The Arab revolutions and al-Qaida

The democratic wave in the Arab world confirms the emptiness of al-Qaida’s ideology, strategy and rhetoric. The death of Osama bin Laden can be seen as part of this wider process, says Khaled Hroub. 

Khaled Hroub
23 May 2011

The Arab revolutions of 2011 have exposed the weakness and indeed meaninglessness of the idea of al-Qaida in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims. The effect of Osama bin Laden’s death on 2 May is to reinforce the message.  

The Arab revolutions, incomplete as they are, have made both the means and the rationale of the jihadi network look even more obsolete than they were before. For in addition to toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and frightening those elsewhere, they have overthrown much conventional thinking and prejudice about the Arabs and the possibility of change in the Arab region.

Such thinking, after all, assigned a definite weight and role to various state or non-state actors in the Arab world. These “usual suspects” included regimes and their cliques; western powers and their meddling; Islamist movements, moderate and extremist;, liberal and leftist parties, usually characterised as weak or marginal; and civil-society NGOs, likewise seen as too fragile to be real agents of change.

The Arab revolutions have exploded this familiar schema, as new forces - previously silent, ignored or dismissed - have jumped to the forefront of politics. The lead player among them is formed of educated, energetic, and globally communicative young people. This generation has shown itself to be at once deeply aware of political matters yet free of ideological dogmas; it longs rather for freedom, dignity and the ability to control its future.

The youth-led wave has accomplished two “role-model” revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and has elsewhere resisted being crushed or hijacked; its genuine, popular and autonomous. character has remained intact even under enormous pressure

These achievements have exposed as anachronistic the modus operandi and discourses of many formerly dominant actors - not least, among them, al-Qaida and other violent jihadi organisations. In particular, the Arab revolutions of 2011 undermine four of the central ideas that have guided al-Qaida’s strategy for more than a decade.

A revolution’s sweep

The first idea is that violence (militant jihad) is the only means by which to overthrow corrupt regimes in Arab and Muslim countries, and to challenge their western backers. This strategy of using violence to the extreme has not only failed but also brought upon Arab and Muslim peoples all sorts of disasters, including the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Arab revolutions, using peaceful mass demonstrations as the main strategic method, have completely flattened this violent thesis. These non-violent mobilisations succeeded in deposing two powerful presidents in Tunis and Egypt backed by draconian security forces. The most fundamental failure of al-Qaida’s approach of maximum violence and terrorism is revealed here as one of effectiveness. Al-Qaida, in contrast to the Arab revolutions, was unable to pose a serious threat to the regime of any Arab or Muslim country, let alone come close to offering a route to fulfilling their population’s needs or wishes.

The second idea demolished by the Arab revolutions is the jihadists’ view of the impact of global media, especially its amplifying effects of their use of spectacular violence. Al-Qaida believed that the obsessive media coverage of its attacks would disseminate information about the movement - its organisation, exploits, ideology, rationale and justification for killing civilians - in such a way as to offer a shortcut to win the hearts of angry young Muslims around the world.

The global media focus on al-Qaida did follow each of its operations, and to a limited extent created an attraction among a small minority of the confused or dislocated. But the Arab revolutions have shown that global media can be far more supportive and instrumental in relation to a peaceful, enduring mass movement with its own potent - but benign and human - form of inbuilt spectacle. The live broadcasts from Tunis’s boulevards and Cairo’s Tahrir Square helped undercut the might of the security state; the positive and appealing image of the protesters they conveyed, a total contrast with the jihadists’ bloody and ugly image, drew warm sympathy from people across the world.

The third idea shattered by the Arab revolutions is al-Qaida’s claim to be a voice for the grievances and demands of Arabs and Muslims. This is evident in two respects. First, the great movement of 2011 has revolved around freedom, dignity, social justice and democracy - all of which profoundly contrast with al-Qaida’s rhetoric of war against the west or the need to impose sharia law and an Islamic state.

Second, the inclusiveness of these revolutions - with people of various backgrounds rallying together, Muslims and Christians, westernised and traditionalist, secular and non-secular, leftists and non-ideologised, hijab-wearing and jeans-wearing - greatly contrasts with al-Qaida’s inward approach, whose definition of “good Muslims” as those committed to a salafi-jihadi reading of the faith excludes all but a tiny fraction of the Muslim world from legitimacy.

The fourth idea punctured by the Arab revolutions follows from this: al-Qaida’s division of the world between “us” (the good ones/Muslims) and “them” (the bad ones/non-Muslims) - the very flipside of George W Bush’s declaration that in the “war on terror”, people are “either with us [the United States] or against us”.

The Arab revolutions have rendered hollow this reductive polarisation, which can acquire force only in a situation of war and hostility. These revolutions have won the backing of the vast majority of public opinion and activists in the west, and forced western governments to change their long-detested policies of self-interested support for Arab dictators.

The west’s changed policy over Libya is the clearest example of how much al-Qaida’s “us/them” model has been rendered null. The initial western military intervention following the United Nations Security Council Resolution was, after all, welcomed by Islamists in Libya as well as many Libyans of other political beliefs and none; and several veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (once very close to al-Qaida) have complemented Nato’s air-strikes by fighting on the ground against Muammar Gaddafi and his brutal regime.

An end in sight

In these four ways, the tide of change sweeping the Arab world in 2011 has made al-Qaida’s main ideas and strategies obsolete. Even before the death of Osama bin Laden, this raised the possibility that the revolutions marked the beginning of the end of al-Qaida. The movement has over recent years increasingly been reduced to a pointless idea, obsessed with violence and terrorism with no attainable political goals, clear agenda or specific cause worthy of the fight. In effect, bin Laden’s “hide and seek” itself became the “cause”.

The al-Qaida leader’s undeniable charisma and appeal to his followers transformed him into a myth even while he was still alive. This process, however, also highlighted the movement’s lack of cause and agenda. The revenge attack in Pakistan that killed dozens of military trainees shows that it can still inflict damage. But the beacon of the Arab revolutions is making al-Qaida history.

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