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 Islamists, other observers say the movements pose a far greater threat to jihadi 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, said in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is occupied by protesters.
Two weeks ago, thousands of demonstrators occupied the square, the heart of the capital in the largest nation in the Arab world, demanding that autocratic leader President Hosni Mubarak step down and allow free elections.
The revolt has not been without violence, a police crackdown and clashes between pro and anti-regime groups have left an estimated 300 people dead, but the focus of the movement has been a peaceful demand for change.
Some in the West and in neighbouring Israel have expressed concern that a free vote in Egypt could lead to victory for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, and that this would be a boost for violent factions in the region.
But observers in Cairo say the Brotherhood’s power is exaggerated and that in any case it is not a violent movement like Al-Qaeda. It could play a role in multi-party politics, representing a political Islamist constituency.
“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.
As she spoke, the protesters gathered in the square — within a cordon of troops — prepared to mark Sunday with a Christian mass for the members of the Coptic minority in their ranks.
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 jihadi 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 jihadi 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.
Another leading expert, Jean-Pierre Filiu of New York’s Colombia University and Paris’ Sciences-Po, agreed. “Al-Qaeda was caught completely unawares by the popular uprisings in the Arab world,” he said.
“They’ve gone completely silent on the subject, incapable of commenting on the news, so far is it beyond their understanding,” he said.
“The protesters are putting themselves in undeniable physical danger not to demand an Islamic state or a Caliphate, but to demand democracy, elections and transparency, all alien concepts to Al-Qaeda,” Filiu said
Signs are emerging the extremists have themselves recognised the threat.
“It is a dangerous mistake for the jihadists to separate from the peoples,” wrote radical cyber-preacher Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti in an online sermon monitored by the US-based SITE online terrorism watchdog.
“We should forgive them, get closer to them and beg them to listen to us, because separating the jihadi movement from the popular Muslim movement is the end of this movement,” he warned his followers.