02.13.11

The Real Loser in Egypt's Uprising

As the military dissolves parliament and suspends the constitution, Cairo’s fate remains unclear. But one thing’s certain: Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the revolution.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt for almost 30 years, has sent a shockwave of both unease and hope throughout the Islamic world. Following the collapse of the Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, the toppling of Mubarak in the largest Arab country is a major milestone in the modern history of the Middle East and beyond. For the last half century, since Mubarak’s predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk in 1952, regime change in the Arab world had come only via military coups or U.S. invasion. Now two dictators have been toppled by their own people, who forced their countries' reluctant generals to remove one of their own from power.  Autocrats in Algiers, Manama, Sana, Riyadh, and Tripoli will be wondering if they are next, other oppositionists will be hoping they are next.

It is much too soon to judge how this will all play out; the longer-term implications of the regime changes in Tunis and Cairo remain unclear. In both cases we are still waiting to see the contours of what will replace the deposed strongmen. In Egypt, the army—which on Sunday dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution—clearly will continue to play a major role in politics. Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 75, seems to be playing a central role. I have known Tantawi for almost two decades. He is a Mubarak loyalist known for opposing innovation and reform in the military as well as in society at large. Total loyalty to the high command has been the only path to success in Tantawi’s military.

If Tantawi now says he is prepared to help Egypt change and to form a civilian transitional government to arrange new elections, it is only because he sees no other way to protect the army’s economic and political power. The army is a major land owner and financial player that  has benefited from billions of dollars in U.S. aid over 30 years. Its generals do not want war but they are no friend of Israel, which they still see as the main foreign enemy.

Al Qaeda tried to divide Egypt. The opposition is trying to unite it.

So in many ways the hard part of the revolution is still ahead, trying to build a new Egypt that endorses change while keeping the old power centers somewhat content. Winners and losers today could reverse position soon. But one can suggest at least one implication.The jihadist narrative of al Qaeda has suffered a serious blow. If there is a springtime of freedom in the Arab and Islamic worlds, one loser is Osama bin Laden and his gang.

Of course, bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman Zawahiri will rejoice in the downfall of Mubarak, a hated enemy, and they will undoubtedly try to claim some credit for what is happening. But those claims have little or no credence. This is not al Qaeda’s revolution and its ideology has not been vindicated in Tunis and Cairo. To the contrary, the victory of mass demonstrations and civil disobedience strikes at the very heart of the al Qaeda narrative that proclaims change can only come to the Islamic world through violence and terror, through the global jihad.

Instead in Egypt change came about from Twitter and Google, not suicide bombers and hijacked airplanes. Al Qaeda’s only contribution to Egyptian history this year was the suicide attack on a Coptic church on New Year’s Day that killed 23. It tried to divide Egypt. The opposition is trying to unite it. The regime tried to use violence and thugs to intimidate the opposition and it failed. In the end, the army concluded that Mubarak was a liability. Through the entire process, al Qaeda was silent.

What’s more, al Qaeda’s hated enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, stands poised to play a significant role in the new Egypt. The Brotherhood has mobilized its support behind the demonstrations and is calling for gradual change through the political process, a formula that is anathema to al Qaeda. The Egyptian Brotherhood's offspring, Hamas in Gaza, stands to be a big winner from the changes in Cairo, but Hamas also suppresses al Qaeda’s cells in Gaza.    

Bin Laden and Zawahiri are still dangerous in their Pakistani lairs, still capable of terror, and a very serious threat to the Pakistani state along with their allies in the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. They are much better prepared to exploit unrest in Yemen than they were in Egypt if a revolution starts in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country. But their narrative has suffered a serious blow in the heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds. They promised that only jihad would bring change. History has showed them wrong. 

Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At President Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.