In his new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Steven A. Cook has prepared an insightful account of recent developments in certain key countries. Drawing on his in-depth knowledge of both historical and contemporary developments in the region, Cook identifies what he sees as the primary factors at play in recent upheavals and clarifies why certain revisionist theories of these events do not obtain. Such chapter titles as "Unraveling," "What Went Wrong" and "No Vision" reflect the overall pessimistic tone of the book.
Cook draws the title from his succinct summary of the Arab Spring (or, to use his preferred term, the Arab uprisings): "The revolts of 2010 to 2013 were a false dawn" (p. 13). The reference to 2013 is important, since throughout the book Cook endeavors to include developments in non-Arab Turkey in his narrative. Thus, while the protests that defined the Arab Spring largely played out in 2011, in Cook's view an analogous uprising took place in Turkey in 2013.
Cook's treatment is not a comprehensive overview of the broader Middle East region; rather, it focuses almost exclusively on four countries: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Turkey. His detailed observations on the recent and ongoing developments in these countries and their modern history do provide a wealth of insight into the broader trends in the region. However, a student of the Middle East seeking an explanation of the dynamics currently affecting Syria, Iraq, Yemen or the Gulf states, or for insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or trying to better understand the sectarian rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, will not find such topics covered in any depth. Fortunately, Cook does use his case studies of the four countries he covers to analyze several overarching elements in the recent history of the broader region.
Perhaps foremost among Cook's broader insights is that the uprisings of the past several years — while they were revolts against an oppressive status quo — did not amount to revolutions. Cook cites the fact that in none of the Arab Spring countries (nor in Turkey) did popular revolt result in fundamental change in their power structures. The institutions that had dominated these societies and the elites who populated them remained the same even after the uprisings played out. As Cook summarizes: "The failure to sweep away ancien regimes left the forces of progressive political change vulnerable to better organized and well-financed opponents — Islamists, generals, extremists, the old guard and their allies" (p. 156).
Another observation Cook underscores is that the triggers behind the uprisings went far beyond poor governance and economic grievances. As he points out, the peoples of the region have long endured such shortcomings. Indeed, as he says, "The uprisings occurred at a moment of relative prosperity" (p. 62). It is instructive to note that, in the spring of 2011, global oil prices were hovering at $100 per barrel, more than double today's price.
Rather than societal ills, in Cook's view what motivated the demonstrators was, at its core, a systematic affront by ruling authorities to their dignity. This was embodied most clearly in the incident that initiated the turmoil in the region, the self-immolation of the street vendor Mohammed al-Bouazizi in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. Al-Bouazizi reached the tipping point when a local policewoman not only confronted him with a bureaucratic complaint, but actually slapped him across the face. As Cook states it: "The arrogance of power and its flipside, powerlessness, were critical to the uprisings, in which dignity was a common and central theme" (p. 97). This deep, personal sense of shame and resentment lay behind the broader phenomenon of people's standing up and, effectively, shouting that they were not going to take it anymore.
Cook provides key insights into the societal dynamics that prevented the uprisings from leading to improved political and economic circumstances. Foremost among these is the pervasiveness of the politics of identity. Cook notes that identity "is closely connected to concepts like citizenship, nationalism, and collective memory," something people "develop over time in response to a wide variety of variables that include socioeconomic circumstances, education, ethnicity, religion, place of birth, history to which they have been exposed, and politics" (p. 192).
Although Cook does not draw the line directly, in my view identity politics is closely (and tragically) connected to another issue central to Cook's analysis: the region's institutional structure. Using a broad definition of institutions as "frameworks for social action like rules, laws, decrees and regulations," Cook cites the fact that in the Middle East institutionalization has been "weak" as well as "authoritarian" (all quotes, p. 164). As he notes, "because institutions in any society reflect the interests of those who have political and economic power, leaders can be expected to leverage the prevailing rules of the political game to keep, maintain, and reinforce their privileged positions" (pp. 164-65). In view of the fact that the institutions of Middle Eastern societies largely survived the region's revolts intact, Cook characterizes them as "sticky."
In discussing the region's institutional makeup, Cook mentions civil society and the nongovernmental sector. However, I believe he underplays the importance of such institutions — more specifically, the lack of such institutions — to the failure of the region's efforts at democratization and the ability of identity politics to dominate the post-uprising political narrative. He does note that, in the aftermath of the revolts, regimes generally cracked down on civil-society organizations and largely prohibited them from receiving support from abroad. But, in my view, he does not adequately explore the connection between the absence of a robust civil society and the descent of the Middle East into the politics of identity and the widespread conflict and violence that have accompanied it.
For decades, governments in the region have been leery of allowing civil-society organizations, even nonpolitical ones, to develop. They have largely viewed such organizations as potential alternative "power centers" that might challenge their monopoly on power. As a result, social connections among citizens have largely been limited to tribe (whom one is related to), region (where one lives) and religion (where one worships), all essentially out of the control of the political authorities. Opportunities for individuals to interact with those outside of their identity groups on common causes or for broader national interests have largely been nonexistent.
When revolt occurred in these societies, there were no civil-society organizations — what American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has called "cross-cutting politically-relevant affiliations" (p. 42) — uniting people across identity lines around common interests such as rule of law, voting rights or even health care, education, environmental protection or disability rights. These are the kinds of organizations that provide societal glue in democratic countries. Their absence in the Middle East meant that, when the uprisings came, they were not available to counter the destructive tendency to retreat into identity groups to seek broader improvement in governance and thus to help anchor the kind of democratic change the demonstrators were seeking.
