abundantly clear that my argument is not that Arab countries or people in the Muslim world cannot live in democracies, that there can’t be democracy; that somehow Arab culture or Muslim culture, however you want to define it, it not consistent with democracy. That’s not my argument. And, in fact, I call the book “False Dawn” because it’s this episode, these uprisings that began in late 2010 and early 2011, that did not work out. But there may be another day that won’t be—that won’t be a false dawn.
But the argument as to why it did not happen hinges on two important interrelated factors: in the nature of the uprisings themselves, and what was left after these uprisings successfully pushed leaders from power. And that’s to say that even though we refer to and the participants in these uprisings refer to what happened in Tunisia, what happened in Libya, what happened in Egypt, what happened in Yemen, what people attempted in Syria, what people attempted in Bahrain as revolutions, they really don’t meet the definition of a revolution. At least they don’t meet the definition that I use in the book of revolution, which is the overthrowing not just of the political system and the institutions of the political system, but also overthrowing the social order that mutually reinforces these political institutions in the system, that there are—there is a relationship between certain classes of society and the rest of people that remained intact after the uprisings.
And that—what we know about politics is those who have the power basically write the rules of the political game. So that when, for example, Hosni Mubarak was told by the military that his services were no longer needed, and put on a private plane and sent to a villa in Sharm el-Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, you had a leadership change but you did not have an overthrowing of the political system. You didn’t have an overthrowing of the social order that supported that political system.
Who stepped in after Mubarak fell? The minister of defense, the field marshal. There was an election that produced a president from the Muslim Brotherhood, not a military officer. But on the eve of his election, the military took for themselves a whole host of powers that were—that had rested within the presidency. And then, within a year of this Muslim Brotherhood member named Mohamed Morsi being elected president, there was a coup d’état that overthrew him and a new military officer came to power. And the political system has remained largely in place. That is, I think, extremely important in understanding why these uprisings didn’t make—these uprisings didn’t produce transitions to democracy.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that a revolution is necessary for a democratic transition. We know that revolutions can produce different kinds of dictatorships, for example. We know that transitions to democracy can happen in other ways—by agreement, what’s called pacted transitions—pacted, P-A-C-T, transitions. But here what was left behind after Hosni Mubarak was driven from power, what was left behind after Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia—Tunisia, which is often regarded as the success case—what was even left behind after Gadhafi left, I just talked about the kind of informal institutions had an impact on the quality of politics, on political development after these leaders left. And that’s because—that’s because what remained in place were the institutions of the state.
And when I talk about institutions, I’m talking about it in a very kind of social-sciencey way. I’m not talking about, you know, a place—you know, a place, a building, an office. Those, in the minds of, you know, political scientists and economists and others, are not institutions. To me, an institution is a law, a rule, a regulation, a decree, a constitution, these things that are what we would call frameworks for social action. A great example of an institution are the laws requiring you to stop at a stop sign. If people didn’t stop at stop signs, you’d have chaos and death and blood and whatever.
What is important to understand is that when Mubarak left, the institutions of the Egyptian state remained intact, so that you could have Mubarakism without Mubarak. And Mubarakism without Mubarak was a lot like politics during the Sadat era, his—Mubarak’s predecessor. And politics during the Sadat era was more similar than we suspect than it was—than we tend to believe than it was under his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This same thing happened in Tunisia, yet in a different way. There wasn’t a coup d’état. There was actually an election. And in the aftermath of the election, I mean, the result of the election was a soft restoration of the old political order. One leader fell, and Tunisians elected another leader who represented continuity, not with the leader who was deposed by the original leader of the independent Tunisia, going back to the 1950s and 1960s. And now what the Tunisians are doing is they’re making it easier for the people against whom Tunisians rebelled in late December 2010, in early 2011, to come back, and to participate in the economy and the political life of the country.
And as I went through before in response to the question from the—from the guy at BU, in Libya those kind of informal institutions—institutions that aren’t written down, but they are the way things have always been done—those institutions produced fragmentation in Libya.
