Published May 02, 2011
CAIRO – Osama bin Laden and his jihadi rhetoric once resonated with millions, especially those in the Arab world who saw militant Islam as their best hope for throwing off the shackles of corrupt, oppressive governments.
But 10 years after 9/11, the dominant theme in the uprisings across the Middle East is a clamor for democracy — with al-Qaida's militant ideology largely relegated to the sidelines.
It was not long ago that bin Laden and his terror network posed the biggest challenge to the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world, relentlessly calling on their people to rise up, overthrow them and replace them with purist Islamic states.
It is a different Arab world that bin Laden leaves behind.
Popular uprisings led by youth groups have toppled the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Similar movements are challenging the autocratic rulers of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. And, significantly, the millions who participated in these uprisings have not used violence to press their demands. Their ultimate aim is not the creation of the Islamic theocracies that bin Laden preached, but free democracies.
Many activists in the Middle East consider the Saudi-born bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan on Monday in a U.S. commando raid, as a byproduct of the repressive regimes that dominated the region.
"Bin Laden became part of the past, just like the Arab regimes that have been toppled," said Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic jihadi movements. "What a coincidence that the same year Arab authoritarian rulers collapse, bin Laden dies."
In an Arab world where three-fifths of the population is under 30 and for whom the bombings on Sept. 11, 2001, are at best a childhood memory, the catalyst behind the popular uprisings has been the region's Internet-savvy youth.
"It is the Wael Ghoneim era, not bin Laden," said el-Anani, referring to the former Google executive who became the face of the youth-driven protests in January and February that toppled Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year regime in Egypt.
"It was the soft power of Ghoneim and his associates, not bin Laden's crude power, that led to regime change," el-Anani said, noting that all the terror attacks blamed on al-Qaida in the West and the Arab world failed to bring regime change.
Tweeting about bin Laden's death, Ghoneim noted the shift. "2011 is a year that will be marked in history. It's just May and all of this is happening! Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and now OB," he said.
Although bin Laden once vowed to liberate the Arab world, the only figures who have lately invoked his name have been authoritarian leaders like Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and Mubarak — and both evoked the al-Qaida threat to justify clinging onto power.
In Yemen, bin Laden's ancestral home, young protesters have been camping in the capital Sanaa and other Yemeni cities for nearly three months to push for the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's authoritarian leader of 32 years.
Abdel-Hadi al-Azari, one of the Yemeni youth leaders, said the uprising there has given people "hope in tomorrow."
"When you don't have hope, when you are alienated, weak or useless, life or death doesn't make a difference," said al-Azari, a school teacher. "Revolutions changed that mindset and people changed the way they perceive themselves, their own value, the value of partnership and the value of dialogue with the other."
Yemeni protesters, he said, have shown the world that the time of bin Laden has passed by refusing to resort to violence even in the face of the heavy-handed tactics of the country's security forces, including the use of live ammunition. Some 150 protesters have been killed since the anti-Saleh revolt began in early February.
"Only with bare chests. The people have determined to remain peaceful," he said. "This in itself is a deviance from bin Laden's discourse. This is against bin Laden."
Saudi political analyst Anwar Eshki said bin Laden's death deprives al-Qaida of a "charismatic, irreplaceable leader," giving it less and less chance to survive in the Arab street.
In the weeks leading up to bin Laden's death, a survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found little support for the al-Qaida leader in the Muslim world.
Among the six predominantly Muslim nations surveyed, bin Laden received the highest level of support in the Palestinian territories — although even there only 34 percent said they believed he would do the right thing in world affairs.
Only 22 percent of those surveyed in Egypt, 13 percent in Jordan and 1 percent of Lebanese Muslims expressed confidence in bin Laden. In Pakistan, support for the al-Qaida leader fell from 52 percent in 2005 to just 18 percent.
El-Anani, the expert on militant groups, said bin Laden's loss might not mean an end to Islamic militancy, but might make it more difficult to recruit youth.
"What is remarkable here is that the youth generations which al-Qaida once recruited and who gave new blood to jihadists are not the same anymore," he said.