LONDON (Reuters) - Revolts in Egypt and Tunisia have struck a blow against al Qaeda’s call to violence as a means of overthrowing autocratic governments, showing “people power” to be a more effective weapon.
The adaptable militant group, with strong roots in Egypt, will work hard to exploit any sense of disappointment if the eventual outcome of the uprising there does not deliver better lives for the Arab world’s most populous country, analysts say.
But for now the group has no easy answer to the evidence presented by the world’s television screens — that ordinary men and women are doing more to weaken the 30-year-old rule of President Hosni Mubarak than years of attacks by armed groups. [nLDE70U00B]
Nor is there much comfort here for Western strategists who have argued that the West must prop up Arab autocrats or see the region taken over by violent anti-Western Islamist radicals.
“It’s a huge defeat for al Qaeda in a country of central importance to its image. It has wounded their credibility with potential supporters,” said Noman Benotman, a former organizer for an al Qaeda-aligned group in neighboring Libya.
“These demonstrations by ordinary people show the bankruptcy of al Qaeda’s ideology,” said Peter Knoope, Director of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
He said the December suicide of Tunisian stallholder Mohamed Bouazizi — a protest against the lack of economic opportunity that helped trigger Tunisia’s revolt — proved more powerful than al Qaeda’s call for attacks on Western-backed Arab rulers.
“The mobilization of the masses was brought about by the authentic suicide of someone who was desperate,” he said.
Al Qaeda’s regional arm, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, issued a statement praising the Tunisian uprising and calling on youths to join its Algerian bases for training.
But many al Qaeda sympathizers have been waiting to hear from the leadership, Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who are believed to be based in Pakistan.
So far, there has been silence.
That is a “not very impressive” delay by the group’s ideological chiefs, according to Anna Murison, an expert on Islamist armed groups at London’s Exclusive Analysis.
She said a recent web posting by pro-al Qaeda Mauritanian cleric Abu al-Mandhar al-Shanqiti might give a flavor of what al Qaeda’s core leadership would say.
“If there are any mujahideen (holy warriors) in Egypt, it is the best form of jihad to participate in this blessed revolution,” she quoted the message as saying.
Shanqiti added he would “not see any problem” if protesters also engaged in suicide attacks, Murison said.
“The argument is likely to be that the masses have finally woken up to what al Qaeda has been saying for the past 20 years,” she said, but added that such “opportunistic” rhetoric was unlikely to play well with the crowds in central Cairo.
Al Qaeda has deep roots in Egypt, through al-Zawahri, who led a failed campaign in the mid-1990s to set up a purist Islamic state in Egypt, and through many key operatives.
These include Mohamed Atta, a hijacker-pilot of the September 11, 2001, suicide attacks on the United States, and Saif al-Adel, a former military commander of al Qaeda recently freed from house arrest in Iran and now believed to be in Pakistan.
Despite the ideological setback, the uprisings may present al Qaeda with some temporary tactical openings, analysts say.
Political flux and an atmosphere of freer expression, may provide the group with valuable openings over the next few months to rebuild long-absent networks, said Benotman.
Egypt has suffered sporadic attacks in the last decade such as deadly bombings of tourist resorts between 2004 and 2006, but has avoided any return to the sustained violence of the 1990s.
“There’s going to be a window of opportunity to slip back into the country, to step up communications with each other,” Murison said, adding that prison breaks in both countries this month showed security services appeared to be under strain.
Above all, al Qaeda would see opportunities if Mubarak was able to cling to power or was succeeded by a government that closely resembled the outgoing one, said Sajjan Gohel, of the Asia-Pacific Foundation security research body.
“The best thing for al Qaeda would be for this uprising to raise, and then dash, popular expectations,” said Jarret Brachman, a U.S. counter-terrorism specialist and author.
“The more al Qaeda can say that ‘the people’ still haven’t had their voices heard, and become a populist advocate for a ‘new Egypt’, the better al Qaeda’s hand will be.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall