Steven A. Cook discusses his new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Cook offers a sweeping account of the last six years of Middle Eastern politics to explain why the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 and Turkey in 2013 failed to produce lasting democratic change. He also considers the role of the United States, arguing that Washington cannot shape the politics of the Middle East going forward.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows. It includes a discussion with the author, cocktail reception, and book signing.
HAASS: Well, good evening and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Richard Haass. And every so often, we gather to celebrate the publication of a book by one of our own and tonight we are doing just that and it’s with Steven Cook who has published the book “False Dawn” and the subtitle is “Protests, Democracy and Violence in the New Middle East.” Probably could have been saying the same thing in the old Middle East. (Laughter.) We will get to that.
This has actually been a day for the Middle East here at the Council on Foreign Relations. At lunch, we had a long conversation marking the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 War. And tonight, we are looking at what has gone for, what, about almost a half-dozen years now. And there are some analysts, including this one, who thinks that we still may be in the early stages of what could be a latter-day 30-years war. Not all wars in the Middle East are necessarily short.
Steven is formerly not just a senior fellow here, but he is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies. Also, he is one of this country’s leading Arabists and Turkish specialists. And indeed, if I were going to say, who do I want to talk to about Egypt and the Arab world, Steven Cook would be on my short list. And if I were going to ask, who do I want to talk to about Turkey, Steven would be on my short list yet again.
I’m sorry he does not have happier subjects to write about—(laughter)—but we all make our choices and we live with the consequences.
We’re going to talk for a few minutes and then we’ll open it up to you here. Before we started, though, I promised I would give him the chance to thank his family and his extended family. That will probably leave us about two minutes for questions. (Laughter.)
So, Steven, give your Shirley MacLaine speech and then we’ll take it from there.
COOK: Well, thank you very much, Richard. First, I want to thank you for all of your support and encouragement over the years and especially when it came to this book, both to you, you especially, but also Jim Lindsay, the director of studies here at the Council.
I won’t take up too much time. I just want to recognize, first, thank you all very much for coming, friends, colleagues, friends from a long time ago. But I do want to recognize some very special people who are here this evening. The first two are my nephews, Seth and Justin Schuster.
Thanks, gentlemen, for coming. I know you probably don’t really want to be here tonight. There’s probably some sports game that’s on that you’d prefer. (Laughter.)
And then three of the most important women in my life, I’d like to recognize.
My sister, Julie Schuster, thanks for coming.
My mom, Iris Cook, who has sacrificed very, very much for me and my sister and made it possible for me to do all the things I do.
And, of course, my beautiful wife, Lauren, who has read “False Dawn” probably 15 times—(laughter)—doesn’t want to read it again. And despite my sunny disposition around both offices of the Council on Foreign Relations, she knows better, especially when I’m writing a book. In fact, when the first lady pushed away the president’s hand upon arrival in Tel Aviv—
HAASS: I noticed your tweet about that.
COOK: —I said been there many times, many times. (Laughter.)
So, honey, thank you for everything.
HAASS: Anybody else?
COOK: That’s it, that’s it. (Laughter.)
HAASS: OK. Editor?
COOK: Oh, yes.
Where is Dave? (Laughter.)
Well, it’s OK because David McBride is here. I’ve come to calling him “your excellency,” so I think it’s OK that I skipped over him very briefly.
And then two other people, Leila Campoli and Alison Fargis from Stonesong Press.
Thanks for coming, everybody.
HAASS: Can we get going now?
COOK: Yeah, now we’re good.
HAASS: No, important to thank people. Whenever someone produces a book, those around them at home and in the office have to put up with the process. And it asks a lot of them, and you get all the credit as the author. So I think it’s important to thank those who helped you navigate the storm and who read the book 12 or 15 times.
There is nothing we could do to thank you enough.
So let’s go back to basics. Why did the uprisings happen when they happened? Because on one level, there wasn’t a whole lot that was new. And 10 years ago, 20 years ago, it wasn’t as though people were sitting around cafes in the Middle East reading the “Federalist Papers” in Arabic translation. So why did it happen? And I expect the fruit vendors in Tunisia and elsewhere have been humiliated before, so why did the Arab Spring essentially happen and take off when it did?
