x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Does Arab Spring pave way for success of bin Laden's ideology?

LETTER FROM CAIRO The secularist uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East have been disorganised and led by political novices, opening the door, liberals fear, to long-suppressed Islamist groups

The cartoon published in a Cairo newspaper last week showed Osama bin Laden at the bottom of the ocean asking a fish where to find the nearest post office so he can mail to a TV station his latest video recording.

The humour is undoubtedly dark, certainly distressing to those Muslims who believed bin Laden's burial at sea was ignominious, however bloody his hands. Yet it is a barometer of how much bin Laden had lost the aura and respect he had enjoyed among some Muslims in the years immediately after a group of his fanatic followers struck at the symbols of American power on September 11, 2011, and killed nearly 3,000 people.

It was that perceived irrelevance that emboldened the Egyptian cartoonist to depict bin Laden as a man so obsessed with his media image that he continued to seek publicity even in death.

Bin Laden had indeed lost much of his lure since that fateful September day nearly 10 years ago. But his legacy of hatred, violence and religious piety continues to this day, perhaps as a defining example of how a privileged Muslim walked out on a life of wealth and worldly comforts to seek glory for his faith.

The Saudi-born bin Laden had for years inspired youths across much of the Muslim world to attach little value to their lives for Islam's cause, turning young men and women from places as far afield as Indonesia and Morocco into suicide bombers who see the West and its people as Islam's enemies.

Bin Laden had spent years calling on his supporters to overthrow authoritarian US-backed Arab regimes. But, at the end, those US-supported regimes never wavered. The attacks blamed on his followers in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco and elsewhere over the past 10 years or so led to a little more than indignation at the senseless loss of life they caused.

As the years went by, the attacks continued, but so did the Arab regimes he was hoping to topple and replace by an Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden and the ideas he stood for were clearly past their expiry date by the time the commandos descended on his hideout at Abbottabad on May 2.

For several years before his death, what Facebook and Twitter could offer the men and women of an Arab world traumatized by dictators was of so much more benefit and held vastly greater promise than the bomb-making DIY manuals and rigid doctrines his fighters posted on the Internet.

At the end, the Net's social networks proved much more effective than the trail of death and destruction left behind by the attacks blamed on al Qa'eda across much of the Arab and Muslim worlds. And, more importantly, they have inadvertently granted bin Laden his wish.

Bin Laden must have found comfort that the uprisings led by those secularist, Internet-saavy youth groups are disorganized, inadequately funded and led by political novices, giving long-suppressed but well organised Islamist groups the chance to dominate.

The secular regimes of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia are toppled. Elsewhere in the Arab world, the days of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh must be numbered three months into a persistent revolt seeking his departure. In Syria, Bashar al Assad is stepping up a campaign of violence and terror to put down a spirited revolt against his rule, but may not be able to sustain his brutality for too long.

Egypt, provider of many in al Qa'eda's top leadership, is a good example of how things played out to what must have been bin Laden's liking.

The 18-day revolt that toppled Mubarak on February 11 made it possible for radical groups such as the Salafis, for example, to operate openly and challenge the few last vestiges of secularism in an Egypt that's steadily been moving toward the religious right.

The Salafis share the same ideology as al Qa'eda, except for the violence and the uncompromising hatred of the West. In Egypt, the Salafis have made the secularists and members of the Christian minority their foremost enemies. Furthermore, they resent the largely moderate Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest religious group.

Combined, the Salafis, the Brotherhood and other Islamists in Egypt could pose a formidable challenge to secularist groups contesting September's scheduled general election, including some of the organizations that played a key part in the January-February revolt.

But that is not everything, the Salafis are already trying to enforce their rigid interpretation of Islam's teachings on areas where they wield influence and are going out of their way to attack secularists and members of Egypt's sizable Christian minority.

Tunisia is not much different.

With elections coming up soon, liberal forces worry that democracy will bring the Islamists, perhaps the best-organized political movement in post-revolt Tunisia, to power.

The ouster of Syria's Assad could also give the country's Islamists a shot at power, or leastly the advantage of operating freely in a country where the Sunni majority has been growing more religiously conservative in recent years, in part as a backlash against the entrenched secularism of the ruling Baath party and the secular tendencies of the Alawite minority to which the Assad dynasty belongs.

It is more complicated in Yemen, bin Laden's ancestral home and the base of one of the most active al Qa-eda branches. President Saleh has been an ineffective partner with the US in the fight against the terror group. Now that he is busy fighting for survival against a determined uprising demanding his removal, al-Qaida militants have gained control of several areas deep in the Yemeni hinterland and rid them of any government presence.

A Yemen without Saleh, who had for years played off powerful tribes against each other to retain control of the poor nation, would most likely descend into chaos, an ideal environment for al Qa'eda militants to operate and plan attacks abroad with near impunity.

In testimony to his iconic image in today's Arab world, the sea burial given to bin Laden by the Americans sparked an intense controversy, with prominent Muslim scholars, including many who had strongly disagreed with his ideology, denouncing the manner of his internment as inappropriate even for a man with so much blood on his hands.

Columnists and commentators across the region have debated his legacy at length, with some lionizing him as a hero of Islam. Others compared him to Che Guevera and criticised the manner in which he was killed.

A picture of bin Laden covered the entire front page of the latest edition of Cairo's weekly newspaper Sawt al Ummah.

"The legend of bin Laden .. lived in a cave, killed in a palace and buried at sea," read the caption.