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International Politics

Al Qaeda’s Ambiguous Support for the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring brought a chance for democratization and the toppling of repressive regimes. However, some remain cautious given the ascendance of Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

In an incisive article detailing Al Qaeda’s responses to the Arab Spring, Donald Holbrook outlines the opportunities that these revolutions have wrought for al Qaeda in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well the chaos in Syria.

Al Qaeda has long promoted revolution through armed conflict, notes Holbrook in his article, published for Perspectives On Terrorism last December. Some argue that the Arab Spring is a repudiation of Al Qaeda’s methods because, one, “The groups of youths that took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt did not do so in response to any initiative from Al-Qaeda,” and, two, “the chosen form of activism – including popular mass uprisings that were largely peaceful in Egypt and Tunisia and a NATO-supported armed revolt in Libya – clearly contradicted Al-Qaeda’s assertion that violent jihad led by a righteous vanguard was the only appropriate method for change,” he writes.

Instead of leading the charge in the protests, Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al Qaeda, released his first communique regarding these protests less than a month after the Egyptian uprising started, “which formed part of his on-going series of statement to the participants of the Arab revolutions,” writes Holbrook, a Research Fellow at the University of St. Andrews.

“Although the Al-Qaeda leaders always voiced their animosity against democracy, the issue became particularly prominent in the leadership statements at the dawn of the Arab revolutions,” writes Holbrook.  “Arabs were warned democracy was necessarily a secular form of governance [28] that ‘worships one idol, which is the wishes of the majority, without abiding by any religion, standards or ethics,’” he continues (emphasis in original).

“Interestingly, the wider network of Al-Qaeda sympathizers appears to have been engaging in its own damage control efforts in order to represent Al-Qaeda’s stance as having always been supportive of public uprising and protests and presenting Al-Qaeda as a noble and righteous defensive vanguard protecting the interests of the Muslim ummah,” writes Holbrook.

Holbrook points to Zawahiri’s communique regarding the Egyptian revolution, wherein Zawahiri asserts that the revolution is incomplete. He quotes Zawahiri as stating,

“My Muslim brothers in Egypt, a corrupt ruler has been overthrown, but the corrupt governance is still ruling. The desired goal is not to come to power either with a free, strong government or a limited, weak one, but the aim is to rule by Islam. And wasting efforts by coming to power without ruling by Islam is disaster, but the greatest disaster is coming to power and then ruling by anything except Islam” (emphasis added).

 As Quintan Wiktorowicz points out in a 2005 article, “A Genealogy of Radical Islam,” “Most Muslims believe that, as the Prophet said, ‘whoever accuses a believer of disbelief, it is as if he killled him.’”  Therefore, “From this perspective a leader only becomes an apostate if he willingly implements non-Islamic law, understands that it does not represent Islam, and announces that it is superior to Islam,” writes Wiktorowicz.

“Otherwise, the leader could be ignorant, coerced, or driven by self-interest, failings that signify sinfulness, not apostasy. This is the line of argument represented by the Salafi mainstream.” Wiktorowicz asserts that “Al Qaeda and the radical fundamentalists that constitute the new ‘global jihadi movement’ are not theological outliers. They are part of a broader community of Islamists known as ‘Salafies’ (commonly called ‘Wahhabis’).” Wahab could be considered a takfiri, or one who likes to call Muslims apostate. As Wiktorowicz points out, one of his ten “voiders,” or actions leading to apostasy, is “judging by non-Islamic laws and believing that these are superior to divine law,” e.g., Sharia.

Efforts by al Qaeda to implement Sharia in the territories it has recently taken may not necessarily bring popular support, even among a Muslim population, as exemplified by a confidential letter from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of Al Qaeda in northern Africa. In the letter, discovered by the Associated Press, Droukdel “warns subordinates that they have been too quick and brutal in imposing sharia, or Islamic law.”

“He worries that local Muslims will reject the religion and come to hate the jihadists, which would ‘consequently lead to the failure of our experiment,’ which includes establishing a global base for Al Qaeda,” reports the Christian Science Monitor.

“[Droukdel] decries the stoning of adulterers to death, the barring of women from public areas, and the prevention of children from playing. He worries about losing local support after his men destroyed local shrines that they deemed sacrilegious.”

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