COOK: It’s a great and it’s a complicated question with a complicated answer, but I’ll try to do my best by cutting it really into two.
First, why did it happen? And in “False Dawn” I focus in on one of the chants that I heard during my brief moment in Tahrir Square, which was “bread, freedom and social justice.” This is what people throughout the region wanted.
There was a lot of commentary at the time of the uprisings about economic grievances. And certainly, that was part of it, but it was very, very difficult to separate the idea of economic grievances. And I think the word “bread” kind of speaks to that idea of economic grievances, but it’s something deeper than that.
As you know, in Egyptian Arabic bread is “aish” which means life. And I think that—
HAASS: I thought it was “khobz.”
COOK: “Khobz” in Jordan, “aish” in Egypt. And it means life. And there was kind of all balled up into this idea of bread, freedom and social justice this kind of desire for exactly those things. And that was nothing new, as you pointed out. These are things that people have wanted for a long time.
Which gets to the next question, why did it happen when it happened? And there’s a deeply unsatisfying answer to that. We really just don’t know. In Egypt, it had been—
HAASS: Wow. Can I just interrupt for a second? I’ve now done, I don’t know, maybe 50 or 60 of these, this is the first time I’ve ever heard an author say I don’t know. (Laughter.) This is really refreshing to hear you say that.
COOK: And we just don’t know. You know, if you look at the literature on revolutions or uprisings, there’s all of these efforts to try to predict the conditions when these things will happen, but it never—they just by their very nature are unpredictable. And actually, in the first full chapter of the book, I go through in some detail an argument that a terrific social scientist named Timur Kuran, a Turk, wrote an article after the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s in which he said these things come from nowhere. He called the article “Now Out of Never.”
And I think this is interesting. There’s a fun little anecdote at the beginning of the book where I talk about being at a meeting of other academics and think tankers like myself and government officials in a meeting room in northern Virginia and talking about the dominant trends in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. And he conveners of this meeting called the foreseeable future three to five years.
And at the end of this long day of very, very rich discussion of Middle Eastern politics, we came to the conclusion that stability was the dominant trend for the foreseeable future.
COOK: That was on December 13th, 2010, four days before the Tunisian uprising and all of this began. (Laughter.)
HAASS: But that’s not remarkably different from all those experts on the Cold War who essentially assumed that that was the super structure, if you will, of international relations until it wasn’t.
HAASS: Now, several people, though, have put forward alternative ideas.
If someone could turn off their phone, that would be great.
There were several alternative ideas put forward by some people. One I’ve heard, the Iranian revolution. I’ve heard events in Iraq after Saddam was deposed. And I’ve heard technology, that cellular phones and all that. So why don’t you quickly demolish all three. (Laughter.)
COOK: Well, you know, I think Iran is not a country that young Arabs look to as a model. I don’t think they look to any country as a model. But if there was any country that they were looking at in the years immediately before these uprisings, it was actually Turkey. You would hear young Arabs, and across the political spectrum, Islamists, liberals, nationalists, they were fascinated by what was going on in Turkey because at those moments, in those, you know, four or five years leading up to it, Turkey seemed to have resolved the central problem of politics in these countries, as how to include everybody in a political system and generate economic development. That was the country. So, Iran, I don’t think so.
The second was Iraq. I think when the uprisings began, there was this herculean effort on the part of some analysts and some people who had served in the Bush administration to make that connection. And there really was no connection between Iraq. In fact, throughout the region, if you asked Arabs at the time, they didn’t want Iraq. They looked at Iraq as the kind of negative model. And if you look at the polling that was done at the time, you would see that two-thirds, three-quarters of Arabs said that they did not want the future of their country to look like Iraq.
And then the technology thing, it was very, very interesting to be there when this was happening. A lot of commentary about Facebook and Twitter, and that was happening. But interestingly, and this is specific to Egypt, the Egyptian government shut down the internet. They shut down the internet. And what did activists do? On the first Friday of the uprising, they went to the mosque and they asked people, they asked not just Muslim brothers, but they asked an older generation of protesters, you know, Egypt had had student protests in 1968 and 1972, and they said, how did you do it, how did you do it when there was no internet? And they told them, and this is how it happened. So, yes, the Twitter and Facebook thing was very interesting to see how people leveraged it, but it wasn’t everything.
