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The Struggle for Egypt

The Struggle for Egypt by Steven A. Cook. Oxford University Press, 2012, 408 pp.

Socrates’ ancient quote, “Know thyself,” also applies to nation-states. Steven Cook’s work, The Struggle for Egypt, deals particularly with this subject. The author seeks to understand Egypt’s nature and its battle to verbalize its cultural values by illustrating this struggle in today’s dynamic environment. He guides the reader through Egyptian history—from the 1880s until the conclusion of the Tahrir Square Revolt in 2011. Approximately 200 pages focus on the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat (1952–81), while the remainder cover Hosni Mubarak’s regime (1981–2011). Nasser originally came to power through revolutionary means. However, every other succession occurred within, at least, the semblance of legitimate elections. The Tahrir Square events ultimately lead to an internal succession and constitutional convention. The tome highlights the irony of Middle Eastern analysts who tried to evaluate that beleaguered nation only to realize that, from 1952 to 2011, just three individuals made all the key decisions. The text endures its own struggle to develop a concise summary of Egyptian identity in foreign and domestic affairs, in part due to that particular narrow leadership lens.

Many of the broad themes center on common trends in Egyptian society: the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s hatred of Israel, the protester’s role in Egyptian society, and the effect of foreign aid on the Egyptian economy. Cook affords an excellent look at the Brotherhood’s early development, emphasizing its never-ending on again/off again relationship with the Egyptian government. He highlights Egyptian policy attempts to exclude Islamic organizations from politics, only to welcome them back several years later in an effort to secure popular approval or sanctions. These changing Islamic trends in Egyptian society also contribute to ongoing problems with Israel. Cook highlights two Arab-Israeli wars and their effect on Egyptian leadership. He further contrasts their need to express Palestinian solidarity to gain popular support within the Arab community with their need for continued peace with Israel to secure US aid—averaging more than $1 billion a year since the mid 1970s.

This work covers, extremely well, the various aspects of US aid and support to Egypt, from President Kennedy’s initial bread subsidies to the massive peace dividends after the second Sinai conflict that continued through 2011. It describes the expectations on both sides, the actual aid deliveries, and the impact of current events on aid and Egyptian culture. One must wonder whether this continual assistance has created an entitlement culture similar to the effect of welfare payments in some US metropolitan areas. Cook references a 2007 example where senior Egyptian military officers, on being notified that the US Congress was considering reductions, referred to that support, not as generosity, but as part of the Egyptian budget (p. 223). The Egyptian government has benefited monetarily from both regional US military campaigns, through debt reduction and direct financing. Nonetheless, it suffered greatly in its people’s perception. Cook links Arab street protests over US actions to a public misperception that many elements of Egyptian society exist only because of US aid.

Another key point is the prevalence of public protests, especially by Egyptian students. The first popular protests were noted in 1919, while Egypt was still under British rule, and continue to the present. Most oppose government policies, although some are implemented by the government in support of new legislation. The most common justification for protests, according to Cook, is the Egyptian government’s inability to provide common, basic need, subsidies that Nasser and the Free Officers initiated during the 1950s to hold down prices and create the illusion of economic self-sufficiency. Cook emphasizes that Egyptian workers staged more than 1,000 protests from 1998 to 2004 and more than 250 in 2005 (p. 178). He reports that protests continued to increase after that, but any connection to equally frequent student protests is only implied. The first true joint protest that reached across multiple social strata appears to be the 2011 Tahrir Square events.

Cook’s coverage of the Mubarak regime superbly passes in review, including the government corruption connected to the 2011 outbreak. He carefully catalogs the initial causes of the uprising, placing them contextually within Egyptian society. One point that sometimes escapes global media coverage is that the Tahrir Square occurrences were instigated in protest of the previous month’s corrupt parliamentary elections. They began on Egypt’s Police Day to underscore the corruption that also exists within their ranks. Cook’s Tahrir Square analysis focuses on groups within the regime political parties, Egyptian government officials, police units, military forces, and various individual actors. These events definitely help the reader understand the momentum of the protests after so many years of apparent stability. Ultimately, the author briefly tallies the impact of Tahrir Square on future US-Egyptian relations.

Overall, Cook offers an excellent historical review of Egyptian society by illustrating domestic politics, foreign policy, and religious tendencies. Unfortunately, while identifying the importance of recognizing and developing an Egyptian national identity, he fails to define what that identity entails today. Cook’s Egyptian synopsis provides analysts and researchers fertile ground for abundant and concise reference. It may even assist in researching broader Arabic social trends, although one still wishes the author had provided a clearer view of his own perception of that Egyptian identity. The Middle East’s turbulent nature makes this task difficult. He leaves the reader with the uncertainty of this last sentence: “For now, one thing is clear, the struggle for Egypt continues” (p. 307).

Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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