So none of those things were advantageous to the people who wanted to live in more open and democratic societies. In fact, the resilience of the institutions, the resilience of the laws and the decrees and regulations of the Mubarak and Sadat and Nasser eras in Egypt, for example, made it virtually impossible for the young revolutionaries, who everybody rooted for in 2011—everybody rooted for them to win, but it made it impossible for them to actually force an actual change in the political system. So, to my mind, it’s that those two steps—those two observations, that these revolutions weren’t actually revolutions and that the institutions—authoritarian institutions or informal institutions—remained resilient in these countries that made it impossible for a transition to democracy to happen at this moment.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from the University of Central Florida.
Q: Hello. Thank you for your introduction. My name is Darrell (sp) from the University of Central Florida.
I would like to ask—
COOK: I’ve been there. (Laughter.)
I would like to ask, was the U.S. support of Mubarak’s regime used as sort of the fuel for the Islamic Brotherhood to gain control of Egypt’s politics over a democracy being established?
COOK: You know, it’s a—it’s a great question, and there’s been so much that has been written about the U.S. role in Egyptian politics and the Muslim Brotherhood. Let’s just say that the Muslim Brotherhood had, for a long time, opposed the United States and the exercise of American power in the Middle East. And they used the relationship between the Egyptian government and the United States, which became very close during the Sadat era in the mid-1970s and continued through the Mubarak era, to delegitimate those leaders and their governments. To say that—and the Brotherhood said that the Egyptian alliance with the United States, which supports Israel, is an abdication of Egypt’s leadership in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and rendered Egypt a second-rate power in the Middle East, a place—a region of the world where Egypt has—is a natural leader. And that’s because—what they were saying—an authentic Egyptian foreign policy would oppose the exercise of American power in the region and would vigorously oppose Israel in the—in the region.
That view of things was not terribly different from a lot of Egyptian nationalists, Nasserists, Egyptians on the left of the political spectrum. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty from March 1979 is not widely popular. It’s seen as a separate peace. It is—it is seen as—again, as an abdication of Egypt’s leadership role. That’s not to suggest that, you know, 90 million Egyptians want to break the peace treaty, but that the Brotherhood’s critique of the Egyptian relationship with the United States became important in debates about the legitimacy of the government.
Now, did that produce the uprising? Did that produce the end of the Mubarak era? No, but it was part of a long list of complaints that Egyptians had about Hosni Mubarak and about the Egyptian political system.
Now, of course, when the Muslim Brotherhood had its opportunity and came to power, however briefly, they maintained the relationship with the United States and they didn’t break the peace treaty with Israel. I don’t think that that had anything to do with President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president, his—the end of his brief tenure as president, but it just goes to show once again that with all of the change that seemed to be taking place, there was a lot of continuity.
But thanks for the question. It’s a great question. Hope everything’s going well down there in Orlando.
FASKIANOS: (Laughs.) Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Boston University.
COOK: More from Boston University. All right!
Q: Yeah. Hello, Dr. Cook. This is me again, Adam Grada (ph) from Boston University.
Back to the case of Libya. Thank you very much for the insightful remarks on that question. I just want to, like, point to Haftar as a potential, you know, authoritarian leader who will, I mean, maybe unite the country. I just noticed that he uses the term—he uses Arab nationalism rhetoric, for example, like the Libyan Arab Army, or al-Jaysh al-Arabi in Arabic, you know? Which I don’t see as a good thing to do if you want to, like, create a national identity, because, as you know, Libya is a diverse society—(inaudible). In western Libya, there’s the Misurati. So, I mean, it just—I don’t think it’s—I mean, even if we agree that maybe the country needs an authoritarian leader to unite the country, but it still is not doing the right thing, you know, if we, you know, like, maybe—
COOK: Well, look, I don’t have—I hold—thanks again for the question. I hold no grief for Khalifa Haftar. I’m not advocating for his rule. He clearly believes that if he uses this kind of rhetoric that it will work. And of course, this is the similar kind of rhetoric that Muammar Gadhafi had used over many years. But Libya is, as you point out, a diverse country. It’s diverse from east to west and north to south. And my—what I think will happen, as Haftar and others compete for power, that the country will continue to fragment. And the likely future for Libya is a kind of fragmented—a fragmented place in which there’s no real sense of what it means to be Libyan. And it—what—other identities become more important to people because, as I said in my—in my response to your first question, these identities provide for them. They’re meaningful. Being part of a tribe or from a region is meaningful to people in this kind of catastrophe that has become—that has become Libya.