HAASS: So why did the uprisings fail? And was it inevitable that they’d fail?
COOK: It’s a great question. I think it’s inevitable that they failed. You know, look, I was in Tahrir Square at the beginning, which I think annoyed Jim Lindsay because he had to go to a meeting about it, what was going to happen to Steven in Tahrir Square and call his mother. (Laughter.)
HAASS: We didn’t talk about you. It wasn’t about you, it was about the travel insurance. (Laughter.)
COOK: Right, exactly, that’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s right, it was the travel insurance. No one was calling my mom.
Anyway, so it was hard not to be infected with the romance of the barricades. But as an analyst, first, at a basic level, most transitions to democracy fail. I think in the cases that I look at in the book, there are three factors. And I go into some detail, I obviously won’t go into it here, I’d like you to read the book.
One is that we call these things that happen throughout the region revolutions. They really weren’t. And it’s not to suggest that revolutions automatically lead to democracy. But what was left behind when these leaders left was important to the future trajectory. And what they left behind was an institutional environment that was bound to undermine any efforts towards democratic change. It allowed leaders, new leaders, newish, oldish leaders who came to power to manipulate these institutions, to undermine those people who wanted to live in more open and democratic societies, never mind the fact that these people who wanted to live in more open and democratic societies, the instigators of the uprisings, were terrible at formal politics. But it allowed them to—they had more resources and better organization to undermine these hopes and dreams.
And then when this didn’t happen, people were confronted by failure. And what took over was political contestation and, in a lot of places, violence. To my mind, those are the kind of three important—
HAASS: But also, when the contestation happened, particularly in the country you know so well, Egypt, in some ways, those who were illiberal were far stronger, more numerous, more organized, more disciplined than those who were liberal.
COOK: I think that that’s one of the tragedies of these uprisings, is that you had this kind of triumph of liberal ideas, people had embraced these at a kind of popular level, and in fact those illiberal groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, the army in Egypt, had embraced those ideas, too, but they used them to undermine the people who genuinely wanted to live in an open society.
HAASS: So when you said these things were bound to fail, is implicit in your answer that there was nothing that outsiders could have done that would have made a material difference?
COOK: You know, no. I don’t think so. I mean, maybe it’s just a function of having been there at the time and understanding how little the United States factored in the actual uprisings. I mean, we had become a negative factor in politics in Egypt and in Turkey to a lesser extent, but not so much in—we just weren’t a big factor.
And I think, you know, in thinking about the role of the United States going forward, you know, in line with, and we talked about this, but in line with what you wrote, you know, “In a World in Disarray,” you know—
HAASS: Excuse me, I didn’t hear what you said. (Laughter.)
COOK: It’s a very good book. It’s a very, very good book.
HAASS: Cheap shot, go ahead.
COOK: Anyway, in line with what you wrote, you know, this is a part of the world that suffers from its own maladies, but also suffers from the treatment of it. And I think, to the extent that—and our treatment of it. I think you—it’s a funny word, “iatrogenic.”
HAASS: Oh, no, it’s medical, “iatrogenic.”
COOK: Iatrogenic disorder, this is when, you know, doctors do too much treating or action and inaction make the symptoms in the situation worse. And I think that that’s a great metaphor for what’s happening in thinking about these societies to the extent that Egyptians or Tunisians or Libyans or Turks define their domestic struggles in existential terms about the heart and soul of their countries. I mean, what’s at base here, conflicts over identity, there’s very, very little that the United States could do to manage the trajectory of politics in these countries.
Now, I’m sorry, go ahead. I’m almost anticipating your next question, but go ahead.
HAASS: I’ll ask it anyhow. (Laughter.) OK, so we now have an administration that has essentially made the intellectual judgment that, for various reasons, the United States ought not to be promoting liberalism, democracy, human rights around the world, but particularly in the Middle East. The secretary of state made that relatively clear in a statement to State Department employees. The president made Saudi Arabia his first stop, many of the Sunni leaders gathered there. He specifically said I’m not here to lecture you, and what he didn’t say spoke volumes. That agenda was not there.
So I guess I have one way of asking the question is, do you agree with that approach? Or another way of saying it, do you think having an agenda that would try to make the Middle East a more liberal place is bound to fail?
