Osama bin Laden, slain by US forces in Pakistan on Sunday,
seems curiously irrelevant in an Arab world fired by popular revolt against
"Bin Laden is just a bad memory," said Nadim
Houry, of Human Rights Watch, in Beirut. "The region has moved way beyond
that, with massive broad-based upheavals that are game-changers."
The al Qaeda leader's bloody attacks, especially those of
September 11, 2001, once resonated among some Arabs who saw them as grim
vengeance for perceived indignities heaped upon them by the United States,
Israel and their own American-backed leaders.
Bin Laden had dreamed that his global Islamist jihad would
inspire Muslims to overthrow pro-Western governments, notably in Saudi Arabia,
the homeland which revoked his citizenship.
He espoused jihad largely in anger at what he viewed as the occupation
of Muslim lands by foreign "infidel" forces -- the Russians in
Afghanistan, the Americans in Saudi Arabia in the 1990 Gulf crisis, or the
Israelis in Palestine.
But al Qaeda's indiscriminate violence never galvanised Arab
masses, while his networks came under severe pressure from Arab governments
helping Western counter-terrorism efforts.
"Bin Laden's brand of defiance in the early days
probably excited some imaginations, but the senseless acts of violence
destroyed any appeal he had," Houry said.
Nowhere was this change of heart more marked than in Iraq,
where anger at Muslim casualties inflicted by al Qaeda suicide bombings - and
the Shi'ite sectarian backlash they provoked - eventually drove Sunni tribesmen to ally with
Popular sympathy for al Qaeda also evaporated in Saudi
Arabia after a series of indiscriminate attacks in 2003-06.
If the ideological appeal of bin Laden and his Egyptian
deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who advocated the restoration of an Islamic caliphate,
was already fading, the pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world have
further diminished it.
"At some stage Arab public opinion looked on bin Laden
as a hope to end this kind of discrimination, the West's way of dealing with
Muslim and Arab nations, but now these nations are saying, we will do the
change ourselves, we don't need anyone to speak on our behalf," said
Mahjoob Zweiri, of Qatar University.
He said bin Laden's killing would affect only a few who
still believe in his path of maximising pain on the West.
"The majority of Muslim and Arab nations have their own
choice. They are moving towards modern civil societies," Zweiri argued.
"People believe in gradual change, civil change, they don't want violence,
even against the leaders who crushed them."
Peaceful Arab protests have already toppled autocrats in
Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening the leaders of Yemen and Syria, while a
popular revolt against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi has turned into a civil war with
Western military intervention.
These dramas appear to have shocked al Qaeda almost into
silence. Even its most active branch, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula, has mounted no big attacks during months of popular unrest against
President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Martin Indyk, a former US assistant secretary of state for
near eastern affairs, described bin Laden's death as "a body blow" to
al Qaeda at a time when its ideology was already being undercut by the popular
revolutions in the Arab world.
"Their narrative is that violence and terrorism is the
way to redeem Arab dignity and rights. What the people in the streets across
the Arab world are doing is redeeming their rights and their dignity through
peaceful, non-violent protests - the exact opposite of what al Qaeda and Osama
bin Laden have been preaching," said Indyk, now at the Brookings
"He hasn't managed to overthrow any government, and
they are overthrowing one after the other. I would say that the combination of
the two puts al Qaeda in real crisis."
Bin Laden may have become a marginal figure in the Arab
world, but the discontent he tapped into still exists.
"The underlying reasons why people turn to these kinds
of violent, criminal, terroristic movements are still there," said
Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri, alluding to the "anger and
humiliation of people who feel that Western countries, their own Arab leaders
or Israel treat them with disdain".
Nevertheless, he predicted a continued slide in al Qaeda's
fortunes, particularly as US troop withdrawals from Iraq and later from
Afghanistan remove potent sources of resentment.
"The Arab spring is certainly a sign that the
overwhelming majority of Arabs, as we have known all along, repudiated bin Laden,"
Khouri said. "He and Zawahri tried desperately to get traction among the
Arab masses, but it just never worked.
"People who followed him would be those who would form
little secret cells and go off to Afghanistan, but the vast majority of people
rejected his message.
"What Arabs want is what they are fighting for now,
which is more human rights, dignity and democratic government."
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.