Such tribalism was not an automatic consequence of political upheaval; indeed, the protests were cited for their inclusiveness of broad elements of their societies. To a considerable extent, identity politics was deliberately stoked by opponents of real political change in these countries. Sadly, since institutions that might have countered such efforts were largely nonexistent, there was little push-back against the entrenched reactionaries.
The Arab uprisings were not foreseen. To explain why, Cook invokes a concept developed by Duke University political scientist Timur Kuran: preference falsification. That is, as a "result of the fear associated with public dissent, people often expressed public support for governments that privately they did not like" (p. 25). In such societies a tipping point could emerge suddenly and unexpectedly in which "some combination of personal reasons and what social scientists call structural factors — politics, socioeconomic issues, and societal norms, to name a few — can produce a process through which an individual's public and private views align in opposition to the government" (pp. 25-26). It was such self-censorship of (negative) popular opinion that made the uprisings impossible to foresee.
Cook helpfully treats two issues that provide an American perspective on the Arab uprisings. The first involves U.S. efforts in support of democratic development in the Middle East. Cook starts with President Obama's approach: "Although he affirmed his commitment to advancing democracy, Obama indicated that Washington would not press the issue." Given such a relatively hands-off approach, in Cook's view, "It was ironic that the uprisings happened during Obama's tenure" (p. 29).
His treatment of two pre-Obama U.S. actions that affected the development of democracy goes deeper. The first is the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) launched by the Bush administration in 2002. Cook notes that MEPI "supported democracy, economic reform, educational reform, and women's empowerment, reaching directly into Arab societies and working with partners, whether they had approval from governments to do so or not" (p. 31). Having overseen a robust MEPI program while serving as U.S. ambassador in Oman, I was aware of the challenges of such an approach. But, to clarify the program's intent, more important than the content of specific programs MEPI supports is the idea of civic empowerment that MEPI fosters, a societal concept new to many in the region. MEPI is not a democracy-promotion program per se;it is aimed at promoting civic-engagement. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the uprisings, MEPI has been curtailed by several countries in the region.
The second issue associated with democracy and U.S. involvement is the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Cook references those (such as then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz) who, in connection with the invasion, "argued that regime change in Iraq would usher in an era of democracy in that country, which would in turn transform the Middle East" (p. 31). Cook reviews some of the commentary at the time of the Arab uprisings from former Bush administration officials and neoconservative opinion leaders linking them to the U.S.-led transplanting of democracy into Iraq — i.e., "an 'Iraq effect' on the politics of the region" (p. 33). Cook dismisses the claimed link, noting, "Large majorities of Arabs believe that Iraq was better off under Saddam Hussein, that the country will never be a stable democracy, and that it would spawn instability throughout the region" (p. 33). In view of such sentiments, Cook is certainly correct in concluding that an effort to emulate Iraq was not what precipitated the Arab uprisings.
Later in the book, the author returns to the issue of U.S. democracy promotion, providing an insightful summary of the two major attitudinal anchors of the views associated with the United States by those in the region: "Washington's history of unfailing support for Israel and regional dictators was a source of outrage for many in the Arab world. People in the region had long admired the United States, its principles, and its ideals, but could not understand the gap between the way Americans lived at home and Washington's conduct in the world" (pp. 211-12). That the United States is largely admired in the region for its principles and reviled for its policies is a dichotomy that has for decades provided the foremost challenge facing U.S. diplomats there.
Cook also performs a valuable service in addressing two clichés about the Middle East those of us who have been involved with the region for decades have recoiled against: the Arab "mind" and the Arab "street." He dismisses several of the derogatory attributes that academic and popular literature — largely from the 1960s and 70s — has ascribed to the Arab mind, such as that "maintaining face was allegedly so crucial to Arabs that no such thing as truth in Middle Eastern societies existed" (p. 97). Likewise, Cook notes that "refrains about 'the Arab Street' conjure images of rampaging wild-eyed mobs in stark contrast to the consensus-based politics of other regions" (p. 98). Some who have promoted such concepts have "tried to make the case that Arabs were, at social and cultural levels, not just different from Westerners, but actually inferior" (p. 97). Even today, "Questions about the ability of Arabs and Muslims to embrace modernity are common" (p. 98). Any effort to explode such myths is to be applauded.
The book is extensively footnoted, containing three-dozen pages of references. While it does not have an index, it helpfully contains a timeline of key events, from December 2010 (Mohammed al-Bouazizi's self-immolation) through August 2016 (the Turkish military's incursion into Syria to confront Kurdish forces there). There is also a "Cast of Characters" from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Turkey (to which Cook adds two others: self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and one-time Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). The book opens with a breathless prologue containing Cook's first-person account of being in Cairo's Tahrir Square in January 2011. Although the book was published in June 2017, it was completed before the election of Donald Trump and thus does not cover developments in the region during the new administration.
Cook's concluding paragraph (p. 255) confirms the thesis permeating the book: "The dawn that first broke in Tunisia, promising a new era, proved to be a false one. Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, and Turks seem to have now collectively woken with a start to the realization that the future will likely be no better than when Mohammed al-Bouazizi struck the match."