At a Loss for Words
Why is al Qaeda keeping quiet about the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions?
In the wake of peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, al Qaeda’s argument that violent activism is necessary to achieve political change stands dramatically repudiated. It was peaceful protesters, not armed struggle, that ousted Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But that doesn’t mean the militant group won’t try to capitalize on instability in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. In fact, jihadi communications since the crisis in Tunisia began in early January suggest that extremists hope to take advantage of the current instability.
The most discussed aspect of al Qaeda’s role in the Egyptian uprising has been a nonevent: the fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s Egyptian second in command, has not yet released a statement about ongoing events. Al Qaeda franchises, moreover, did not release statements about either the Tunisian or Egyptian uprisings until weeks after the respective rebellions began.
But Zawahiri’s notable silence does not mean that the jihadi community as a whole has been quiet. After the revolution in Tunisia and outbreak of protests in Egypt, various jihadi scholarly figures — including Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Akram Hijazi, and Hamid al-Ali (click here for a useful compilation of statements) — released statements supporting the opposition movements. Meanwhile, jihadi activists online debated the value of the protests over the long run.
Not only was al Qaeda’s official response slow, but it was obviously not coordinated with the wider jihadi milieu, revealing fractures within that community. For example, Shanqiti, a member of the shura council for the authoritative Minbar al-Tawhid wal Jihad library of jihadi doctrine, surprised experienced Western observers by giving a glowing review of the courage of secular protesters in Egypt and condemning Salafists for contributing nothing. When jihadi ideologues did issue criticism of the protesters, it sometimes took unexpected forms, such as when Tartusi — a longtime jihadi critic of suicide bombings (yes, they exist) — issued a fatwa condemning the acts of self-immolation as contrary to Islamic prohibitions on suicide.
Whereas jihadi ideologues generally supported the protesters and eschewed controversy, actual jihadi militant organizations were more confrontational. In general, they have argued that success of a revolution is not determined by how autocrats are overthrown, but by whether the succeeding government imposes the jihadists’ conception of Islamic law. A Jan. 26 statement by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb about the uprising in Tunisia urged would-be jihadists not to be satisfied by Ben Ali’s eviction:
[T]he unjust, apostate corruptor ran away, but the system of cooperativeness, apostasy, injustice, corruption and suppression remains…. So if the man?made religion doesn’t step off [to be] replaced by the transcendent religion, and if the [Islamic] Doctrine and the switched?off Sharia don’t return … then the duty upon Muslims in Tunisia is to be ready and not lay down their weapons.
Al Qaeda was even slower to respond to the crisis in Egypt. The first official statement came when al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq released a statement urging violence on Feb. 8, two weeks after the uprising in Egypt began. Anticipating Mubarak’s fall, it warned supporters not to replace dictatorship with "something lower," such as "vile ‘secularism,’ infidel ‘democracy,’ or rotten, pagan nationalism." Repeating long-standing jihadi concepts, it urged all able-bodied men to engage in jihad in Egypt and reminded supporters that releasing prisoners was a key priority.
The Islamic State of Iraq’s comments are somewhat worrisome because the group might actually have some influence in Egypt. The attack on an Alexandria Coptic church this January followed a statement by the group calling for attacks on Christians in Egypt. And responsibility for the attack was claimed by a group called the Salafi Group in the Land of the Two Rivers, i.e. Iraq. (The Egyptian government blamed the Alexandria attack on the al Qaeda-linked Army of Islam, based in the Gaza Strip.)
In general, these revolutions are very bad news for jihadists. Tunisia and Egypt prove incontrovertibly that the basic jihadi strategic thesis of mandatory violence is wrong: Arabs and Muslims can indeed remove corrupt Arab regimes without violence, and the United States is not implacably opposed to their removal. In fact, the United States will help usher them to the exit. In the short run especially, that new dynamic will hinder already woeful jihadi recruitment efforts around the Middle East.
But there are dangers as well. The successes in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired political movements across the region, but not all will be so successful. In the wake of failed mass mobilizations, jihadists will argue that peaceful dissent is a fool’s errand and that violence is the only effective and religiously sanctioned form of protest. Likewise, if the government that comes after Mubarak does not deliver real economic and social benefits to Egypt’s people, al Qaeda’s pitch for deeply conservative Islamic law might find an audience.
The danger is not that al Qaeda will come to control or dominate contemporary opposition movements in the Middle East. Its ideas and murderous campaigns are too radical for that. The real danger from al Qaeda is on society’s fringe. That good news is also why al Qaeda cannot be dismissed completely. The vast majority of reformers in Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen will never turn to violence no matter how slow reform actually occurs. But a tiny percentage might, which is one more reason why it is important to remain vigilant, support substantive and successful political change in Egypt and Tunisia, and encourage real reform elsewhere when the people demand it.