Feb 23, 2011

Al Qaeda the loser in Arab revolutions

Al Qaeda the loser in Arab revolutions

BYLINE: By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst


LENGTH: 582 words

Osama bin Laden must be sitting in his comfortably appointed hideaway somewhere in northwest Pakistan watching the events in the Middle East unfold with a mixture of glee and despair.

Glee, because overthrowing the dictatorships and monarchies of the Middle East has long been his central goal.

Despair, because none of the Arab revolutions has anything to do with him.

There were no revolutionaries in the streets of Cairo carrying placards with pictures of bin Laden's face, nor are the protesters in Bahrain spouting al Qaeda's venomous critiques of the West. Those calling for the overthrow of Gadhafi are not graduates of bin Laden's training camps.

The Google executive and Facebook revolutionaries who launched the revolt in Egypt represent everything that bin Laden and al Qaeda hate: Secular, liberal and anti-authoritarian, they also include -- gasp -- women.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist mass movement in Egypt, which joined the revolution as it was already in motion, is opposed by al Qaeda.

The Brotherhood participates in conventional politics and elections, which bin Laden and his followers believe are against Islam.

Al Qaeda's No. 2, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, has even written an entire book condemning the Muslim Brotherhood.

Predictably, last week Zawahiri released an audiotape opportunistically seeking to position al Qaeda as having some sort of role in the momentous events unfolding in the Arab world.

In the tape Zawahiri called for his native Egypt to be governed as an Islamic state. Of course, Egypt is already a country where Islam plays a key role as about nine out of 10 Egyptians are Muslim, and Al-Azhar University in central Cairo is the nearest that Sunni Islam comes to having a Vatican.

What Zawahiri means by his call for an Islamic state is that Egypt should be run as a Taliban-style theocracy with no rights for women or minorities.

Egyptians are not clamoring for Taliban-like rule. Quite the reverse: They want elections, respect for human rights, and a plan to get Egypt's stagnant economy back on its feet.

And the protests in Cairo were notable for the warm relations that were exhibited between Christians and Muslims. Al Qaeda regards Christians as "infidels" who should be killed.

The revolts in the Middle East underline al Qaeda's increasing irrelevance to Muslims. Even before the revolutionaries first took to the streets of Tunisia, al Qaeda was losing the "war of ideas" in the Islamic world.

From Indonesia to Jordan, support for bin Laden, al-Qaeda and its signature tactic -- the suicide attack -- has been plunging for years, according to any number of polls.

That's because more and more Muslims know that many of the victims of al Qaeda and its allies are themselves Muslim civilians. For groups that pose as the defenders of true Islam, this is not impressive.

And there is a widespread understanding among Muslims that al Qaeda isn't offering anything in the way of ideas about how to improve the lot of the tens of millions of young men without jobs in the Islamic world.

All al Qaeda is offering is violence and the promise of a Taliban-style utopia here on earth.

The vast majority of Muslims don't approve of the violence and they aren't taken in by the empty promises of utopia as imagined by the Taliban.

Bin Laden will feel compelled to release his own tape in the coming days commenting on the revolutions in the Arab world. Few will be listening.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.