Current events in the Middle East Mediterranean Region: a conversation with Gilles Kepel

Gilles Kepel, scientific director of USI MEM Freethinking Platform (© MARIA ELENA FANTASIA)
Gilles Kepel, scientific director of USI MEM Freethinking Platform (© MARIA ELENA FANTASIA)

Institutional Communication Service

17 February 2020

The public conference series by political scientist and Arabist Gilles Kepel will resume at Università della Svizzera italiana with the beginning of the new semester. Kepel is Professor at USI and at École Normale Supérieure di Parigi, and his conferences will focus on the geopolitical configurations of the Middle East Mediterranean region. The lectures will tackle current issues as shown by the subject chosen for the first encounter on 20 February 2020 at 6:30 pm at USI (in Italian), which will see Prof. Kepel in conversation with the Rector of the Université Saint-Joseph of Beirut, Salim Daccache, and Prof. Michele Bernardini of the University of Naples “l'Orientale” on the current situation in Iran and Lebanon.

Back from his tour between Switzerland, Italy and Germany to present the Italian translation of the book Beyond Chaos: The Crisis in the Mediterranean and the Middle East - translated by Dr. Federica Frediani, project leader of the MEM Summer Summit organised by USI - Prof. Kepel returns to Lugano, before continuing his journey to the United States, to share fundamental reflections on the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Current events put the tension between Iran and the United States in the spotlight after the assassination of the Iranian General Soleimani. The domestic and foreign policy of the American President is based on the will to show the ability of the US to punish its enemies, and in this case, according to Professor Kepel, a past offense is being claimed: "the reaction is due to the wrongdoing suffered by the 52 diplomats of the American Embassy that were taken hostages for more than one year in Iran in 1979. An open wound in the conscience of the American people, perhaps to be considered even more striking than the attack of 11 September. On that occasion Iran ignored international rules and Trump took the opportunity to do the same, reacting with extreme force when the Iraqi militias, with Iranian support, attacked the American Embassy in Baghdad". The American reaction - which Kepel calls "Jacksonian" precisely because it takes up the policy of the seventh President of the United States who did not want to be permanently present in foreign countries, but wanted to be able to prove the great American power in every place and on every occasion - was unexpected for the Iranians who saw the General, number two of the Regime, as untouchable. His death weakened the military and strategic force of the country, making it impossible to react and strike back. The role played by Iran's main ally should also not be forgotten: "an attack that could endanger Trump's election would in fact go against Russia. Putin has already helped get Trump elected in 2016 and thinks that the current president is once again the best choice to perpetuate Moscow's interests. For these reasons, given the current situation, I don't think there will be a significant escalation of tension," Kepel continues.

Recently there has been much talk of another initiative in the domestic policy of the United States, namely the peace solution proposed by Trump and Netanyahu to the Arab-Israeli conflict, proposing a two-state system, with Jerusalem as the unique capital of Israel. "Trump, with this peace proposal that grants almost everything to Netanyahu and nothing to the Palestinians, seeks the support of the American Jews, the majority of them democratic" explains Kepel. Palestine is no longer the centre of attention in the Middle East, given the fractures that cross the region and the south-eastern shores of the Mediterranean: "What is happening in Palestine is no longer a central issue after the civil wars that followed the so-called Arab Spring and especially the antagonism between Shiites and Sunnis: between the Shiite Crescent (i.e. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon) and the Saudi bloc (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Arab Emirates and the Cyrenaic region of Libya under the control of Commander Haftar). To this we can also add the rift between the Sunni bloc clearly visible in Libya, where the Emirate of Qatar and Erdogan's Turkey supporting the Muslim Brotherhood support the government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli. This situation has opened a gap for Trump in wanting to absolutely favour and support Netanyahu without obtaining a unified Arab reaction," says Kepel.

Lebanon is also facing a deep crisis and the population riots continue. The imbalance can be traced back to the situation in Iran after the embargo of spring 2018 imposed by the United States. "The Iranian capacity to redistribute money to Hezbollah's party in Lebanon has drained the finances and reduced the redistributive capacity of Hezbollah itself, causing uprisings not only of Christians and Sunnis but also of Shiite". The possibility of these movements turning into a profound political change in Lebanon is questionable, "the economic situation in the central country is very alarming. The banks no longer give the possibility of withdrawing cash every month, and the young Lebanese who have the possibility are fleeing the country", Kepel concludes.

The complete press review of Prof. Kepel's interviews and speeches in the national and international press is available here.