In Arab world, Osama bin Laden’s confused legacy
BEIRUT — The words were not uncommon in angry Arab capitals a decade ago: Osama bin Laden was hero, sheik, even leader to some. But after his death, a man who once vowed to liberate the Arab world was reduced to a footnote in the revolutions and uprisings remaking a region that he and his followers had struggled to understand.
Predictably, the reactions ran the gamut Monday — from anger in the most conservative locales of Lebanon to jubilation among Shiite Muslims in Iraq, thousands of whom fell victim to carnage committed in the name of his organization. Some vowed revenge; others expressed disbelief that the man killed was in fact bin Laden.
But most remarkable perhaps was the sense in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere that the name bin Laden was an echo of a bygone time of ossifying divides between West and East, U.S. omnipotence and Arab impotence, dictatorship and powerlessness. In recent months, it often seemed that the only people in the region who cited the name bin Laden were the mouthpieces of strongmen like Moammar Gadhafi and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, evoking the al-Qaida threat to justify clinging to power.
For a man who had some responsibility for two wars and deepening U.S. intervention from North Africa to Yemen and Iraq, many say, bin Laden’s death served as an epitaph to another era more than anything. For many in an Arab world where three-fifths of the population is under 30, the bombings on Sept. 11, 2001, are at most a childhood memory, if that.
“The Arab world is busy with its own big events, revolutions everywhere,” said Diaa Rashwan, deputy director of the Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Cairo. “Maybe before Tunisia his death might have been a big deal, but not anymore.”
Or, as Farah Murad, a 20-year-old student at the German University in Cairo, said of the attacks, “I have a vague recollection, but it was so long ago.”
The United States’ pursuit of bin Laden has long prompted suspicion in an Arab world that remains deeply skeptical of U.S. support for Arab dictators and its unstinting alliance with Israel. Doubts emerged Monday over the timing of his killing.
Some suggested that bin Laden’s whereabouts had been long known and that the particular timing of his killing came in the interests of some party — be it the Obama administration, Pakistan or others.
In many quarters, there were calls for revenge and anger at his killing, most publicly by Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister and head of the Islamist movement Hamas, who called him “a Muslim and Arab warrior.” Others insisted that the battle bin Laden symbolized between the U.S. and militant Islamists would go on, and indeed, his organization was always diffuse enough to survive his death.