Arab response to bin Laden’s death muted


Egyptians in coffee shop in Cairo watch news reports about the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (Khalil Hamra/AP)
May 2, 2011

A decade ago, the Middle East might have responded to the killing of Osama bin Laden with fury at the United States. But with the region convulsed by mostly peaceful popular revolutions, the response to his death has been muted, another signal that the old Arab order is being swept away.

For this new generation, the young Tunisian who set himself on fire and ignited a revolution is a bigger hero than bin Laden, whose vision of martyrdom and jihad has been replaced by more prosaic aspirations such as free elections, good governance and an end to corruption.

“You will see protests for freedom and democracy, yes. But for Osama bin Laden? Definitely not,” said Mustafa Alani, director of the Security and Terrorism Studies Program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

In the Arab world, he said, al-Qaeda was “already dying.”

The news of the death of the world’s most famous Arab prompted some loud anti-American voices. The Muslim Brotherhood called for the United States to withdraw from the region now that its chief foe was eliminated, and in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas movement condemned the killing, praising bin Laden as “an Arab and Muslim warrior.”

The region remains home to powerful strains of Islamist extremism, able to inflict great damage, even if their followers are relatively few in number.

But for many, bin Laden was as much a part of the old Arab order as the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia who were swept away by the populist clamor for change earlier this year, along with the other leaders in Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere who are battling for their political lives against a groundswell of unrest.

“The timing of Osama bin Laden’s death has just been perfect,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University. “Osama was one of the leaders — an inspiration to some — that were behind the misery, defeats and stagnation that the Arab world has been going through.”

Now, he said, “his death adds to the modern, moderate and democratic Arab world that is currently in the making. This new Middle East is in sharp contrast to those who defined it before this year of change. Osama was an important force, but this is his end.”

In some places, his death was met with the shrugs of a people who have long since moved on.

“He died?” said Mohammed Shaaban, 21, as he took his lunch break at Cairo University, where few seemed to have heard the news many hours after President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed.

“Egypt is removed from all this,” said Kholoud Samir, 20, a law student, who had heard the news but seemed unconcerned. Nevertheless, she added, “Now that he’s gone, I hope the U.S. has nothing to do with the Arab world.”

In Syria, the latest Arab country to be caught up in the turmoil, a student protester in the northern coastal town of Baniyas said people there were celebrating bin Laden’s death. “We are very happy that he was killed because he is a terrorist and we don’t like violence,” said the student, whose name is being withheld for his safety.

Al-Qaeda’s fading allure was a trend discernible long before the protests began sweeping through the region at the beginning of the year. It was perhaps most noticeable in Iraq, where Sunnis turned against the al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgents holding sway in their neighborhoods in 2006 and formed the Awakening movement, joining U.S. troops to almost, but not quite, defeat the extremists.

In Baghdad, government spokesman Ali Musawi welcomed the news. “The Iraqi people are among the most happy people, because we are the ones who suffered most from al-Qaeda,” he said.

Opinion polls have detected a steady decline in positive perceptions of al-Qaeda across the Arab world since the middle of the last decade, when the grisly, wall-to-wall satellite television coverage of beheadings and suicide bombings broadcast across the region from Iraq began to give Arabs pause for thought.

In 2004, 67 percent of Jordanians regarded al-Qaeda as “a legitimate resistance movement,” said Fares Braizat, who is in charge of polling at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in the Qatari capital, Doha. After al-Qaeda carried out suicide bombings against Jordanian hotels in 2005, that number fell to 20 percent, he said.

In the Palestinian territories, confidence in al-Qaeda fell from 72 percent in 2003 to 34 percent in 2011, according to polling conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. In Lebanon it fell from 19 percent to 1 percent.

The youth-led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia crystallized the irrelevance of al-Qaeda and its extremist aspirations “because they achieved so much more than al-Qaeda ever achieved,” said Kamal Habib, a former member of the extremist Islamic Jihad movement in Egypt who now researches Islamist politics.

“Al-Qaeda’s peak was in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq,” he said. “There was an absolute panic that the West would somehow invade the Arab world. All this created a lot of fear and made al-Qaeda’s rhetoric more acceptable.”

“But now groups like al-Qaeda are facing a real crisis. People are saying, ‘If I can achieve change peacefully, why should I follow al-Qaeda?’ ’’

Yet al-Qaeda still is active in some of the most troubled areas of the region, including Yemen, North Africa and Iraq, and it cannot be counted out altogether, Braizat said.

“Al-Qaeda is going to lose rather than gain only if the revolutions succeed in producing proper democratic governments,” he warned. “It still has franchises out there, and wherever there are injustices, it will have appeal.”

Correspondents Michael Birnbaum in Cairo and Thomas Erdbrink in Dubai and special correspondents Asaad Alazawi in Baghdad, Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo and Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza contributed to this report.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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