How the West Got the Middle East All Wrong

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Protesters run during clashes with police in Ain Shams area east of Cairo after hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood men were sentenced to death, March 28, 2014Credit: Reuters

Conspiracy theorists in Egypt often use the term “deep state” to explain the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood. The term refers to the military and judiciary’s control of the state no matter who’s president. The term was coined with Turkey in mind, notes Prof. Gilles Kepel, one of the world’s top experts on the Middle East.

Kepel, who teaches at the renowned Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), agrees that the military and judiciary undermined the Muslim Brotherhood regime that ruled in 2012 and 2013.

“I know the coup was planned,” he told Haaretz in an interview in Israel this month. “In December 2011 I had dinner with an adviser to [Field Marshal Hussein] Tantawi, who explained to me they would let the brothers go, expose them, and they would be so terrible that people would want [the military] back.”

According to Kepel, the questions is: Was the current president, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, involved in the plan, and to what degree did Washington and Jerusalem help out?

Kepel doesn’t worry about making controversial statements. In 2000 he published his book “Jihad,” whose subtitle in the original French mentioned the “expansion and decline of Islamism.” He argued that radical Islam was destined to fail as a political movement.

September 11, 2001 didn’t change Kepel’s mind; in the English version of the book, published in 2002, he said the attacks proved his argument: Al-Qaida turned to extraordinary terror attacks after failing to recruit the masses in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s. These attacks only worsened its isolation.

In the case of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Kepel believes the military conspiracy played only a small part. “The Brothers always said: We were never given a chance,” Kepel says. “They were given a chance .... When you’re in politics, either you win or you fail. You can’t put the blame on others.”

Kepel sees the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a general process in the Middle East in recent years. He doesn’t just hit the library; after the 2011-2013 revolutions, he took trips to the Middle East and published his findings in a French-language travel journal called “Passion arabe.” He’s visiting the area now as part of an attempt to rebuild Mideast studies in his country after events revealed fuzzy thinking.

The field “suffers from two academically transmitted diseases from America. One is Fukuyamaitis and the other is Huntingtonosis,” Kepel says, referring to Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington.

“iPod, iPad, iMax, i-whatever – those guys and girls in Tahrir Square and [Tunis’] Bourguiba Avenue are just like us. So it’s the Arab Spring man, they’re going to have Democrats and Republicans and forget about the hijab, the niqab, Bin Laden and Kalashnikov,” says Kepel with a grin.

Huntington’s theory is the other way around: “They are others, it’s the clash of civilizations man, it’s got nothing to do with the Arabs. It’s always about jihad.”

The conclusion of his trips: The authoritarian regimes that fell in 2011 had been some of the biggest winners of the September 11 attacks. They were perceived by the West and their own middle classes as a shield against terror.

“Better Ben Ali than Bin Laden” was the slogan, referring to deposed Tunisian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But this approach eroded after the defeat of Al-Qaida in Iraq.

The revolt of the middle class

Since 2005, Kepel explains, Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and their counterparts started to appear to the United States and others as part of the problem of terror, not the solution. Organizations like George Soros’ foundations started training groups of dissenters in the Arab world, but those changes weakened the regimes and their international legitimacy.

Also, according to Kepel, corruption in the Arab world reached new heights. The authoritarian Arab regimes sought to protect the upper middle class, but the situation deteriorated so badly that even that class had to bribe people close to power. As a result, the upper middle class, or at least its children, supported the revolutionaries.

The third and perhaps most important factor was the food and water shortage before the uprisings. A drought in Syria led to the massive migration of villagers to the Daraa area, where the rebellion against Bashar Assad began. In Egypt, food prices skyrocketed in 2010, especially after fires in Russia’s wheat fields.

“Lower-middle-class people thought that even if Mubarak was a dictator, at least there was some future for their kids,” Kepel says. “Now that thought was totally impossible. They joined the movement.”

These factors and a Tunisian vegetable vendor’s self-immolation initiated the first phase of the uprisings in the Middle East – the fall of the anciens regimes. But those uprisings were successful only where there was no significant Sunni-Shi’ite divide — not in places like Yemen, Bahrain or Syria.

Kepel talks about two interlocking factors that blocked the uprisings – energy resources and the Sunnis’ fear of Iranian hegemony.

Oil-and-gas-rich Bahrain, for example, is a tiny principality ruled by a Sunni royal family with a population over 70 percent Shi’ite. The antigovernment protest was perceived by neighboring Qatar and Saudi Arabia as an existential threat. If the Shi’ites could topple the regime, they could give Iran a key foothold in the Persian Gulf. So the West turned a blind eye to the repression, even when in November 2011 the Saudis sent in their army.

Syria is the mirror image. In Syria, the Iranians and Hezbollah boosted Assad. Meanwhile, the Qataris and Saudis boosted the Free Syrian Army.

According to Kepel, the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict defined the second phase of the uprisings. And this conflict was linked to the “Ihwanization of the revolution” — Ihwan means Brothers in Arabic — with the backing of Qatar, in light of the disorganization of the young revolutionaries who led the first phase.

But the Muslim Brothers failed, not only in Egypt, but in Tunisia. This led to the third phase of the uprisings, where we are now.

“The big shift between phase two and phase three is that phase two was 1) Ihwanazation and 2) the Sunni-Shi’ite dispute," Kepel explains. "Phase three is the crackdown on the Brothers, the comeback of the military and the Sunni-Sunni dispute, which is becoming more important – Qatar versus Saudi Arabia, Ihwan versus Salafis.”

