February 7, 2011

Why Democracy in Egypt is Good for America

Arab Revolts Bad News for Al Qaeda 

If the popular revolts that have rocked Tunisia and Egypt gain momentum and spread across the Middle East, they could strike a catastrophic blow to al Qaeda’s violent ideology, experts say. While some in the West fear protests in the Arab world could see authoritarian secular regimes overthrown by equally hardline religious parties, other observers say the movements pose a far greater threat to militants.

Groups like Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda have long preached that peaceful protest is useless in the face of autocracy. They condemn electoral politics and urge Muslims to use violence to combat injustice and oppression. But if street protests in Tunisia can force an dictator into exile and in Cairo can force a regime to promise free elections and sit down with its opponents, why should angry young Arabs turn to bombs and guns? “Ultimately, it works against the idea of the resort to violence,” Maha Azzam, who studies the Middle East for the London-based think tank Chatham House, told AFP in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is occupied by protesters

“All people and all groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood, demand a democratic transition to power. They all condemn political violence,” said Azzam. “If it succeeds and if the transition is peaceful and successful, if it leads to a political system that includes all groups, it will be detrimental for the radical groups,” she added...

Al Qaeda, whose intellectual head and number two figure is the Egyptian doctor Ayman al Zawahiri, has long condemned any participation in elections, indeed any participation in secular political life. The Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast, has battled for representation. In Egypt, where it is banned, the group fields candidates under the “independent” banner and it is now pushing to be involved in political reform.

The militant groups are at a crossroads,” said Dominique Thomas, an expert in radical Islam at the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. “If these events snowball, and raise democratic expectations in the region and people are able to overthrow dictatorships with pressure from the street, that would be a stunning blow to their theories,” he said.

“If it’s the will of the people that topples regimes, al Qaeda and other militant groups will find it hard to bounce back and modify their narrative,” he said. “And, amid all this excitement, they’ve been strangely quiet. They’re probably confounded. Bin Laden or Zawahiri will have to speak out soon, or their whole discourse will lose credibility,” he said.

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