The democratic revolution in Egypt poses a challenge to Al Qaeda. The movement’s #2 leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was tortured in Mubarak’s jails in the 1980s. He emerged a hardened murderer, convinced that terror is the only way to topple corrupt Arab regimes and hurt the “far enemy” in America that supports such governments.
This narrative has been undermined by the success of nonviolent resistance in Egypt and Tunisia (will Bahrain or Yemen be next?). The democratic movements show that authoritarian regimes can be transformed through peaceful means (almost all the violence in these struggles has been perpetrated by the pro-government side).
The significance of the democratic upsurge will not be lost on would-be Al Qaeda recruits. They can now see a more hopeful path toward ending oppression, in contrast to the utter failure of Al Zawahri and Bin Laden to achieve anything but the killing of countless fellow Muslims.
Mohamed ElBaradei said it well after Mubarak’s fall: “If we get Egypt right, it could be the best medicine to get rid of radicalism.” The same point was made by Juan Zarate, former senior counterterrorism official during the Bush administration. “There’s part of this that’s dangerous to Al Qaeda,” said Zarate. “If the street protests lead to a peaceful, pluralistic transition, that does huge damage to the Al Qaeda narrative.”
The opening of democratic political space may be the best antidote to terrorism.