Without ignoring the Saudis’ fears of Iran, Kepel says “Iran isn’t going to try to seize power in Riyadh; they’re not Arabs and they’re not Sunnis, they’re foreign. Whereas the Brothers are a threat, the Brothers are Arabs, they’re Sunnis.”

Learning from the Russians and Algerians

Alongside the army’s return in Egypt, with strong backing from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates — to the chagrin of Qatar — the intra-Sunni conflict has changed the face of Syria’s civil war. Kepel uses examples closer to French history.

“During the Algerian war of independence, the French used a system meant to create rifts in the liberation movement, so they would start killing each other,” he says. This lesson wasn’t forgotten when the Algerian civil war broke out in the ‘90s. “The Algerians’ counterintelligence methods were taught to them by the Russians — you inject jihad into the rebellion so it implodes.”

This method, for example, was used by the Russians to quash the Chechen rebellion. “In Syria, just like in Algeria before, the regime played on the extremization of the revolution,” says Kepel.

“ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] is a strange group. Those Islamic Sunnis in Iraq were boosted way back by Syrian intelligence, and they still have some influence. ISIS controls oil rigs in eastern Syria that are not bombed by Assad’s air force. They even sell oil to Assad.”

Even if those claims are merely disinformation spread by Assad, it works. The Syrian National Council, an opposition group recognized by the West, published documents earlier this year showing Assad’s officers’ involvement in ISIS. That publication was part of a military offensive against the group by other opposition forces.

Meanwhile, the intra-Sunni rift cost the opposition one of its main supporters. “Saudi Arabia, which initially backed the jihadists, backpedaled after Saudi jihadists posted on their websites that the road to Riyadh passes through Damascus,” Kepel says.

Assad, meanwhile, plays one Sunni side against the other: “For Turkey the main issue isn’t Assad, it’s the Kurds. The Kurds have made alliances with Assad against jihadists. They’ve strengthened pockets adjacent to the Turkish border, and it’s a nuisance for Turkey. It’s something Assad is playing on.”

As a result, Assad’s position has stabilized. He controls a strip along the coast from the Turkish border southward, which, Kepel notes, is expected to give Assad a chunk of the Mediterranean’s natural gas reserves.

Meanwhile, the opposition supported by the West is too weak to threaten the regime, and the jihadists’ future isn’t bright either: “In 1996, most of Algeria was under rebel control, and due to shrewd management of the rebellion, splits in [the rebels’] ranks and a careful PR image — with massive Russian backing — the Algerian generals were able to come back.”

The election in Syria this month is part of the PR campaign. “Everybody said [the election] was a farce, but something happened, and there were photographs of women without veils voting — and the others, what do they have to say?” Kepel asks.

“Hostages, beards, niqabs and beheadings. In a way, despite all the human-right violations, [Assad] has managed to twist the image around. It’s not complete because the atrocities in Aleppo and the like are still being documented, but in a way, in the YouTube age, it doesn’t matter. He was able to stage a show that the others couldn’t stage.”

As a result, according to Kepel, the only possible solution to the Syrian crisis is a compromise — not one determined by the Syrians themselves, but “a compromise between Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran and Israel.”

And what does the future hold for the rest of the Middle East? For now, it looks dire. Kepel notes how in two years of traveling he sailed up the Nile, visited Eden in Yemen without an escort and crossed the border from Turkey into rebel-controlled areas in Syria. He wouldn’t dare do anything like that today.

He also doesn’t expect further revolutions like the ones of 2011. Still, the current situation is only temporary. Other than the advancement of Al-Qaida-friendly ISIS in Iraq, which threatens what’s left of stability in the Middle East, Kepel sees the Gulf states as the most fragile area. A final nuclear deal between Iran and the West would leave them extremely vulnerable.

The North African regimes look more stable. In Algeria the bitter memory of the civil war still blocks calls for change, and the country’s hefty oil reserves sustain the regime. Morocco is doing well economically; the economic crisis in Europe has seen factories move southward because of the relatively educated, cheap workforce.

Yes, Libya remains a problem that could spread to its neighbors, but this instability might help Egypt’s military regime. Kepel thinks the terror threat in eastern Libya could give Sissi a reason for a military intervention that would make him a key player in the region.

In Egypt itself, the Brothers are crushed. Their leaders are imprisoned or in exile, and there is huge hostility toward them among the people. But Kepel notes that the movement survived previous crises and that the concentration of the Brothers’ leaders in prison can let them regroup and rejuvenate their doctrine.

The military regime did manage to create an appearance of law and order, but it can’t stop the terror in Sinai. And most importantly, don’t forget the annual lifeline of $15 billion to $20 billion from the Saudis and the Emirates, assistance that can’t last forever. Sissi is very popular, but he needs to show results.

“Winning an election when you’re in control in Egypt is the easy part,” says Kepel. And the youngsters that led the revolution in the first place?

“For the time being this young generation has fled politics because the cost of participation is too high. Many of them have gone on to writing, music, cinema.” But even if they’ve been defeated, they’re not dead, Kepel notes. “The seeds are all around; we haven’t seen the end of it.”

Prof. Gilles Kepel of Sciences Po at a conference in November 2012. Credit: Chatham House via Wikimedia

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