May 3 (Bloomberg) -- The killing of Osama bin Laden has given autocrats in the Middle East one less reason to argue brutal suppression of protests was needed to keep out al-Qaeda.
“This gives momentum to the Arab Springs,” Christopher Davidson, author of “Power and Politics in the Persian Gulf Monarchies,” said in a telephone interview. “Bin Laden served as a bogeyman that could be wheeled out when needed to justify that limits on political expression were needed. Leaders in the region have just lost their favorite excuse.”
With the 10-year hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist over, the U.S. has signaled it will no longer be swayed by rhetoric echoing that of discredited leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who often resorted to citing the threat of al-Qaeda as an excuse to crush pro-democracy movements.
The al-Qaeda “narrative is becoming increasingly bankrupt,” John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, told reporters in Washington. “There is a new wave sweeping through the Middle East right now that puts a premium on individual rights and freedom and dignity.”
Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia after 22 years in exile to lead the main Islamic party, quipped that Bin Laden died in his country before dying in Pakistan. The so-called Jasmine Revolution sparked a series of similar protests that spread from neighboring Libya to Arab nations such as Syria.
As events unfolded in the Middle East, President Barack Obama hand-picked which long-standing regime leaders to tell it was time to go. In the case of Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi, both raised to no avail the specter of potential al-Qaeda strikes.
“There can be no more using bin Laden or al-Qaeda as a scapegoat to get away with murder,” said Pam Lalib, a 26-year- old student from Cairo. “Those days are over.”
Still, the administration has not called for a regime change in Yemen, the bin Laden family’s ancestral home, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has withstood three months of popular protests demanding he step down.
To extend his 32-year reign, Saleh seems willing to keep on playing the al-Qaeda card.
“Al-Qaeda are moving inside the camps and this is very dangerous,” he said in an April 24 interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. “Why is the West not looking at this destructive work and its dangerous implications for the future?”
U.S. tolerance for such arguments after the death of the movement’s symbolic leader will be tested in coming weeks. So far, the administration’s restraint in how it criticizes Saleh’s crackdown stems from concerns about the Yemen-based offshoot of al-Qaeda, known as AQAP.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation calls it the serious terrorism threat to the U.S., and the U.S. this year has doubled military aid to Yemen to $155 million. AQAP claimed credit for the December 2009 attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on its approach to Detroit and the October 2010 attempted bombings of air cargo flights headed for the U.S. from Yemen.
The administration has not spoken on violence in Yemen since April 5, when the White House press office said Saleh “needs to resolve the political impasse with the opposition so that meaningful political change can take place in the near term in an orderly and peaceful manner.”
Discredited bin Laden
Judging by the muted response in the Middle East to his death, bin Laden’s political appeal in the Arab world has long been superseded by enthusiasm for pro-democracy activists. Pew Research said support in nations ranging from Pakistan to Turkey had plummeted to record lows, according to a survey conducted predominantly in Muslim countries between March 21 and April 12.
“One of the challenges the U.S. has had in dealing with al-Qaeda was that their narrative had greater appeal to the people they were trying to recruit than our narrative,” said Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel and now director of foreign policy at The Brookings Institution. “Violence was the way to restore Arab dignity. That narrative has taken a body blow.”
--With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Mark Silva
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