False Hope – Thoughts on Steven Cook’s “False Dawn”


One of the most amusing scenes of the events of January 2011 in Egypt was the image of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper cowering in an apartment in Cairo, curtains drawn, whispering into the microphone from an “undisclosed location” for fear that Mubarak’s “thugs” would come and drag him away by the scruff of his t-shirt. The location was well-known, even if it was undisclosed. Those who knew Egypt also knew that life went on normally just a short distance from Cooper’s location. This was a hint of what was to come, when the world reported on the “Arab Revolutions” as nearly a TV serial without much examination of of what was truly happening. Steven Cook opens his new book “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East ”   with a nod to all that, listing the “characters”, “timeline” and “places”, as well as provide personal experiences of living through those days in January in Egypt as a historian and a sympathetic foreigner who studies Egypt’s convulsions. But that early start is a feint, for the book launches as a serious and occasionally gloomy examination of the events of the last 6 years in four countries, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and Egypt. The author has clearly come to many important insights, and one central conclusion; that the “revolutions” of 2011 were no revolutions at all. If a Hollywood agent had read only the cinematic first few pages and tried to option the book he would be advised to choose the music of “The Who” as the film’s soundtrack. The credits would play to the searing strings of “We Won’t get Fooled Again”. Cook concludes that to meet the new boss(es) is to meet the old boss(es).

There is a lot to like in Cook’s book, and a few things to quibble with. The author weaves events in all four countries into one tapestry. Most of the events are well-documented in the public record, but those who do not know the four countries, or know only one or two of them will appreciate and benefit from the summary. We should also note and be thankful for what is absent. There is no discussion of the “Arab mind” or “Islam’s encounter with Modernity” or any of the other similar crutches. There is no hint that the author read the seminal works of Orientalism and postcolonial theory, although he undoubtedly did. Cook assumes that Arabs, Turks, Egyptians and the other motley occupants of the region want what all humans want, a secure, prosperous and dignified life. The early part of the book marshals many economic facts and figures noting that the countries made many advances, but not enough. The people were neither so miserable as to hope for nothing, nor so satisfied as to offer loyalty to their governing schemas. Three countries were run by authoritarian structures, while Libya was not run at all, but simply managed for the benefit of the boss. Cook’s indictment of the ruling elites is indirect, summarizing what they failed to do, and what opportunities they missed, rather than detailing a record of specific perfidies. This is also a welcome departure from the literature of outrage common to studies of the region.

The central point of the book will no doubt arose arguments. The author leans on the theories of Theda Skocpol and others to demonstrate that the “revolutions” were hardly revolutions at all since they did not result in the fundamental alteration of social and political power relations. But those who argue against it will be doing so under the influence of the romance of revolution rather than the sober analysis of what actually took place. Whoever coined the term “Arab Spring” made the cardinal error in Skocpol’s world of using the events of a previous convulsion (fall of the Soviet Union) to analyze a new one. To see this argument advanced by a well-regarded voice on the region is worth the price of the book. It is not surprising that the author in two chapters (“Unraveling” and “What Went Wrong?”) does not countenance the idea of a well-planned “counter-revolution”. Instead he sees a multitude of actors responding in random and mostly predictable ways to new events and conditions. The descent into despotism in Turkey, repression in Egypt and Tunisia, and chaos in Libya were all improvised events, according to Cook, who describes them in some detail. The powers-that-be are not evil Chess masters, but hapless tossers of dice in a wild game of Backgammon. They may be deaf, dumb and blind to the subtle charms of good governance, but they sure play a mean game of pinball.

