As Americans celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, there is a risk we will exaggerate his importance in death as we did in life.
While Bin Laden presided over al Qaeda's rise in the 1990s and early 2000s, just as important, he presided over its growing irrelevance. In recent years, al Qaeda, while retaining its ability to wreak havoc, has become an increasingly marginal actor on the Arab stage.
The Arab Spring, particularly the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, discredited the notion that real change could come only through violence. In 18 days of demonstrations, Egypt's protesters were able to do something few had thought possible — peacefully overthrow a repressive, hated regime.
In the early weeks of the uprisings, al Qaeda remained quiet, seemingly unsure how, or even if, it could spin events to its advantage. The protesters, after all, were not calling for the establishment of an Islamic state, attacks on the United States, or ending the peace treaty with Israel. They were calling for freedom and democracy.
It wasn't always this way. The attacks of 9/11 seemed, at least for a time, an unlikely victory for a group that few Americans had ever heard of before. Al Qaeda had launched a decisive blow against the world's superpower. In so doing, it established itself as a leader of resistance and rode the wave of Arab anti-Americanism.
Extremists defined policy
In elevating al Qaeda to a threat to a Western civilization — something it never was — the Bush administration fell into a trap, allowing Middle East extremists to define its policy agenda. The Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay and the U.S. use of torture were all, to varying degrees, justified as necessary to win the war on terror. These distortions in American policy led to distortions in the Arab response. In a time when many Arabs sympathized with Bin Laden's aims if not his methods, al Qaeda managed to gain mainstream credibility and popularity.
According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in 2003, confidence in Osama bin Laden reached a high of 61% in Jordan, 59% in Indonesia and 72% in the Palestinian territories.
Though al Qaeda could destroy, however, it could not build. In its unwillingness and inability to offer anything resembling a constructive vision for change, al Qaeda gradually descended back into irrelevance. Its gruesome attacks in places such as Jordan and Iraq alienated supporters. Meanwhile, the group's operational capabilities suffered under unrelenting U.S. pressure, with many of its leaders captured or killed.
Today, ordinary Arabs are fighting and dying for something — freedom — bin Laden and his followers would take away if they had the chance. For the first time in decades, the future of the Arab world seems to offer genuine promise. By 2011, support for Bin Laden plummeted to all-time lows. In Jordan and Palestine, the drop was a striking 43 and 38 percentage points, respectively.
Autocratic regimes fall
It is no accident that several of the autocratic regimes that claimed to be bulwarks against al Qaeda are themselves falling. Dictators and terrorists were, in many respects, two sides of the same coin, needing each other to justify inhumane acts. This, one can only hope, is the Arab world of the past. In newly democratizing Egypt, even bin Laden's ideological fellow travelers — the Salafis — have announced their intention of forming political parties and participating in elections, something al Qaeda's leaders always considered sacrilege.
But the regional outlook is not all positive. Terrorists prey on hopelessness and despair, and they will be watching closely to see whether they can take advantage of growing instability. In Libya, Syria and Bahrain, peaceful protests have been met with brutal violence. After the short-lived euphoria of Egypt and Tunisia, the success of the Arab Spring is no longer guaranteed.
As regimes wage war on their own people, Arabs might begin to lose faith in the effectiveness of non-violent change. In such an environment, al Qaeda might yet get a second wind. A number of empirical studies show a significant correlation between repression and authoritarianism, on one hand, and the resort to political violence on the other.
With this in mind, the United States must redouble its efforts to oust the Libyan regime, while intensifying pressure on Syria and Bahrain. Just as important, America and its allies should do whatever they can to support democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. What is happening in these countries is likely to prove far more important than the death of a man who long ago ceased being a central character in the Arab narrative.