BEIRUT - Osama bin Laden, killed by US forces in Pakistan on Sunday, seems curiously irrelevant in an Arab world fired by popular revolt against oppressive leaders.
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"Bin Laden is just a bad memory," said Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch, in Beirut. "The region has moved way beyond that, with massive broad-based upheavals that are game-changers."
The al Qaida leader's bloody attacks, especially those of Sept. 11, 2001, once resonated among some Arabs who saw them as grim vengeance for perceived indignities heaped upon them by the United States, Israel and their own American-backed leaders.
Bin Laden had dreamed that his global Islamist jihad would inspire
Muslims to overthrow pro-Western governments, notably in Saudi Arabia,
the homeland which revoked his citizenship.
He espoused jihad largely in anger at what he viewed as the occupation
of Muslim lands by foreign "infidel" forces -- the Russians in
Afghanistan, the Americans in Saudi Arabia in the 1990 Gulf crisis, or
the Israelis in Palestine.
But al Qaida's indiscriminate violence never galvanized Arab masses,
while his networks came under severe pressure from Arab governments
helping Western counter-terrorism efforts.
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"Bin Laden's brand of defiance in the early days probably excited some
imaginations, but the senseless acts of violence destroyed any appeal he
had," Houry said.
Nowhere was this change of heart more marked than in Iraq, where anger
at Muslim casualties inflicted by al Qaida suicide bombings -- and the
Shi'ite sectarian backlash they provoked -- eventually drove Sunni
tribesmen to ally with the Americans.
Popular sympathy for al Qaida also evaporated in Saudi Arabia after a series of indiscriminate attacks in 2003-06.
If the ideological appeal of bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman
al-Zawahri, who advocated the restoration of an Islamic caliphate, was
already fading, the pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world have
further diminished it.
"At some stage Arab public opinion looked on bin Laden as a hope to end
this kind of discrimination, the West's way of dealing with Muslim and
Arab nations, but now these nations are saying, we will do the change
ourselves, we don't need anyone to speak on our behalf," said Mahjoob
Zweiri, of Qatar University.
He said bin Laden's killing would affect only a few who still believe in his path of maximizing pain on the West.
"The majority of Muslim and Arab nations have their own choice. They are
moving toward modern civil societies," Zweiri argued. "People believe
in gradual change, civil change, they don't want violence, even against
the leaders who crushed them."
Peaceful Arab protests have already toppled autocrats in Egypt and
Tunisia and are threatening the leaders of Yemen and Syria, while a
popular revolt against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi has turned into a civil
war with Western military intervention.
These dramas appear to have shocked al Qaida almost into silence. Even
its most active branch, the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula, has mounted no big attacks during months of popular unrest
against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Martin Indyk, a former US assistant secretary of state for near eastern
affairs, described bin Laden's death as "a body blow" to al Qaida at a
time when its ideology was already being undercut by the popular
revolutions in the Arab world.
"Their narrative is that violence and terrorism is the way to redeem
Arab dignity and rights. What the people in the streets across the Arab
world are doing is redeeming their rights and their dignity through
peaceful, non-violent protests -- the exact opposite of what al Qaida
and Osama bin Laden have been preaching," said Indyk, now at the
"He hasn't managed to overthrow any government, and they are
overthrowing one after the other. I would say that the combination of
the two puts al Qaeda in real crisis."
Bin Laden may have become a marginal figure in the Arab world, but the discontent he tapped into still exists.
"The underlying reasons why people turn to these kinds of violent,
criminal, terroristic movements are still there," said Beirut-based
commentator Rami Khouri, alluding to the "anger and humiliation of
people who feel that Western countries, their own Arab leaders or Israel
treat them with disdain".
Nevertheless, he predicted a continued slide in al Qaida's fortunes,
particularly as US troop withdrawals from Iraq and later from
Afghanistan remove potent sources of resentment.
"The Arab spring is certainly a sign that the overwhelming majority of
Arabs, as we have known all along, repudiated bin Laden," Khouri said.
"He and Zawahri tried desperately to get traction among the Arab masses,
but it just never worked.
"People who followed him would be those who would form little secret
cells and go off to Afghanistan, but the vast majority of people
rejected his message.
"What Arabs want is what they are fighting for now, which is more human rights, dignity and democratic government."
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