So I certainly think—you know, there’s a number of different outcomes. I think what Khalifa Haftar believes is that the only way to unite Libya is through a strongman and through, once again, using the language and imagery of the great kind of Libyan Arab—a sense of Libyan Arabness. But he is a throwback from the—from the 1970s. So—and he hasn’t yet been successful. So I think, which suggests the—something that you were suggesting, which is that it’s going to be a lot harder to put Libya back together in a coherent way than he might suspect.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Virginia Commonwealth University.
COOK: VCU, all right.
Q: Hi. My question concerns the role of the military in the Arab Spring uprising. My name is John Fritz (sp). I’m a faculty member with VCU.
It seems like the outcomes of the different Arab Spring movements reflected the role of the military in each country, and the relationship between the ruling establishment and the military. Could you go into some discussion in terms of how that variation, by which state leaders engaged in policies of coup-proofing, impacted the outcome of the Arab Spring revolts?
COOK: Yeah. It’s a great question. And you’re, you know, speaking to, you know, the heart of my earlier—the work that I did early in my career. My first book was called, “Ruling but not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Turkey, and Algeria.” And so the role of militaries in the uprisings has been extremely interesting and important for me—for my own—for my own work.
Now, Egypt is sort of the easy case here. The Egyptian armed forces remained coherent, autonomous. They reinforced the idea that the Egyptian president is an informal delegate of the armed forces at the presidency, and that they are—they are the source of legitimacy, authority, power, and prestige in the Egyptian system. And I think that everything that happened since the uprising against Mubarak began on January 25th, 2011indicates that. And that they are the inheritors or successors of the people who founded the Egyptian political system, that you can trace the institutions of the Egyptian state back to the Nasser period. And that they are the primary beneficiaries and the ultimate defenders of that system. And again, everything that has happened in Egypt since January 25th, 2011, I think reinforces that idea.
Now, the Tunisian case is significantly different. But Middle Eastern standards, the Tunisian armed forces was underprivileged. And that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian leader who fell on January 14th, 2011, relied mostly on the police and the interior minister to establish and maintain political control. However, it became clear that the military did have the means to act autonomously when Ben Ali put the stability of the country in jeopardy during the—during the month-long uprising. Yet, unlike the Egyptian armed forces, the Tunisian armed forces doesn’t seem to want, need to have that post-uprising role. They don’t need or want to govern, even temporarily. They don’t want to have that role in the economy—rather significant role in the economy that the Egyptians armed forces have.
And that comes back to the kind of—the way in which these political systems were founded. Whereas the Egyptian system was founded by a group of military officers, the Tunisian system was founded by a French-educated lawyer. That doesn’t make the Tunisian system any less authoritarian, but that is a system in Egypt to which the Egyptian armed forces—well, it’s—the integrity of the armed forces, its source of power, its source or wealth is tied intimately. That’s not the case in Tunisia.
In Libya—and, I mean, I can go on and on and talk about Syria as well. In Libya, you didn’t really have a coherent armed forces. Muammar Gadhafi very consciously went about trying to diminish the power of the armed forces as an organization. Although he relied on military officers and a clique within the military for support, he also relied on mercenaries and secret police and all these kinds of things that he called revolutionary groups in order to maintain order. So this was a way of preventing him from suffering the same fate as King Idris, who he overthrew in a coup d’état in 1969. It has contributed to the post-Gadhafi chaos in the country, as well as the informal institutions of tribe and region that I pointed out before. But if you’re not acquainted with it already, I commend to you my first book, “Ruling but not Governing.”
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Southern California.
Q: Hi, thank you so much for speaking today.
