Jihadi Swan Song

Will Arabian liberal, secular mass movements be the death of al-Qaeda?

Democratic mass movements are spreading like brush fire across the Middle East and North Africa, and one thing is becoming clear – al-Qaeda is being left in the dust. The Arab revolutions are a decidedly populist affair, demanding equality, pluralism, freedom and social justice. They are liberal and secular, anti-authoritarian, made up of Muslims and Christians, and include a large number of women.

In short, they are everything al-Qaeda hates.

Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and their comrades in arms have held support throughout the Muslim world in fellow-traveler fashion – while most Muslims don’t want Taliban-style Sharia, they do want despots like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali out of power. In an era where the conflict was painted convincingly to the West as a choice between autocratic order or jihadi chaos, the dictators won out, and al-Qaeda scored points with the people for explicitly stating its goal of ousting the tin-pot dictators and Western-backed tyrants.

The so-called Arab Spring changes everything – the ambition of overthrowing these regimes was perhaps al-Qaeda’s most appealing selling point. This objective is now an anachronism, with 18 days of popular protest in Egypt achieving what al-Qaeda couldn’t in 20 years.

Arabs have been keen observers of not only the secular autocrats of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, but also of the oppressive theocracies in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan – neither model is what they want for their countries. Moreover, the jihadi movement has lost a lot of support in the Islamic world because of their arme de résistance – suicide attacks – indiscriminately killing hundreds of Muslims.

Indeed, al-Qaeda has been slow to react, and in an effort to stop themselves from being marginalized, al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian and longtime head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, released a statement praising Mubarak’s ouster, but also attacking democracy and calling for an Islamic state. These demands are not only going to fall on the deaf ears, but also illustrate how out of touch al-Qaeda is with popular Arab politics.

Their irrelevance has been amplified by the U.S. response. The crux of al Qaeda’s imperial narrative has been America’s support of strong men like Mubarak in exchange for strong counterterrorism measures and peace with Israel, to the determent of the people. With the U.S. giving considerable rhetorical support to the protestors – whether to atone for past sins and hypocrisy or simply out of a shrewd Realpolitik – the jihadi position becomes hollow.

While the Muslim Brotherhood has fallen short of abandoning their belief in the virtue of Islamic rule, their enthusiastic embrace of the democratic process and renouncement of violence has closed the gap between secular groups and moderate Islamists, further isolating the jihadis (al-Qaeda, for its own part, attacks the “heretic” Brotherhood as much as it does liberals).

While it would be folly to discount al-Qaeda as a credible threat, the change they have so long called for has nothing to do with them. They are losing friends fast – and terrorists without friends are fish without water.

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