COOK: In a way, I understand. First of all, let me just say it’s clear to me that Stephen Miller, who wrote the speech, was probably reading Jeane Kirkpatrick, you know, from November 1979 and that famous article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” because it really was a return to this idea of the security threats to our country are so great that it doesn’t matter the character of the regimes in the region. The people we’re working with don’t really matter.
HAASS: I’m going to challenge you because actually part of what Jeane was arguing, that you had a better chance for ultimate reform working with authoritarians, whether it was the Asian examples that she was arguing or with Latin America. But if you took a long-term, gradualist approach, if you worked with authoritarians, you might get to where you wanted to. If you were impatient and jammed a democratizing and human rights agenda, you would fail.
COOK: And it goes back to the second part of your question. And I think that I agree with that in a way. Some years ago, I wrote a piece saying that this democratization agenda, and I was thinking about this when I was writing this part of the book, the democratization agenda really hasn’t advanced the case of democracy in the Middle East. So perhaps we should go back to doing some of the things that we do well in terms of our aid if we’re going to have aid to the region, the kinds of technical assistance that uplifts people, that makes them healthier, wealthier and better educated, that over time that may happen. And we have perhaps an opportunity there because those are maybe things that these authoritarians would welcome without the lecturing about democratization. My view is, is that those things we would get more bang for our buck.
Remember, Seymour Martin Lipset wrote about the requisites for democratization. Now, that’s a contested argument, it’s one that goes back many, many years. But to the extent that we do anything and we have kind of modest goals for the region, if USAID would go back to basics rather than doing, you know, good-governance meetings in the Nile Hilton, you know, the Nile Plaza in Cairo, with Egyptian governors, and we all know why Egyptian governors are there, not really for good governance, but to keep people in line, but if we went back to the kind of basics, we may have, over a generation or two, helped create an environment that’s more conducive to democracy. We just don’t know.
I would never say, though, that this is a region that is just impervious to it. There’s too many people who want to live in more open and democratic societies. I’m just questioning whether we have the resources and the insight to make it happen.
HAASS: Let me ask you a question that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask, and I’ve never heard a good answer to it, but, you know, here it is. What’s it about the Middle East? You used the word “impervious,” let me just use the word “resistant.” What is it about the Middle East that makes it so resistant to liberalism in the classic sense, to democratization?
COOK: You know, I started—it’s a great question. And I started toying with the argument in the book. I kind of hint to it, but I was afraid to go too deep into it. And then I wrote a piece about it. And it actually has something to do with culture, but I don’t think it has to do with Arab culture, I don’t think it has to do with Muslim culture. I think it has to do with the kind of political culture that has become embedded as a result of authoritarianism, a kind of authoritarian culture. The kind of big Arab state has created these expectations on the part of people.
What’s interesting is that there’s protests that are going on in Tunisia. Those protests aren’t really for democracy, they’re for the state to provide people with jobs.
COOK: To me, that runs counter to what we think about when we think about protests in the region or people power. And there’s something to it. I haven’t yet kind of fully worked out the ideas in my head on this one, but there’s something about the institutional, the kind of embeddedness of authoritarianism that is extremely hard for people in a way that is different from communism in Eastern and Central Europe, which was imposed in a way that strikes me as different from what you have in the Middle East.
HAASS: You mentioned Turkey before as, for a time, having been the model. I would not think Turkey now is the model for anything except for a bunch of hoodlums and sort of the excessive use of force by security details. What are we to learn from that?
COOK: Well, I think the entire experience of Turkey is, one, I think people are quite obviously deeply disappointed. In the early part of the Justice and Development Party era, there were some substantial political reforms to the extent that the European Union said, hey, we should begin negotiations to join the European Union. But what happened was, I think I’m not sure it’s generalizable across the region, except in the ways in which Erdoğan has gone about, this president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has gone about deepening the authoritarianism in Turkey. And I go through in some detail in the book about how he’s done that.
But Turkey flipped, to my mind, because of the profound paranoia of Turkish Islamists who always believed another coup was around the corner. And you had some evidence of it. In 2007, the Turkish military tried to prevent one of the founders of the Justice and Development Party from becoming the president of the country because his wife wore the head scarf. And then there was a case in the constitutional court to close the Justice and Development Party as a center for anti-secular activity. The court actually voted that it was a center of anti-secular activity, but didn’t have enough votes on the court to actually close it.