Could you comment on the act of the use of force or this lack of force—you see lack of the use of force in terms of the U.S. response to the Arab Spring in either Libya or Syria?
COOK: Well, and we have two different cases. In Libya, the United States intervened in an alleged humanitarian mission to save the people of Benghazi from Muammar Gadhafi, who had threatened to overrun the city. That was at least what we said the operation was about. It was really—our decision to get involved in Libya had more to do with NATO politics, in that the Brits and the French were very much wanting to bring an end to Gadhafi’s rule, believing that if they did that quickly it would not create a massive refugee problem coming from Libya into Europe. They clearly miscalculated.
And when this was proposed to the Obama administration, the Pentagon and the then-secretary of defense really didn’t want to have anything to do with this. They didn’t really think that at this was a very good idea. And what the British prime minister and the French president said to President Obama at the time, they said: This is—this is—if you—if the United States doesn’t participate and doesn’t lend its unique military capabilities to this operation, it is going to have an impact on the coherence of the North Atlantic alliance, which is, of course, a core strategic interest of the United States. So the United States went along reluctantly.
This argument dovetailed very nicely with arguments that people within the Obama administration were making about the need for humanitarian intervention. What’s called—and they—and they made an argument based on something called right to protect, or what’s referred to as R2P, which is that governments have a right, a duty, it’s incumbent upon them to intervene in other countries if lives are at stake. It is a rather controversial thing, but nevertheless that’s the way in which the United States publicly justified its intervention in Libya.
I think that probably the real tragedy of Libya was that at the encouragement of the British and the French the United States intervened. Gadhafi was overthrown. And then when the British and the French and other Europeans—as well as the United States but this was really very much a European show—when they got there they discovered how hard it was going to be to rebuild Libya and to make Libya into a democratic country. And everybody left. And they left Libyans to face the forces that were unleashed as a result of Gadhafi’s fall. So that was—that was an intervention in Libya—that was the application of force during the Arab Spring that doesn’t work out so well.
Then you have the Syrian uprising, which was an uprising that began like the other uprisings. People demanding a peaceful uprising, people demanding a change in government. It was—it was something which people were questioning the legitimacy of the Assad regime. It was over who got to rule Syria legitimately. And it was very quickly militarized by the Assad regime, and became not just an uprising against Bashar al-Assad, but a civil war, which became a regional proxy war, which became a zone for extremist violence, which also became an area of great power competition.
There is an argument to be made that an intervention into the conflict earlier would have brought the Assad regime down, or would have constrained their ability to use force against their own population, which would have prevented the humanitarian disaster that is Syria. And history would have been different. And there might have been an opportunity for some sort of political settlement or negotiated solution. That, of course, is something that we’ll never know, because it never happened. I think that there was an important debate that needed to be had about intervening in Libya early on. But of course, all of the incentives were for the Assad family to fight their way out of—to fight their way out of the problem.
I think the Obama administration, over the course—as this conflict unfolded, came to the determination that there was—it was—they were unable to determine what American interest they would be pursuing by an intervention, and on whose side would they intervene. The Syrian opposition, deeply fragmented, made up of all kinds of unsavory groups. If you intervened against Assad, would you be helping extremists? Would you be helping the Islamic State? If you—how could you intervene on the side of Assad to put down—in the name of fighting extremism? So the United States, it was caught by its inability to understand what was most important to it about the conflict in Syria. Only now is that becoming more—is that becoming clearer, what is important to the United States in Syria. But that may, in fact, be a result of just the way the conflict has evolved.
Needless to say, here we are. More than 400,000 people have been killed. Russia and Iran are the powerbrokers in Syria. The fact that the United States did not intervene in Syria raised all kind of questions among our traditional allies in the Middle East about America’s credibility and liability. Though one—I think one should take those arguments about credibility and liability with a grain of salt, given the amount—the pitiless campaign that the United States has undertaken against the Islamic State, something that began during the Obama administration and was carried through by the Trump administration.
