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Why the People of Tunisia and Egypt Confirm the Bankruptcy of al Qaeda's Tactics

31 Jan 2011

As developments unfold in the Arab World, first and foremost in Egypt and Tunisia, there is one profound conclusion missing in most of the news reports and expert opinions analysing the political, social and/or historical reasons for and consequences of the events; the popular revolts demonstrate to the world the bankruptcy of Al Qaeda’s strategy and tactics. They show that AQ and related groups have failed to come up with effective strategies to channel popular frustrations and grievances and become part of the solution instead of the existing problems.

What happens at present is a popular and almost spontaneous – though not unexpected – revolt against the oppressive regimes in a number of the Middle Eastern countries; regimes that have been criticised for their repressive nature for a long time and by many. First and foremost by violent Islamist groups such as AQ and regional affiliates like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); they consider these corrupt oppressive regimes as the "near enemy", declaring them, based on a distorted fundamentalist interpretation of religious teaching, justified targets of Islamic militancy. Jihad is the only solution.

But despite the destructive words and actions by AQ and likeminded organisations aimed at this near-enemy, they have not had the strength nor the inspirational doctrine to mobilise the masses or to bring about a substantial public revolt that truly threatens the position of these suppressive regimes. What these violent Islamist organisations have failed to accomplish in all those years, the citizens protesting in the streets of Cairo and other cities in the country and region have achieved in a matter of days. Not in the name of God or an all-encompassing ideology, but out of a real desire for basic needs and freedoms, less corruption and better opportunities. It is a citizens revolt, driven by a mix of socio-economic and political demands; unique in the recent history of the Middle East, as the majority of (attempted) revolutions have always been ideologically motivated, be it Arab nationalism, Islamism or leftism.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year old unemployed Tunisian university graduate who set himself on fire in December and sparked the "Jasmine revolt" has become a martyr. He did not die in the name of Jihad pursuant to the goals of AQ and likeminded organisations; he died as an ordinary citizen demanding a better life. His deed based on genuine and authentic outrage has resonated profoundly with the citizens of Tunisia, and Egypt and throughout the Middle East, who took the same risks, defying the power of the state and thus putting their own lifes on the line in peruse of political change and the end of oppression.

Dozens of demonstrators have died in both countries as result of clashes with security forces, but none in the name of Jihad or Islamic militancy. The banners displayed by the protesters call for more and better jobs, political reform and, above all, the resignation of the country’s leaders; not for “Death to Israel and the US”, “Free Palestine” or “Islam is the solution”.

On Tahrir square and other public places in Egypt, the largest block of protesters compromises the youth of the nation, unaffiliated to political parties, leftist movements or the Muslim Brotherhood. Even though 90 per cent of Egyptians are Muslims, the revolt is not religious. Religion is part of one’s identity but should never been perceived as the single identity an individual has. Muslims can also seek reform as citizens who care about their (nation-)state.

As the Tunisians and Egyptians have so boldly demonstrated, the average citizen in the Middle East longs for social justice, better employment opportunities, less corruption and more political freedom, just like citizens all over the world. These demands – and not Jihad – are the real drivers of effective change in the region.

This commentary also featured in Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review and the Islamabad-based Center for Research & Security Studies.