HAASS: Could Turkey, what’s become Turkey in 2017, could this become, however unfortunate some of us might think it is, could this become a model for the Middle East in a very different sort of way?
COOK: Well, there isn’t—currently, there’s not a lot of love lost between Arab countries and Turkey. But I think that there is a common theme that will run through the politics of these countries going forward. You will see authoritarianism coupled with instability.
If the kind of hallmark of the region—Condoleezza Rice talked about when she visited Egypt all those years ago and talked about authoritarian stability. If that was the hallmark of the region for the previous, you know, four or five decades, I think going forward we have to think about things in terms of authoritarian instability. And that’s the sense that you have these authoritarian leaders who have emerged, but they don’t have a political program, they don’t have a positive vision for the future that makes the most sense to the most people. So as important and powerful as Erdoğan is, he wins 50 percent of the vote and so he governs those 50 percent and then he intimidates and coerces the other 50 percent. That’s kind of what we’re going to see in places like Egypt.
HAASS: Well, let me come back. I’ll make that my last question and then we’ll open it up.
You used the phrase, an interesting phrase, from authoritarian stability to authoritarian instability. So implicit in that is, in five or 10 years, do you write then “another dawn?” I mean, is this a wave-like phenomenon that, OK, we had this attempt five, six years ago, it’s played out rather badly to say the least, but if you have authoritarian instability, the spark would be different presumably in X number of years? But is this something that’s now baked into the cake of the Middle East?
COOK: You know, I’m deeply, you know, pessimistic about the future of Arab politics. But I’ve heard you say this before yourself and I agree, that the very similar pathologies that existed in the region and made these kind of uprisings inevitable, though democracy was not inevitable, seem to be present as well. That Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has pursued policies that aren’t that different from what Mubarak has done. In fact, he’s gone even further in some cases. I thought Mubarak was a bit wiser in trying to manage the politics of Egypt rather than trying to uproot and destroy his opponents, so that in a way they are sowing the seeds for potentially future uprisings. And those may succeed.
HAASS: OK. I’ve run out of things to ask. Let’s open it up.
Yes, ma’am, in the back.
If people would wait for microphones and quickly identify themselves and then ask a succinct question or give Steven a succinct compliment. We’ll take it that way.
Q: Alberta Arthurs.
I’m struck by your use of the word “culture” in describing what it is that’s so embedded in the Middle East ways of doing things, Steven Cook, because years ago there was a book of essays by a group of Harvard professors called “Culture Matters” in which they attempted to argue that we needed to pay attention to the ways in which people think, what their histories are, where they come from, what their attitudes and beliefs are in order to understand what we should do and how we should do it. And most of us liberals dismissed this as somehow culturally insensitive and even racist, and now I think we need to reconsider that. I wonder what you think.
COOK: It’s a great question. I think we do. I think we’ve gone too far in the other direction. But again, I don’t want to make the argument that there’s something about Islam or there’s something about Arab culture that makes it impervious or resistant to democracy. I think that there’s a political culture in the region. I haven’t yet quite kind of figured out how to articulate this, but I think we have, in ways, gone too far. We’re afraid to talk about religion, we’re afraid to talk about what people think, we’re afraid to talk about the kind of bounded rationality in which, you know, in Libya, for example, you know, there’s a culture of violence in Libya. And the person who knew it better than anybody else was Seif al-Islam al-Gadhafi, Moammar Gadhafi’s son, who got on television five days after the uprising there began, and not only did he say we’ll fight to the last man, woman and bullet, he said something much more interesting and I think more prescient. He said, Libyans, we’re not Tunisians or Egyptians, we will fight for the next 40 years because that’s what we do. And I think that that’s something that we’ve been afraid to talk about.
But again, I think it has less to do with religion and Arab culture than it has something to do with the way in which these leaders have led over a long period of time.
HAASS: Would we have been better off if the Arab Spring never happened?