Cook also takes up a point often ignored in discourses about the region, identity crisis. (The sound editor should cue in “Who are You?”) Recently, Egyptian-American historian Samuel Tadros noted that the ills of the region stem from a refusal to accept, let alone celebrate, diversity. Cook is in broad agreement with that. Many people in the region refuse to acknowledge that it is normal for individuals to assume different, and sometimes overlapping, identities. To refuse to acknowledge that reality is at the root of collapse. Arabism did not die at the hands of Israel, but at the urging of Sati’ Al Husri to tolerate no other identity for an “Arab”, who may foolishly not know that he is one and must be coerced into that acceptance. Similarly, Islamism’s insistence on the supremacy of a “Muslim” identity, something unfortunately is increasingly accepted even in the West, is at the root of its failure to deliver anything more than coercion in the social norms. This is a point on which a direct comparison between Egypt and Turkey (two countries that Cook studies regularly) would have been valuable. Kemalism in Turkey and Egyptianism in Egypt tracked each other closely, and Islamism was a counter-reaction to both. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began to agitate for recreating the Caliphate as soon as Kemal dismissed it in post-Ottoman Turkey. A longer discussion of this would clarify to readers the reason for the ferocity of the suppression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, as the author points out how the Brotherhood is made non-Egyptian by its opponents. A longer discussion of the identity crisis in a place such as Egypt, which retains much of its pre-Islamic identity, would show that at the present moment any true revolution is likely to be Islamist and non-democratic and any liberal outcome is likely to come by evolutionary means. This subtle argument is understood by many Egyptians at a subliminal level, which explains why many supported the July 3 2013 removal of Morsi, while certain that the outcome in the short term will not be a freer politics. Cook hints at that when he points out that had the events become a true revolution, their outcome would not necessarily have been liberal or democratic. This is an accurate observation that runs counter to the conventional wisdom of 2011, which remains popular even if discredited by events.

Many studies of the region urge that considerable effort should go into “building institutions”. Cook finds no dearth of institutions in the countries he studies, excepting Libya. The trouble is less the lack of institutions than in their nature and function. Cook notes that these institutions were built long ago by founding figures (Nasser, Ataturk and Bourguiba). Younger generations have largely failed to supplant them. By day young “revolutionaries” risk their lives to oppose armed power, but at night they repair to the homes of their parents, where they fail to offer a modicum of rebellion against stifling tradition. Many surveys indicate that young Egyptians are as conservative in matters of gender and religion as their Mamas and Babas, and more so than their Tatas and Gidos. If true then this is an unhappy wasteland for social reform. Anecdotes abound. In the revolutionary year of 2011, many who manned the barricades tsked tsked a young woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who displayed her bare breasts in a tasteful photograph. To hear their attacks on her one would think that Egypt is unraveling, not through senseless riots and the burning of important libraries, but through the display of nipples. In contrast to the unveiling revolution of 1919 and the rock and roll events of 1968 , the 2011 edition seemed to be characterized by sexual harassment rather than sexual revolution. While the outside world talked about a “youth” revolution in the region, there was little direct evidence that the youth were engaged in a major revamping of national institutions in either Egypt or Tunisia. When it came to running elections or offering platforms, old men stepped forward. The youth seemed more intent on street action and oblivious to its limitations. Cook takes the nihilistic riots in late 2011 in Egypt to task, but that nihilism was what filled the vacuum left by the lack of serious attempts at cultural and political transformation. This was not always the case. The region was once transformed radically by young men. Nasser made fundamental changes to Egypt before he was 40. King Hussein invented a new Jordan while short of 30. Ataturk invented and built a nation in his 40s. This is no longer the case. A recent meeting of the League of Arab States featured two dozen very old men dozing in their seats. The youngest and most dynamic of the men were Sisi, in his early 60s, and Abdullah in his mid 50s. “I hope I die before I get old”, is not their sound track.

One of the more amusing sections of the book is an insider report of how the US foreign policy Mandarins have been trying to understand the region and “get it right”. This “establishment” is a loose circuit of current, former and would be policy makers who commiserate on panels and in seminars powered by coffee, bagels and a firm belief in the power of the US. Like the Who’s “The Seeker”, they look under chairs and tables trying to vainly find the key to fifty million fables. The reality, asserts Cook, is that the US influence is limited at best, its actions are just as likely to hurt as help, and that detailed studies to divine the intentions of actors in the region and anticipate the course of future events are often about as accurate as a coin toss. He simply urges that the US should stand by its values and refuse to be drawn into foolish escapades. This is the right course for a liberal American republic, but not for a military empire. The Middle East, sometimes incorrectly regarded as the graveyard of empires, holds up an unhappy mirror to America. What is notable about America’s involvement in the region, compared to other areas around the world, is the lack of positive outcomes. America’s involvement in East Asia produced economic tigers (even including Vietnam). Its involvement in Europe produced two generations of peace and prosperity. By contrast, every American effort in the Middle East seems to be an attempt to rectify earlier mistakes and is usually fraught with new mistakes. Still, one suspects that Cook’s recommendation of upholding our values and restraining the impulse to re-engineer the region will fall on deaf ears.

