Too Busy for Bin Laden

Arabs say that while they admired al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s slap in the West’s face, they’re too politically prudent to say so – and too busy with the revolution to bother.

Watching news of bin Laden's death on TV 311 (R) (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
Watching news of bin Laden's death on TV 311 (R)
“OSAMA BIN LADEN? What did he do for us?” asks 28-year-old Ahmad Farjani, as he takes a break from filleting the day’s catch of fish, just meters from the Mediterranean coast in the Libyan city of Benghazi. “We made our revolution with our martyrs’ blood, not his videos and suicide bombers.” As Farjani pauses to wipe drops of sweat from his forehead, another fisherman, Muhammad al-Fituri, interrupts him. “That is not what you were saying before the revolution. Back then, you loved him.”
Throughout the Middle East, Arabs have reacted to the death of the al-Qaeda leader with apathy. There were no large rallies to mourn his passing. Many shrugged off his death as an insignificant event. But beneath the seeming indifference lies a whirlwind of emotions which the Arab Spring has largely subdued for political reasons. Caught up in revolutions of their own, Arabs in countries such as Libya and Yemen need the backing of Western powers that viewed Bin Laden as public enemy No. 1. Others in countries such as Egypt view the al- Qaeda leader as a symbol of the oppression they successfully fought to eliminate.
Throughout his life, Bin Laden was a divisive figure who sought to arouse the Muslim world to fight the Christian West. His followers killed tens of thousands – from the tranquil tourist resorts of Indonesia to fortified American embassies in Africa.
The coastal city of Tobruk is the second largest town in the eastern coastal region of Libya. But unlike the rebel capital of Benghazi, where politicians huddle in hotels over cheap cups of espresso and international aid workers plot their funding programs, Tobruk, also in rebel hands, is largely calm. Men gather at homes rather than at cafés.
Inside Ali al-Ubeidi’s house, his brothers and cousins are watching the new Free Libya channel funded by Qatar. The channel provides a steady stream of propaganda denouncing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. When asked about Bin Laden’s death, 46-yearold al-Ubeidi is quite blunt. “We were all sad when he died,” he confesses as his 8-year-old daughter plays with a plastic cell-phone toy. “He defended Muslims and stood up to the West when no one else would.”
But to express such views today is to commit political suicide, he explains. “We need the West to help us beat Gaddafi. And to profess our admiration for Bin Laden when we want NATO to bomb Gaddafi is unwise. So we are silent and tell the Western journalists what they want to hear.”
Al-Ubeidi’s rationale is a common refrain throughout the Middle East. Foreign journalists who happen upon Libyans get the official line that Bin Laden was a minor, insignificant figure in their struggle. But Libyans, when on intimate terms with their foreign guests, are much more open and willing to admit their admiration of the al-Qaeda leader.
Reached by phone in the Yemeni capital of San’a, 32-year-old Haydar al-Hamdani expresses views similar to those of al-Ubeidi. “Anyone here who says they were not sad when Bin Laden died is lying. Bin Laden is from Yemen and he married a Yemeni woman. Most of his fighters were Yemenis.
We carry pictures of him on our cell phones,” the electrician explains over the commotion of protesters in the background. “But we are fighting a dictator who has an army behind him,” he says, referring to Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years. “We need the Western countries to pressure him to leave and they won’t do that if we carry signs protesting the death of Sheikh Osama.”
Other Yemenis echo al-Hamdani’s comments, but add that political expediency was only part of the muted reaction to Bin Laden’s death. They fear that overtly protesting Bin Laden’s passing would only shift focus away from their struggle for freedom.
“Bin Laden is a polarizing figure. He killed thousands,” says Fawzi al-Ahmar, also interviewed by long-distance phone. The 28-yearold truck driver explains he had come from his home province to demand Saleh’s resignation, not to mourn a deceased fighter. “Many Yemenis admire the sheikh, but if they turn the Square of Change (where Yemenis have camped out for two months demanding Saleh’s resignation) into Bin Laden Square, they will alienate those who dislike him and feuds could break out.” And with Saleh obdurately refusing to step down and exploiting all his resources – from tribal assets to loyal military units – a loss in focus could help the president to weather the storm. (Wounded in a rebel attack, Saleh is recuperating in Saudi Arabia.)
