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Osama bin Laden's demise began with the Arab Spring

Amid turmoil in Middle East and North Africa, Al Qaeda struggles to be relevant.

Al qaeda what next graphic 2011 06 06Enlarge
(Illustration by Antler; Photo by Majid Saeedi/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: The killing of Osama bin Laden has changed everything. Or has it? In this ongoing series Al Qaeda: What's Next?, GlobalPost senior correspondents worldwide investigate the uncertain future of global terrorism and religious extremism – from Afghanistan to Egypt, India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

CAIRO, Egypt — More than four months after the ouster of Tunisia's autocratic president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Osama bin Laden finally weighed in from a continent away.

"The fall of the tyrant means the fall of humiliation and shame and fear and subjugation," bin Laden said in an audio recording released on May 18. "Then a great revolution was launched. And what a revolution!"

Unfortunately for bin Laden, the endorsement came too late. The posthumously released message appeared more than two weeks after U.S. commandos killed the Al Qaeda mastermind in a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Bin Laden's death was announced on May 1, but many in the Middle East believe that the demise of his extremist ideology began many months earlier, in central Tunisia.

Although the majority of Muslims in the Middle East have never shared bin Laden's worldview, the minute Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor, lit himself on fire in a desperate act of protest last year, Al Qaeda's brand of violent extremism may have become even less relevant as a means for change in the Arab world.

Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked a groundswell of public anger massive enough to topple Ben Ali's repressive regime.

Weeks later, millions of Egyptians demanded an end to President Hosni Mubarak's three decades in power, drawing inspiration from Bouazizi. The protesters in Tahrir Square got their wish on Feb. 11, accomplishing in a mere 18 days what Al Qaeda had failed to do in more than two decades.

Subsequent uprisings against autocratic rule in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria erupted out of an emerging confidence that major political change is possible through peaceful people power and youthful liberal activism rather than bin Laden-style terrorism.

But did violent extremism in the Middle East die with bin Laden?

Not likely, according to experts and analysts in the region. In fact, many believe that any hope for a democratic future in the region is actually fading as peaceful reform movements are overcome by violence.

Some fear that Al Qaeda affiliates, or other radical elements, could attempt a comeback amid the turmoil and political upheaval of the Arab Spring, which has become one of the largest democracy movements in the modern history of the Middle East.

"I worry less about the smaller jihadist operations, and am more concerned about sustaining the overall momentum of the Arab Spring," said Paul Pillar, professor of security studies at Georgetown University and former CIA analyst. "If hopes for future political change are stalled, this might reintroduce the appeal of the radical message."

Middle East activists who were once hopeful that democracy was taking root, and violent conflict was receding, are now seeing some troubling developments.

Pro-reform movements against autocratic leaders in Bahrain and Syria that started earlier this year now appear to be all but crushed, however temporarily, under the weight of overwhelming military force sponsored by their governments.

In Libya, too, the momentum of rebel fighters seeking to end Muammar Gaddafi's four decades of autocratic rule now appears to be stuck in stalemate. The rebel uprising there morphed into a protracted conflict that even NATO warplanes seem unable to break.

Even in post-revolutionary Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, activists worry that promises of reform are being ignored by the country's military-led ruling council, which took the reins of power after Mubarak's resignation.

Egyptian journalists have been summoned to military prosecutors for their anti-government remarks. A young blogger who published a scathing critique of the army's post-revolution progress was recently imprisoned.

And several accusations of military torture, including forced "virginity tests" on female detainees, have surfaced in recent weeks, raising concerns that Egypt’s new leaders are regressing.

"In some ways, having the hopes of change and then getting them dashed is worse than having them in the first place," said Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA. "It could be a bad thing in places like Egypt. You could have a lot of discontented people who become a force for instability."

Tunisians are learning the hard way that radical elements might try to take advantage of post-revolutionary instability.

Two Tunisian soldiers were killed in May after a gun battle erupted between authorities and members of Al Qaeda's North Africa wing that infiltrated the country from Algeria, according to Tunisia's state media.

The militants, who also died in the fight, were reportedly armed with explosive belts.

Tunisia's once feared police force, which became a target of popular anger during the uprising, has been slow to redeploy since Ben Ali's departure.

Large swaths of the tiny North African state are reportedly still without a police force — the perfect breeding ground for groups like Al Qaeda, according to analysts.

Some worry that extremists could further exploit the security vacuum in countries in the region — especially in eastern Libya, where only poorly trained rebels guard most borders.

"Anytime a government collapses, there will be opportunities for radical groups to step in and make some inroads," said Nathan Field, author of several scholarly studies on extremism in the Middle East.

One unknown factor is how voters in Egypt and Tunisia will react to political Islam in upcoming elections. Islamist groups were largely repressed under both Mubarak and Ben Ali.

The moderate Muslim Brotherhood, a well-oiled political machine banned under Mubarak, is hoping to win a majority of seats in Egypt's September parliamentary elections.

But much more conservative Islamist groups — like Egypt's Salafists — have also declared their intentions to run. Salafi Muslims believe in a literal and fundamental interpretation of the Islamic scriptures.

Recent sectarian violence in Egypt, blamed on tension between Coptic Christians and Salafists, has claimed at least 12 lives, inflicted hundreds of injuries and led to at least three torched churches since February.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/110602/osama-bin-laden-arab-spring