Another good aspect of the book is that it does not end with a laundry list of recommended actions, as many studies of the region often do. Again, we have to be thankful for that absence. The author notes that the region is what it is because of a confluence of historical events and actors rather through any grand design that can be altered or improved. Cook avoids any discussion of what should have been, except in a few places where he notes how the failure to offer a vision has robbed the people of much needed leadership. To have done so would have had him wade into deep and perhaps contentious waters. This book on revolutions is notable for the author’s skeptical attitude toward the efficacy of revolutionary change. Without explicitly stating so, the book seems to favor evolutionary change, or mild Fabianism. The central point of the book is also a paradox. The countries it studies experience plenty of upheavals but no change. The revolutions in these places are literally that, a full turn of events 360 degrees back to where they started. It is as if change is preordained not to happen.

But the failure of the region was not preordained. A woman who went to sleep in 1917 and woke up in 2017 would be shocked by the turn of events. India has a better balance of payment and freer press than Egypt. Singapore, once the scene of another of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” episodes, now rivals Europe in wealth. The four countries Cook studies were in fact lucky by comparison, and yet they remain underachievers. Egypt and Tunisia were not colonized in the exploitative and deforming manner of India or Africa. Turkey was not colonized at all. Libya sits atop a pool of oil with a tiny population. None of the four countries have a history of long and troubled social relations, such as the caste system in India or the deadly friction between Hindus and Muslims, or between Chinese and Malay in Singapore. None of them experienced the natural disasters, rampant plagues and famines of India, for example. Nature endowed them with both mildness and favor. Egypt has a long history of native Christian and Islamic cultures, and has once sustained a polyglot population that remained firmly loyal to it, yet it turned nastily nativist to its disadvantage. Turkey’s Kurdish “problem” is no more intractable than India’s divisions, but is far more destabilizing to the state. So really what went wrong? Here we would do well to follow Cook’s method of looking not to systemic reasons but accidents of fate. Both India and Singapore were lucky to have two remarkable men lead them to independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew were not easy men to like. Neither was a true democrat. Both were deeply suspicious of the West, even if they spent formative years in England. Both displayed a healthy understanding of the shortcomings of their nascent nations and their people. They also shared some common characteristics. For all their resentment of Western colonial powers, they remained in a productive intellectual discourse with them (and in the case of Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, perhaps a carnal discourse as well). They displayed a veneer of authenticity without ever falling into the ugly nativism common to the Near East. Nehru, clad in signature suits, still had no truck with Gandhi’s daffy authenticity, and Lee only affected a certain Confucian hauteur. Both were sly men who realized that their nations needed to emulate Western success, and in doing so can not avoid some of the ills of the West, but the pill can be made sweeter with a bit of theatrical charades. Both men were also students, and to a great degree followers, of English Fabianism. It was not so much the manifestation of it in the early Labor party, but the belief in the efficacy of gradual change, of the necessity of immediate actions to treat the problems most troubling to the most people, and avoidance of single engagements meant to affect profound change. They were, in short, anti-revolutionaries. Their success has not convinced many in the Middle East to emulate them. Revolution still rings alluring and desirable to all too many. The region actually produced some Fabians, most notably the namesake of this blog, who alone among Egyptian national thinkers, opposed the 1919 revolution. Yet despite his wide influence during the interwar years, his personal limitations and that of his country consigned him to ineffectiveness. There is an apocryphal tale of how he was asked, toward the end of his life, of “what he got wrong?”. He answered with one word “religion”. We do not know if the tale is true, or even if it is, what he meant by his response. Religion is one subject that weaves through Cook’s book but is never confronted directly. This is a hint at both its centrality and volatility for the region and any potential transformation. Religion is meant to provide man with hope. It remains with man to make that true or false hope.

Buy the book.

— Maged Atiya


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