COOK: You know, it’s hard. When President Sisi arrived here, I don’t know whether he read it, I’m sure he didn’t, I wrote a piece about how Egypt was better under Mubarak at every kind of measure. Egypt had progressed at the socioeconomic, at the macroeconomic level. The talk about the huge gap between wealthy and poor was just a perception, it actually wasn’t real. And now if you look at those indicators, things are worse off.
I think things are obviously worse off in Libya. Tunisia has made tentative progress, but there’s a lot about Tunisia that we hear about, oh, it’s the one Arab Spring success story. It’s not. It’s a country on the edge. It could either be a failure or be a success, we don’t know yet. It has some advantages over the others, but I don’t know.
If we look across the region, I can’t see how we could say people in the Arab world are better off today than they were six years ago.
Q: Thanks. Hi, Steve. Craig Charney, Charney Research.
I want to follow up on the question of culture and leadership. Because one of the things that strikes me as a lesson of the uprisings, there’s simply no democracy without democrats and democratic leaders. And in particular, if you look at the opposition movements, both liberal and left, I’m struck by the fact that so many of them may have been majoritarian, but they were not democratic, not just in their embrace of the all-embracing state, but also in things like sharia punishments rather than due process, their intense anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, and their hostility to minorities as well.
And it seems to me Tunisia may be the one big counter example because there, there was important leadership pointing the other direction, not just Ghannouchi, but other thinkers in Ennahda as well. And they have managed to stumble their way through to a democracy. It seems to me that this, both in terms of the question of the culture and in terms of the leadership, end up being very important factors.
COOK: I like your reverse reference to Ghassan Salame’s edited volume “Democracy Without Democrats” which was something that was a very important volume in the 1990s about how countries where there aren’t people who are democrats, who don’t feel it can actually become democracies.
You know, when I was writing, there was one section where I was writing and I was writing about Tunisia specifically and I was thinking about that argument and I was thinking about the new Tunisian constitution. I said this would be great, but it’s up to the people who are leaders to actually embrace these ideas because it has some of those kind of trap doors in a lot of other Arab constitutions within the framework of the law, within the framework of implementing legislation that allows excessively broad definitions of terrorism and things like that and allows authoritarians in the region to do the things that they do. So I do think you have to have democrats.
Now, Tunisia, though, is kind of interesting in a sense now I’ll completely contradict everything I just said to you, because I don’t think Ghannouchi or Beji Caid Essebsi are democrats at all. Essebsi, I’m struck by Essebsi in particular, this, you know, 90-year-old president who goes back to, you know, the Bourguiba era and who wrote this amazing op-ed in The Washington Post five days after he was elected president in December 2014, which it said all the nice things that Washington Post readers want to hear from leaders in the Arab world. But if you knew something about what he was saying he completely ripped Rachid al-Ghannouchi and said these Islamists are misogynists, they’re backwards, they haven’t embraced the enlightenment, they’re terrible, et cetera.
What you have in Tunisia is you have stalemate. Neither Ennahda, nor Nidaa Tounes, or anybody else has the ability to impose their will on the other in the same way that the Egyptian military had the ability to impose its will on the Muslim Brotherhood. So you have a stalemate.
Now, that stalemate may ultimately lead to democracy, but who knows? What happens when Essebsi dies, and he’s not young, or even Ghannouchi, who’s much younger, but doesn’t look great? So you do have to, I think you’re right, I think you do have to have democrats.
Q: Sam Munson, Octavian Report.
Steven, you mentioned the political culture in the region. I was curious if you could talk a bit about how the culture under monarchies plays into the phenomenon you’ve been laying out.
COOK: For a guy who was afraid to talk about culture in the book, I’m certainly getting a lot of questions about culture. (Laughter.)
You know, there’s—
HAASS: Consider this therapy. (Laughter.)
COOK: There’s been a lot written about how if you want a democracy get a monarchy—(laughter)—that monarchies have a certain kind of legitimacy that will allow for certain kinds of reforms that ultimately evolve into kind of constitutional monarchies. I haven’t seen that in the Middle East, right? Where would you see it?
I think the Moroccans have really good PR, as do the Jordanians. And you certainly don’t see that in the Gulf. Now, there’s some interesting things that are going on in the Gulf. The Saudi’s Vision 2030 which is this broad reform program that Saudis feel this is being done under the purview of the deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who is the son of the king, who is likely, we think, to be the successor to the king, is undertaking these kind of wide-ranging reforms to essentially change the way in which business and politics is done in Saudi Arabia. You know, I see this as incredibly destabilizing.
