Middle East scholar Gilles Kepel on Osama bin Laden, Egypt and Syria

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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“It is, of course, extremely important for President Obama, for the U.S., because it sort of shows that America which was criticized as unable to grasp with change in the Middle East, as unable to use its military might, finally has managed to reach its number one objective of the last 10 years,” Gilles Kepel told The Daily Caller in a downtown café in Washington last week about the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

“But if we put it in perspective…when you compare the enormous might of the number one superpower with this guy who was close to alone in his compound in Abbottabad, the discrepancy is such that the wonder is how come it did not happen before”

Kepel, who is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the Middle East and Radical Islam, is a professor at the Institut d’Politiques in Paris and the author of Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, which provides a comprehensive overview of Jihadist and Islamist movements around the world. His views are sometimes controversial, but never uninteresting. So when TheDC learned that Kepel was to be in Washington to, among other things, debate another esteemed Middle East scholar, Martin Kramer, on the meaning of the so-called “Arab Spring” at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it caught up with him to get his views on the turmoil currently engulfing the always turbulent region.

“Al-Qaeda was already dead politically before bin Laden was terminated physically,” Kepel argued when asked how big a blow the loss of bin Lade was to al-Qaeda. “And, you know, it had been killed by the Arab revolutions and the reason those revolutions could take place was precisely because bin Laden and his ilk lost their appeal and it had become clear to everyone that they could not mobilize the Muslim masses.”

When asked whether Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri could fill the shoes of his predecessor, Kepel said he didn’t think so.

“He lacks the charisma of bin Laden. He lacks his bravado. And I am not sure that he has the charismatic ability to bring most people under his wing,” Kepel said. “What I foresee is rather that now that the big name has disappeared, the franchising will lose its attraction because, you know, whenever you wanted to bomb something, if you said, ‘I am the Islamic Front for whatever in Kenya or Algeria,’ no one gave a damn. When you say, ‘I am al-Qaeda in Algeria,’ you make the headlines all over the world. This is something you could do as long as the big man was around. Now that he has been not only killed, but also that is image has been erased, it is not the same case.”

TheDC asked Kepel, who had just gotten back from a two-week tour of Egypt, about what he thought the future holds for that country post-Mubarak?

“Egypt is in real turmoil and as of now what is striking is that the state has receded tremendously,” he said. “It is not that visible in Cairo, but it is very visible in the countryside where the police has entirely disappeared.”

Does he fear like many, including this writer, that the Muslim Brothers are in a strong position to, if not take power, than at least have a central role in any elected government?

“The Brothers themselves are utterly divided along ideological and generational lines,” Kepel said. “Now some say those tensions are superficial, that they are going to reconcile, and they are all going to vote for the same people. The dice is not cast yet.”

“I don’t think that they are already in a capacity to hijack it,” he explained further, referring to the Egyptian revolution. “Much will depend on the strength of the other forces.”

But does he view the liberal forces opposing the Brotherhood as strong?

“No, for the time being, they are totally disorganized,” he conceded. And with parliamentary elections coming in September, the “ones that are organized are either remnants of the Ancien Regime and the Brothers” and they “will be able to get the best part of it, whereas the small parties are totally disorganized for the time being.”

Though revolutions have succeeded in overthrowing long entrenched regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, Kepel is unsure whether the revolution currently raging in Syria will ultimately bring down the brutal Assad dynasty.

In Syria “you have an army which is not at all like the Egyptian and Tunisian armies because the Egyptian and Tunisian top brass decided that both Ben Ali and Mubarak were embarrassments and you had to throw them away,” he explained. “In Syria, the army, or the part of the army that is efficient, which is well equipped and the like, is largely Alawi,” he said, referring to the Shia-sect from which the Syrian ruling elite derive, including Syrian President Bashar Assad. “So they know they fight with their back on the wall. They know that everybody in the Sunni majority remembers vividly the 20,000 dead in Hama in 1982 plus the innumerable people that disappeared.”

But, Kepel said, he is not convinced the Sunni elite have yet gotten behind revolution out of fear that the overthrow of the regime could result in civil war.

“I believe that the Sunni bourgeoisie in Damascus and Aleppo is still hesitant as to throwing its weight in the battle because they fear that Syria might turn out to be Lebanon or Iraq,” he said. “You know, it is a Levant country which is fraught with divisions and there might be civil war.”

Jamie Weinstein