Demonstrations in Egypt are exciting Arabs around the world, giving them hope that democracy can at last flourish in their home countries. The same news images of brave demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square also probably animate another possible viewer—Osama Bin Laden—but in a completely different way. The master terrorist and his followers are likely to see the earthquake in Egypt as a grave threat to their legitimacy but, at the same time, an opportunity to exploit.
Egypt has always had a special place in the hearts of al-Qaida members. Several of the organization’s key leaders and operatives first bloodied themselves in the struggle against the Mubarak regime before finding a home with Bin Laden. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, led one group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which, along with its more important cousin the Islamic Group, staged a bloody uprising in the early 1990s. Calling Mubarak an apostate as well as a despot, the jihadists struck at Coptic Christians, secular Egyptians, and foreign tourists as well as regime and security-force targets. By the end of the decade, the Mubarak regime had brutally repressed the jihadists and co-opted less radical elements of Egypt’s Islamist scene—measures greatly aided by the jihadists’ brutal attacks, which alienated most Egyptians. A rump of these fighters joined with Bin Laden, taking advantage of the Saudi leader’s money and accepting his worldview that the United States, not the government of Egypt, was the primary enemy.
The doctrinal disputes that arose in Egypt, such as the acceptable level of civilian casualties from terrorist attacks and how much deviation from “true” Muslim behavior is acceptable before one becomes an apostate, still roil jihadists today. And the condemnation of al-Qaida by former leaders of the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad has caused great consternation among Bin Laden’s followers.
Nor is the spark of jihadism completely extinguished in Egypt. The middle of the last decade saw several attacks, the worst being the July 23, 2005, strike in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh that killed 88 people. But the problem seemed contained if not completely eradicated.
The demonstrations and the probable end of the Mubarak regime change the situation, though. For now, al-Qaida and other jihadists have been caught off-guard. And although Egypt’s army is standing by as violence erupts between demonstrators and pro-regime thugs, it is still careful to police the country’s borders to make sure jihadists do not slip in.
But if or when Mubarak goes, al-Qaida will face some immediate challenges. The first comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world’s oldest Islamist organization and a strong force in Egyptian politics today. This may surprise many: Several leading al-Qaida members entered Islamist politics through the Brotherhood; the Brotherhood has at times used violence, such as its unsuccessful 1978-82 war against the Syrian regime, which is also loathed by al-Qaida; and Brotherhood martyrs such as theologian Sayyid Qutb, whom the Egyptian regime hanged in 1966, are revered ideologues for people like Zawahiri. Yet the relationship between the Brotherhood and the jihadists is notable for the scorn and contempt both sides feel for the other. In his book The Bitter Harvest, Zawahiri excoriates the Brotherhood for renouncing the use of violence against the Mubarak regime and for polluting itself by participating in more mainstream politics. The Palestinian group Hamas, itself a Muslim Brotherhood spinoff, has tried to crush al-Qaida-like groups in Gaza and, in turn, has found itself blasted by the al-Qaida core.
A second challenge comes from the demands of the majority of the demonstrators, who came to Tahrir Square and other rallying points not in the name of Islam but in opposition to tyranny. These protesters have demands that fit better with reformers of all stripes around the world: an end to dictatorship, an end to corruption, and a government that reflects the will of the people. Al-Qaida, however, is virulently anti-democratic; its ideologues fear that governments of the people place man’s will above God’s and that they might produce anti-Islamic laws (say, permitting the drinking of alcohol). Even more important, al-Qaida feeds on the frustration many Muslims have about their own corrupt and brutal governments. Peaceful revolution in Egypt undermines their message that change will only come through violence.
Yet Bin Laden may see opportunities as well as risks. In any successor regime, the hated security services will be purged, and the same men who arrested and harassed peaceful dissidents also kept the jihadists down. So pressure against the few jihadists who remain and any who might return may ease.
And as the violence between protesters and Mubarak loyalists (and their hired thugs) makes clear, the country’s future is far from set. The transition from Mubarak may be peaceful, but chaos and bloodshed often follow the road that peaceful protesters first walk. Al-Qaida thrives on chaos. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia it has exploited local issues and worked with local groups to advance its cause. Should Egypt descend into violence, al-Qaida may find a similar niche.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s new role also may offer al-Qaida opportunities. If the Brotherhood joins in a transitional government and does not fall prey to its more radical tendencies regarding Israel and Islamicizing Egyptian society (something U.S. policy should strive to accomplish), then the hardliners within its ranks will criticize it for selling out, offering al-Qaida a means to woo them. But should the Brotherhood lose out in a power struggle or fall prey to repression from the army or a new regime, there will be a new generation of embittered young Islamists who may find al-Qaida’s more radical message more convincing than calls for renewed participation in a system that cheated them.
To close off opportunities for al-Qaida and other radical voices, managing the transition from Mubarak to a new government is vital. In the end, the greatest threat to Bin Laden and his allies will come from a stable, democratic Egypt that offers its citizens and other Muslims proof that peaceful political activity, not jihad, is how they can better their lives.