THOUGH THE EGYPTIAN revolution that deposed president Hosni Mubarak ended in February, demonstrators still gather weekly in Cairo’s Liberation Square to demand everything from jobs to putting Mubarak and his sons on trial.
Protesters also come to support the Palestinian cause. Draped in the bright green and candy-apple red flag, fruit vendor Mustafa Asim, 26, shouts anti-Israel slogans in between directing protesters around the square. “Bin Laden was never as popular here as he was in other parts of the Arab world,” he explains as he sits down on a curb to take a break from protesting. “Too many people remember the violence his friends in the Gama’a and [Islamic] Jihad [Egyptian Islamic terrorist groups who targeted Westerners] carried out in the 1990s,” he says.
But abhorrence of bloodshed was not the only reason Asim and his comrades brushed off Bin Laden’s death. “Look,” Asim says bluntly. “We need to put Hosni’s friends who stole billions of [Egyptian] pounds in prison. We need to have a reckoning. Shouting about some guy who died in Pakistan is not going to bring us any closer to our goal.”
Egyptian analysts agree with Asim’s assessment. From political pundits to Islamist researchers, most explain Egyptians’ indifferent attitude towards Bin Laden as a case of political shrewdness. “There are too many problems in Egyptian society,” says a political science professor and former diplomat. “The youths are focusing all their energy on bringing real reform. Holding up Osama’s picture now would only distract them from that goal.”
Others believe that the youths are fighting against the very ideals Bin Laden symbolized. An Islamist scholar who has researched the effects of jihadists on Egyptian society explained the lack of allure the al-Qaeda leader held for the younger generation responsible for the revolution. “Bin Laden is seen as part of the old guard that only wanted to oppress Arabs. He preached about a caliphate, not democracy. He did not want to give people freedom. He wanted to substitute one form of oppression for another,” says the scholar, who asked not to be named.
Outside a shoe repair shop in the Cairo slum of Shobra, Hassan Fidrawi and his friends smoke apple-scented tobacco neatly stuffed into a water pipe and drink overly sweetened tea. Though the February revolution largely passed them by, they tell tales of the youth who fought valiantly against Mubarak’s thugs in Liberation Square. “I felt something when he [Bin Laden] died,” the 33-year-old shoe cobbler admits after a half hour of prodding. “But did I want him to rule us? Certainly not.” His friends nod in approval as smoke wafted in the smog-filled air. “Maybe Osama would not be as corrupt as Hosni, but he would still tell us what to do without listening to us. And that is what the youth fought to eliminate.”
In Bahrain, the story is much different. A small island with a Shiite majority of 65 percent, most residents were happy to see the al- Qaeda leader pass from the scene. Puritanical Salafists like Bin Laden view the Shiites as heretics worse than Christians and Jews, whose only fate should be death. Bin Laden’s deputy and leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, terrorized them for three years, killing thousands.
So when news of Bin Laden’s death reached the shores of the island, many Bahrainis were content. “Zarqawi killed so many Shiites and Bin Laden did nothing to stop him,” explains Abdallah Rajab in a phone interview. The 43-year-old engineer told stories of pilgrims returning from Iraq and the carnage they witnessed. “There was too much death. He killed our people. So why should we mourn the killing of his leader?” Bin Laden belonged to another era in Arab history, one associated with oppression and death that a new generation has sought to end.
Though he still had a following in the Arab world, his admirers mourn him in secret ceremonies far away from the cameras that spread his message and made him famous. And though he inspired the Arab world, he was never able to convince more than a radical smattering of its citizens to take up arms in his cause. He died largely how he lived – a secluded man, largely oblivious to the changes occurring around him.