But essentially a bunch of countries that wanted us to do—us to do their bidding by bringing down the Assad regime, and a president who—with President Obama, who campaigned—when I’m talking about president here, I’m talking about when President Obama was in office—who campaigned on getting the United States out of wars in the Middle East because they sapped American power and resources, in addition to killing or maiming a lot of—a lot of young people in the United States, as well as a lot of young people and old people and all kinds of people in the countries where we have intervened. And when President Trump came into office, he too had a very similar view of American interventions in the Middle East, and has kept the American—has kept the American presence in Syria and Iraq focused on really one thing and one thing only, and that is the destruction of the Islamic State.
So you have two different—two different cases, one with the application of American force, one without the application of American force. Neither of them have had very good—have had very good outcomes, which suggests to me that you can’t say anything—you can’t draw any conclusions about American intervention if you’re just looking at these two cases.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Macedonia.
Our next question comes from Rutgers University.
Q: Hi. My name—hello. Yes, my name is Jimmy. Thank you for taking my question.
I wanted to ask, you mentioned an institution that I think you were talking more about, an internal institution, earlier. But my question is twofold. Is there any regional institution in the Middle East and North Africa that handles political economy and security, stability? Or if there is one, do you think that that kind of institution, like NATO and European Union, that helped Eastern Europe to transition to democracy, can be helpful in this region?
COOK: It’s a—I think it’s a very good question. And here we’re talking about something different, we’re talking about international institutions. And the Middle East has the Arab League which, over the course of many years, has distinguished itself for its inability to do anything. It also has the Gulf Cooperation Council, in the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf, depending on how you want to position yourself politically, that has had less cooperation than many would have liked, and in fact is now—members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are locked in a political and diplomatic stalemate over allegations that one of its members, Qatar, is a supporter and financier of extremist groups. This is a charge that’s been leveled by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with the Egyptians, who are not a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
So these kind of political differences have made it impossible for a kind of regional institutional architecture to do constructive things around the Middle East. There also has to be some willingness on the part of governments in the region to foster political reform and change. And I think that there’s a tremendous interest in political reform, in reform of management and the delivery of services to citizens without having to—without having to give up much in the way of power. So there is actually a paucity of these kinds of—these kinds of organizations in the—in the Middle East that can make a difference in the way that the EU, for example, has provided an incentive for countries that would like to join it to undertake both political and economic reforms.
Countries that are on the outside of the European Union see a common market of 500 million people that are among the wealthiest in the world. They live in—they’ve come together as a result of a common set of democratic norms and ideals. And that is a powerful incentive for countries on the outside that are, you know, within the geographic distance of what we would call Europe to undertake reforms. There’s no such thing like that in the Arab world. The European Union is not going to invite Tunisia or Morocco to become part of the European Union, although they might have some sort of partnership status with the European Union. The United States isn’t going to ask Egypt to become the 51st state of the United States if it undertook reforms. So this is not, at least as things stand right now, a kind of thing that is applicable to politics and international politics in the Middle East.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from St. Edward’s University.
Q: Hello. Hello?
FASKIANOS: Yes, go ahead.
Q: OK. (Laughs.) I guess my question is more based on both the cultural history of the regions impacted by the Arab Spring, as well as some of the outside influences from actors like Iran or others that have their own interests involved in trying to act as a barrier to democratic reform. How much—how much do those two interplay as a barrier, the cultural aspects of, you know, having like generationally experienced authoritarian or oppressive regimes, combined with influences from—you know, like, I know Iran has been steadily involved in trying to foster their own views inside of Iraq and Syria and other areas.
COOK: Well, let me—well, let me take the—go ahead, go ahead.
Q: You know, I’m just curious how much—from your knowledge base and your experience base, how much those have played a factor in creating barriers to democratic reforms in Egypt, Libya, and—
COOK: So Iran certainly has an interest in extending its influence and reinforcing that influence around the region, and it has been most active in places like Iraq since the American invasion, Syria since the uprising there turned into a bloody conflict, Lebanon. Iran has long used Syria and Lebanon as a conduit to be a player—and not a positive one—a player in Arab politics.
