“The Struggle For Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square” A Conversation with Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook, is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He discussed his new book The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.


“The Struggle For Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square”

Nine months after the start of the January 25 revolution that saw the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Steven A. Cook helped connect the dots with a look into his new book The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. Even before the revolution, Cook described that it was his intention to write a book about Egypt. To him, the debate on contemporary Egyptian history was very much ossified and stunted, portrayed in a very two-dimensional manner. Egypt was always an unstable and contested political climate.

The book’s narrative begins with the 1952 coup, which saw Mohammed Naguib and then Gamal Abdel Nasser come into power. Unlike the legacy of his economic reforms and Egypt’s loss in the 1967 War, “Nasserism” was short-lived, lasting for no longer than a decade. Cook describes how even during the last three years of Nasser’s life, Egypt bore witness to a contentious period of student uprisings that called for more accountable politics. According to Cook, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, sought to “correct” the revolution. However, his actions only resonated for a short period of time and appealed to few people, failing to provide for tangible reform. Sadat’s administration, culminating in the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, saw a marked shift to the West, undermining the nationalism and image of strength and independence that helped guide the revolution in the first place. As such, by the time Hosni Mubarak came to power, there was already a great deal of built up tension. His formula, according to Cook, was to maintain stability for the sake of development: development that failed to include the vast majority of Egyptians. Unlike his predecessors, Mubarak had to rely more heavily on force to maintain control. Cook described how force is the least efficient way of controlling a population, stating that when fear is all that stands between a regime and revolution, the slightest crack can spell the regime’s downfall.

Cook continued by suggesting that in the 59 years since the coup, Egypt’s leaders have failed to successfully establish a unifying sense of nationality. While Nasser was close but ultimately failed, Mubarak, in the interest of stability, never made it a priority to answer Egypt’s most pressing questions: “What is Egypt’s proper place in the world? What does Egypt stand for?”

Lastly, Cook touched upon the policy implications of the Egyptian revolution for the United States. He described the revolution as a continuation of critical nationalist moments in Egypt’s past. With Mubarak, the Egyptian people “brought down the pharaoh rather than build a pyramid for him.” According to Cook, the United States played a part in this revolutionary narrative. For instance, he describes the role of the United States in development and building infrastructure in Egypt. At the same time, the Washington-Cairo relationship rendered Egypt as a second-rate power in a region where it should have been first rate, the 1979 treaty with Israel being the “crown jewel” in this relationship. Cook reminded the audience that the revolution is ultimately about Egyptians and not the United States. In efforts to avoid accusations of “Mubarakism,” as Cook describes it, there will be a natural divergence of U.S. – Egyptian relations. The Egyptian people will now look with more fondness back on the positive neutralism of the 1950s, as opposed to the strategic alignment that occurred under Sadat and then Mubarak. In fact, Cook asserted that if Egypt is even “half-successful,” an Egypt that is no longer seen as a “U.S. lackey” may be a better interlocutor for the United States in the long run.