Yes, Democracy in Egypt Poses a Threat…to Al Qaeda

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 7, 2011

Although Al Qaeda has long sought the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the regime’s potential collapse through peaceful protest rather than violent jihad is a body blow to the narrative of Osama bin Laden and his followers. (For more of my musings on this topic, see my article in Slate.)

Egypt is the intellectual home of the modern jihadist movement. Sayyid Qutb, a leading thinker of the Muslim Brotherhood whom the Egyptian regime killed in 1966, inspired a generation of jihadists with his idea that Arab leaders are not true Muslims and that Arab societies are in a state of pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyya) and thus do not deserve obedience. Inspired by Qutb and like-minded thinkers, a range of activists began organizing in the 1970s against the Sadat regime, which they opposed not only due to his peace treaty with Israel but also because the regime did not implement Islamic law—and their activities provoked arrests and abuse. Sadat’s assassination in 1981 at the hands of some of these jihadists provoked a far more widespread and brutal crackdown. In the early 1990s, groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group would attempt a revolt in Egypt, which the regime crushed by the end of the decade.

Several key al Qaeda figures were part of this struggle against the Mubarak regime. After the crackdowns, they fled Egypt to find refuge in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet struggle, and then with Bin Laden when the Saudi was in Sudan, and then later Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, led Egyptian Islamic Jihad and initially tried to exploit Bin Laden to help his cause in Egypt. Over time, failure in Egypt and perhaps a genuine ideological shift led Zawahiri and others to embrace Bin Laden’s emphasis on the United States as the primary enemy.

But Egypt still looms large in the jihadist imagination. Zawahiri and others have not forgotten the torture they suffered at the hands of the Mubarak regime, and of course al Qaeda still devotes much of its effort to fighting U.S. allies in the Middle East.

So why isn’t Al Qaeda rejoicing?

One reason is that al Qaeda’s rival will benefit from this victory. The Muslim Brotherhood, the most important Islamist organization in the Arab world, was founded in Egypt, and the Egyptian branch remains the most influential of this organization’s many affiliates.  Although the Brotherhood and al Qaeda both see Islam as a political as well as religious ideology, the two differ in many fundamental ways. In his book The Bitter Harvest, Zawahiri bitterly criticizes Brotherhood leaders because they rejected violence and participate in politics. Hamas, a Brotherhood spinoff, has quarreled bitterly with Al Qaeda and repressed Al Qaeda-inspired jihadists in the Gaza Strip. (See Barak Mendelsohn, “Al Qaeda’s Palestinian Problem,” Survival, Vol 51, No. 4 (2009), pp. 71-86.) If Brotherhood figures gain influence in a new Egyptian government, as seems likely, they will carry this feud with them.

The Brotherhood, of course, is only one part of the opposition to Mubarak.  The rest of the opposition, however, is even farther from al Qaeda. Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square and elsewhere seek good governance and an end to corruption, not an Islamic state.  Al Qaeda in theory might endorse those goals, but the type of government it wants—a hardline Islamic one like the Taliban in Afghanistan—would be anathema to most Egyptians.

Even more important, the Egyptian people’s success in forcing political change—if it indeed happens—would undermine al Qaeda’s message. Bin Laden and his followers have long stressed that change only comes through force and bloodshed.  Peaceful protest producing profound change suggests an alternative model to the many frustrated Arab citizens, one that is much closer to their own desires.

Bin Laden could still turn this potential defeat into victory in at least two ways. First, if reform fails and a dictatorship continues, whether under Mubarak or under a new military leader, it vindicates his message that peaceful change cannot work. Second, if the Brotherhood is artificially excluded from power it may alienate many within the movement, particularly young hotheads who might find al Qaeda’s call to arms compelling.

So success in Egypt is vital not only for the future well-being of the Egyptian people, but also to deal another blow to Bin Laden and his organization.