The news of Osama bin Laden’s death elicited a tepid response across parts of the Middle East, underlining the shift into a new era as popular uprisings render Al Qaeda’s ideas increasingly irrelevant.
The understated reactions in Egypt and some other Arab nations treated bin Laden and his ideas as a relic of the past, who has little appeal in a time when populations across the region are finding empowerment through peaceful protests.
“I think now we have clearly passed the Osama bin Laden era, and we are firmly into the Bouazizi era,” says Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist for the Saudi newspaper Asharq Alawsat, referring to the young man whose act of self immolation ignited the revolution in Tunisia that spread to the rest of the Arab world. “There is a grand difference between the two. One is from a very disturbed, annoying past and one is belonging to a promising future.”
In Cairo, the announcement elicited discussion – including widespread skepticism that bin Laden was really dead – but little fervor. “We don’t really care about him anymore,” says Cairo University student Mohamed. “For us, it is not very important news. We are not looking at Al Qaeda, we are looking at how will we build our own country after the revolution.”
On the streets of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, reactions were equally muted. "It's good news," says Ahmed al-Shaify, a shopkeeper. "But it's not really important here." Many Yemenis, as well as Syrians, said they were far too absorbed in the protest movements against their own regimes to spare much time for the news of bin Laden’s death.
Peaceful uprisings achieved what violence could not
Even before the Egyptian revolution, which pushed former President Hosni Mubarak from power in February, few Egyptians considered bin Laden relevant to their lives. In Egypt, the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has renounced violence, has long held far wider appeal than violent extremism.
But Egyptians' indifference to news of bin Laden's death underlines the further blow that successful peaceful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia dealt to Al Qaeda's ideology of violent regime change.
“Now they don't need bin Laden, they don't need his ideas or instructions, because Al Qaeda was not part of [the Arab uprisings],” says Fahmy Howeidy, a columnist for the Egyptian newspaper Al Shorouk who often writes on Islamic affairs. “Even in Yemen, although they have some Al Qaeda branches there, they were not a part of the protest movement.”
Al Qaeda often criticized governments like Egypt’s for being puppets of the US and Israel. Yet Egyptians are now watching with satisfaction as their post-revolution government charts a course more independent from the US and Israel, an achievement that came without the use of violence. Since the revolution, Egypt warmed relations with Iran, opened its border with Gaza to counteract the Israeli siege of the coastal enclave, and has begun investigations of a Mubarak-era deal to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel.
Yet even in Yemen, bin Laden’s ancestral homeland where local franchise Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has grown in prominence, analysts say the leader’s death will have little immediate significance. Bin Laden, after all, had become little more than a symbolic leader who analysts say had little to do with day-to-day operations, and offshoots like AQAP reportedly have little direct interaction with the leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And in Yemen, too, some believe that the protest movement that has engulfed the frail nation is lessening the appeal of extremism.
"[Bin Laden’s death] may cause a temporary spike in AQAP recruiting. But national politics and the pursuit of freedom are overtaking xenophobia among youth,” says Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a political analyst based in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. “It would appear that the impact will be minimal.”
'Bin Laden gave a bad impression of Muslims like myself'
There was, however, sympathy for the Al Qaeda leader in some quarters of the Middle East on Monday. Some Egyptians expressed admiration for his fight against the United States.
“I cannot be happy about his death, because we admired him for fighting the American occupiers,” said a man who identified himself only as Ahmed as he drank tea in a traditional café in downtown Cairo.
“We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood,” he told reporters, according to Reuters.
But others welcomed his death. In Lebanon, a fighter with the militant Shiite organization Hezbollah blamed the US for “making” bin Laden, citing the support for the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980, but welcomed his death. “Everyone here supports his death because he was against the Shiites,” said the fighter, Abu Mahdi.
The strain of Sunni Islam that Al Qaeda's members follow views Shiites as apostates and a greater threat to Muslims than the West.
And across Egypt, Yemen, and Syria, people expressed frustration at the perception of Islam that bin Laden spread, and hope that his death would help lay to rest a decade of fraught relations between the West and the Muslim world.
“I am pleased he has been caught," said one young man from Damascus. "Osama bin Laden killed many people and gave a bad impression of normal Muslims like myself … I see him as one of the most at fault for misunderstandings between the Muslim and Western countries."