I had a funny article after the Saudis came to Washington to announce Vision 2030 and I called it “Saudi Arabia’s Gamal Mubarak.” And that’s to say that what Mohammad bin Salman envisions and what Gamal Mubarak envisioned at that kind of very abstract level of changing the way business and politics is done is quite destabilizing and it undermines vested interests in the way things are done.
So we should be worried about Saudi Arabia on a number of levels, but in general, to your question, maybe that’s the case that monarchies have that kind of legitimacy to undertake reforms, but by no means have seen any of them do that in the Middle East and there are still risks associated with those kinds of reforms.
HAASS: Yes, ma’am?
Q: Hi, Steven, congratulations on the book.
COOK: Thank you.
Q: Sort of a combination, a follow up on the last two questions. We sometimes are afraid to talk about Islam and culture. We seem to be much more afraid to address what the Saudis and Qataris and our allies in the region are doing in countries like Egypt. And so I would argue that there were actually democratic leaders in Egypt that could have taken Egypt in a different direction, but were not funded by either the U.S. or the Saudis or the Qataris or any significant power and we’re really trying to rely on good, old-fashioned grass roots which just is not match.
So I’m curious to get your impressions on the impact of Gulf, of Saudis specifically, and Qatarian money in Egypt and the potential destabilization there.
COOK: It’s a great question and thanks for it. You know, the Saudis and the Emiratis on one side and the Qataris on the other were essentially engaged in a new Arab cold war in Egypt. The Qataris, who were primary benefactors of the Muslim Brotherhood, saw the brotherhood and Islamist movements as a kind of wave of the future in the region. And the Saudis and the Emiratis and others in the region saw that as a major threat. And so when it came to the coup in Egypt in July 2013, the Saudis and the Emiratis provided enormous amounts of resources to allow Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to do the things that he has done. He hasn’t yet consolidated his power, but he’s on the way. So none of our allies in the region played necessarily the best in the service of democracy. But I’m not sure why we would think that any of them would. We would be the ones who would do that.
And, you know, President Obama takes a lot of criticism for his policies in the region, but, you know, he had to make a decision how involved the United States could be in Egyptian politics, for example. And as I mentioned a bit before, we had become, the United States has become this kind of negative factor in Egyptian politics.
And so here, people came out into the streets, these amazing 18 days in January and February 2011. It was a moment of empowerment for Egypt, bread, dignity, freedom, social justice, all of these things. And I think the administration made the decision that it was proper for the United States, as President Obama himself said in May 2011, we need to look upon what’s happened with humility and allow Egyptians to figure out their way forward. That doesn’t mean that the United States wasn’t there. There was a lot of American resources and advice to the people that we liked, but they were so outmatched by the army and by the brotherhood, which were supported by these other countries that had enormous resources to spend, that they had no chance. They couldn’t make it happen no matter what they did.
And they made their own mistakes. They lost that first referendum on constitutional principles in March 2011. A lot of those people, a lot of those democrats said I’m done with formal politics. That’s the sad story.
HAASS: Sir, in the second row.
Q: Hi, Matt Handel (sp).
Steven, we’ve gone through—you used the phrase “authoritarian instability.” There are a couple of basket cases, only way to describe it right now, Syria, for example, and Yemen, where there is open warfare. Is there a chance that we’ll see, because of this instability, open warfare in other countries as well?
COOK: Well, we see open warfare in Libya. There is a nasty insurgency going on in the Sinai Peninsula that spills out into the Nile Valley. We just had this horrific terrorist attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt. Iraq, open warfare. Turkey, there is open warfare going on in the southeast that has now spilled over into Syria and back and forth.
One of the big secrets is that we have a thousand Marines in Tunisia fighting extremists in the southern part of that country. We have kind of very well-developed military ties with the Algerians. So there’s fighting going on throughout the region.