But when it comes to the uprisings around the region, Iran was a non-factor in the uprisings themselves, and not at all a factor in the failure of uprisings to produce different kinds of politics in places like Egypt, Libya, and even Yemen, where the Iranians are now active. I don’t include Tunisia in that category, not because the Iranians have been involved in Tunisia but because Tunisia is neither a failure nor a success. We don’t know what it is just yet.
But Iranians haven’t meddled in that way. What they have done is they have taken advantage of zones of instability that are adjacent to them or adjacent to places where they have been. So you see in Iraq, as a result of the American invasion of Iraq, the United States brought an end to a national regional counterbalance to Iran. I mean, Saddam Hussein was a terrible human being who oversaw essentially a totalitarian system, but he also—Iraq was also a counterbalance to Iran. That was no longer the case after Saddam fell and the United States engaged in regime change there.
Syria and Iran have long had strategic relations, going back to the early 1980s. During the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988, the one Arab country that supported Iran was Syria, because Syria and Iraq were locked in a regional competition.
So Iran plays an important and destabilizing role as a revolutionary power in the region, but it did not—its influence was not a factor in bringing an end to uprisings around the region, except—the one exception being, of course, Syria, which is when Bashar al-Assad came—found himself in trouble, rather than listening to the good counsel of the Turkish government about undertaking meaningful reforms, he turned to the Iranians, who helped him militarize the conflict. So that’s my—that’s my view of what the Iranian factor has been in the uprisings.
Now, as far as this question of culture, it’s very, very interesting. Everywhere I go and everywhere I talk about my book, people ask me about the cultural aspect—which leads me to believe maybe I should write a book about culture and politics, although that’s asking for trouble.
It strikes me that people without long histories in democratic politics can become democrats. We see that happening in East Asia. We also can see people who do have robust past experiences with democratic politics falter. Just look at what’s happening in Poland or Hungary. Those countries were able to make transitions to democracy and join the West relatively easily after their own uprisings that became revolutions in the late ’80s and early 1990s because they had some democratic traditions that predated the imposition of communism in those countries, yet there is significant backsliding throughout Eastern and Central Europe.
But, all that being said, I think the issue of culture—or the issue not so much of culture per se, but the issue of political culture—what are the cultural artifacts and legacies of the big Arab national security state, and how has that impacted politics in those countries? So, for example, there have been—and this is something that’s gotten me thinking about this issue—is that there have been big protests in Tunisia in the last two years on the anniversaries of Ben Ali’s—Ben Ali’s fall. And they haven’t, though, been about democracy as much as they have been about the failure of new Tunisian leaders to update the social compact. So it suggests that Tunisians who once demanded freedom actually would be happy or maybe would be happy with an authoritarian system, as long as the social compact—the contract of jobs, and so on and so forth—that existed under previous governments in Tunisia, if that was renovated/updated and people could be assured of receiving those benefits.
That’s kind of interesting after these uprisings, and these kind of deeply moving and heartfelt demands for freedom and democracy in Tunisia, which began the Arab uprisings. For it to be something a lot less, there has to be some other explanation for this. I don’t think the explanation is that Arabs and Muslims can’t be democrats, but I do think that the impact of authoritarianism, I think it has a cultural legacy that we may be seeing play out in places like Tunisia, as well as Egypt and other places.
FASKIANOS: Well, Steven, I think we are at the end of our time. So I apologize to all of those who are—we didn’t get to your questions. I am sorry about that, but we do try to end on time. We appreciate your insights, Steven, and the great questions and comments. And I—
COOK: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you, everybody. This was a lot of fun.
FASKIANOS: I commend Steven’s book to you, as well as his CFR blog, which you can sign up for, and his Twitter at @StevenACook, to follow him there.
So our next call will be on Wednesday, November 8th, at noon. Paul Stares, director of the Center for Preventive Action at CFR, will lead a conversation on conflict prevention and mitigation. And I also hope you will follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Campus for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. So thank you all again for being with us today, to Steven Cook, and we look forward to your continued participation.
COOK: Thank you.