Egypt, America and a blow to al Qaeda
These must be difficult times for Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The uprising that swept away Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of huge demonstrations, none in the name of Islam, does not fit their ideology. In the war of ideas, al Qaeda suffered a major defeat.
Its leaders preach that the way to remove “apostate” rulers — and Mubarak was high on the list — is through violence. Al Qaeda’s ideology does not embrace the kind of people power that brought down the Berlin wall, forced Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines into exile, and filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of peaceful protesters day after day.
They waved the red-white-and-black flags of Egypt, not the green banners of Islam, in peaceful demonstrations that amounted to “a huge defeat in a country of central importance to its image,” in the words of Noman Benotman, the former leader of a Libyan group often aligned with al Qaeda. “We are witnessing Osama bin Laden’s nightmare,” wrote Shibley Telhami, an Arab scholar at the University of Maryland.
Long before al Qaeda struck against what it calls “the far enemy” on Sept. 11, 2001, its leaders exhorted Arabs to take on the “near enemy” — Arab regimes that failed to run their countries under sharia law — with bloody attacks against its leaders and institutions. Violent jihad was the only way. First Tunisia, then Egypt, showed that the argument was flawed.
Which is probably the reason al Qaeda, an organization of considerable Internet savvy and communications skills, has been largely silent on the unrest that first flared in Tunisia, rolled over to Egypt and now keeps rulers awake at night from Algeria to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Bahrain.
According to SITE, a U.S.-based organization that monitors statements from al Qaeda, its offshoots and followers, the first reaction to the turmoil in Egypt came on Feb. 8, day 15 of the mass uprising, in an online forum. The “doors of martyrdom” had opened, the message said, and Egyptians must ignore secularism, democracy and nationalism.
With peaceful demonstrators jamming Tahrir Square, calls to martyrdom sounded as irrelevant and off-key as some of the statements from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama which zigged, zagged and at least initially shone a spotlight on Washington’s decades-old policy of backing dictators detested by the people they rule.
America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, looked particularly out of touch, with her remark, on the first day of the mass protests, that “our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interest of the Egyptian people.”
That raised some eyebrows but should not have come as a surprise, coming from the woman who, during her first visit to Egypt in 2009, said that “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family and I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
AL QAEDA BYPASSED IN THE STREETS OF CAIRO
Why bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have remained silent is a matter of conjecture. Some U.S. experts think that the two are bottled up in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border by American drone strikes and have logistical problems getting a message out. Others say the murderous pair realize it would sound hollow.
“Al Qaeda and Zawahiri know they have been bypassed in the streets of Cairo,” wrote Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now with the Brooking Institution, a Washington think-tank. “This is not their revolution and they are not its inspiration…” The worst thing that could happen to al Qaeda’s credibility, Riedel argues, would be a post-Mubarak future in which the Muslim Brotherhood, after free and fair elections, would form part of a government coalition and contribute to reforming the country.
That would fly in the face of bin Laden’s philosophy that Islam must triumph over democracy, not participate in it.
The kind of nuanced argument Riedel and other experts are making goes down badly with America’s right-wing radio and cable TV talk show hosts who tend to conflate Islam with terrorism. Some of them portray a nightmarish sequence of events stemming from the popular uprising in the Arab world’s biggest country.
The Muslim Brotherhood, so the fear-mongering forecasts goes, will take control of Egypt. From there, an Islamist wave will roll over Arab country after Arab country. Europe will come next. And eventually the United States. The word “Islamist” is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many Americans.
It is a fear based on ignorance, sometimes wilfull ignorance, and is given voice by politicians who should know better. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, has warned against allowing the Brotherhood to emerge as a powerful force. How so? By America rigging Egyptian elections?
Tim Pawlenty, a possible Republican contender for the 2012 presidential elections, has rebuked President Obama for saying that the Brotherhood “is one faction in Egypt. They don’t have majority support in Egypt.” In the Islam-will-destroy-us-all camp, this amounts to “appeasement.”
So, it is reassuring to know that America’s top spy, James Clapper, sees the link between the Muslim Brotherhood gaining political space and the adverse effect that would have on al Qaeda. “With respect to what’s going on in Egypt,” he told a House Intelligence Committee hearing, “there is potentially a great opportunity here to come up with a counter-narrative to al Qaeda.”
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)