I think what’s striking is that this is all happening at once and that we are talking about three or four failed states in the region. And can we imagine what Yemen is going to look like five years from now? Can we imagine what Syria is going to look like in five, or Libya? Libya is a country that people thought had an advantage in terms of democratic change because Gadhafi allegedly bequeathed nothing; it was a—it was a blank slate. That’s not actually true. And it is a country that has fragmented, and fragmented, and then fragmented again. The solution in Libya may be that strongman once again. So there’s not a—there’s not a good story, and there’s bloodletting almost everywhere.
HAASS: I used to think I was the pessimist. (Laughter.)
Q: (In progress following audio break)—recent Islamic conference in Saudi Arabia where President Trump was the chief guest. And do you think it’s a precursor to a sectarian war against Iran? Thank you.
COOK: It’s a very good question and there’s been just a torrent of commentary about this and the ironies of Trump and the way in which he, you know, conducted his campaign and going to Saudi Arabia and speaking so forcefully about extremism and terrorism. And, of course, we know 15 of 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
Look, I think that the intention of the administration is not to cause a sectarian conflict in the region. But I do think that his words can be taken by leaders in the region to advance their political interests and to keep their countries mobilized through sectarian appeals.
So we saw a number of weeks ago, again, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, saying that, how could there be compromise with the Shia, they just want to dominate the region? Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a geopolitical struggle that both the Saudis and the Iranians couch in sectarian terms. It’s much more difficult to resolve a conflict over identity and over religion and over a sect than it is a geopolitical struggle.
So I don’t believe that the president’s words were specifically geared towards igniting sectarian conflict in the region. That conflict already exists and it’s being used by leaders in the region to advance their political interests.
That being said, I think the calculation is, and I think there’s bipartisan support for this, that the Iranians have been given a little too much leeway to advance their interests and extend and reinforce their influence in the region at the expense of our allies in the region and that there should be a new approach to the problem of Iran.
But I will note that before he got on the airplane to visit Riyadh, the president signed off on sanction waivers, essentially sticking to the Iran nuclear deal. Well, I think it’s very early on in the administration, but we have seen the administration provide more support, both in tangible support, military support, to the Saudis and Emiratis and Yemen, as well as rhetorical support that they have been seeking for the better part of the last eight years that they didn’t get. And this administration has made the determination that the combination of Iran and extremism are the twin threats to the region and that we have to work with these allies regardless of the character of those regimes.
HAASS: Steven, your name is on the cover of this book. Has there been or are there equivalents coming from the region itself? Has there been soul searching? Has there been introspection from, you know, Sunni public intellectuals? And if so, is there a difference between what you’re putting forward and what they’re putting forward?
COOK: Well, I think that there is—I mean, the ones that I know best are the ones in Egypt, the Thuwar, the revolutionaries, the young people, who are now once again afraid. And they don’t want another uprising, one, because they don’t want to be jailed or killed, and they also feel that every time there’s an uprising the country becomes more illiberal. And so that they are now hunkering down and writing and trying to figure out what went wrong.
And I think that the primary problem that they perceive is, one, their unwillingness to actually work within the formal political arena, that they were so pure to this uprising that they decided that they could—if a leader came to power that they didn’t like, they would just go back out into the streets rather than doing the hard political work and building grass roots and political parties.
Then, I think that they’re angry at the externa actors, the Saudis, the Emirates, the United States to some extent, the Qataris, depending on where everybody stands in the region. But there is a certain amount of introspection that’s going on and preparing for the future, because they do believe they’ll have another shot at it.
HAASS: Anything else you’d like to say?
COOK: I just want to thank everybody for coming, and thank you, sir, for presiding.
My previous book was called “The Struggle for Egypt.” I wanted to call it “My Struggle for Egypt.” (Laughter.) David McBride wouldn’t let me do that. This was also a tough one and it’s just wonderful that it’s out and I’m able to share all of this with you. And I’m looking forward to hopefully you all reading it and telling me what you think.
HAASS: What I want to do is remind you that, at least as important as reading the book, a prerequisite is buying it. (Laughter.) And it’s over there. And as you heard tonight, Steven really is one of the leading analysts in this country of things going on in this most troubled part of the world, so I do recommend it. I can say that because I’ve read it.
And want to thank Steven, both for producing such a thoughtful book and for leading us in such a thoughtful meeting tonight.
Thank you, sir.
COOK: Thank you, sir. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.