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Is Tahrir Square the End of Al Qaeda?

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Before the protests at Tahrir Square that toppled the Mubarak regime last month, many Egyptian activists were convinced that violence was the only strategy that would work against such a ruthless dictator. They also thought that only their Islamic faith and determination could motivate the brave revolutionaries to dare to fight against him. They imagined that their acts of terrorism -- against the regime and against the "far enemy" of America that they assumed was propping up the Mubarak system -- would eventually lead to a massive revolt that would bring the dictatorship to an end.

That did not happen. They certainly tried, carrying out their terrorist acts with a bloody determination. Many of them rejected the Muslim Brotherhood as being too moderate and too centered on electoral politics, and instead they joined paramilitary groups like the Gamma-i Islamiyya. Some joined the struggle in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and some of these activists migrated to the United States where they conspired to bring down the World Trade Center. An Egyptian, Mahmud Abouhalima, was credited with being one of the chief conspirators in the 1993 bombing of the twin towers.

When I interviewed Abouhalima after the attack when he was in prison, he clearly still had Egypt on his mind. The global jihad in which he was engaged would have a specific effect in "bringing down the American puppets," he said, with Mubarak the puppet that concerned him the most. But after twenty years of jihad -- even more, if one includes the strident writings of Sayyid Qutb decades before -- the puppets in general and the Mubarak regime in particular seemed indestructible.

What brought down Mubarak, as it turned out, was about as far from jihad as one could imagine. It was a massive nonviolent movement of largely middle class and relatively young professionals who organized their mass protests through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of electronic social networking. No doubt the passivity of the Egyptian military was also a critical factor; the army did not forcibly resist the protests, as the military has in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. Yet one cannot underestimate the importance of Tahrir Square, and similar protests in Alexandria and throughout Egypt. Clearly, they constituted the catalyst for change.

The rallies at Tahrir Square often seemed more like rock concerts than like urban warfare, and when fighting did break out it was largely promulgated by thugs hired by the Mubarak regime rather than the anti-government protestors. Perhaps not since the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines has the world seen such a dramatic demonstration of the power of nonviolent resistance. The protests were not the weapons of jihad, nor were the voices of opposition the strident language of Islamist extremism.

There was a religious element to the protests, however. The peak moments came after Friday prayers, when sympathetic mullahs would urge the faithful into joining the protest as a religious duty. But theirs was not the divisive, hateful voice of jihadi rhetoric. In a remarkable moment when the Muslim protestors were trying to conduct their prayers in the Square and Mubarak's thugs tried to attack them as they prayed, a cordon of Egyptian Coptic Christians who had joined the protests circled around their Muslim compatriates, shielding them. Later a phalanx of Muslim protestors protected their Christian comrades as they worshiped in the public square, an urban intersection that was for that time transformed into a massive interfaith sanctuary.

The religiosity of Tahrir Square is far from the religion of radical jihad. Rather than separating Muslim from non-Muslim, and Sunni from Shi'a, the symbols that were raised on impromptu placards in Tahrir Square were emblems of interfaith cooperation; they showed the cross of Coptic Christians together with the crescent of Egypt's Muslims in a united religious front against autocracy.

Imagine what Osama bin Laden must have made of all of this as news trickled into the cave or cellar or whatever lair in which he is hiding. Imagine even more the puzzled chagrin of someone like bin Laden's primary lieutenant, Zawahiri, the Egyptian medical doctor who joined the most extreme Islamist jihadi movement years ago, convinced that only violent guerrilla warfare would topple someone like Mubarak.

Tahrir Squared clearly showed that Zawahiri was wrong. Does this mean that al Qaeda is finished, and the radical struggles of jihad will fizzle into history?

Perhaps, in part. It is unlikely, however, that the al Qaeda organization, such as it is, will be abandoned. The small group of people who comprise the inner circle of the bin Laden organization will no doubt harden its resolve. Like the followers of millennarian movements who become more extreme and entrenched in their beliefs when the prophecized end of the world does not terminate on schedule, the true believers of al Qaeda will soldier on. They may become more extreme in their rhetoric, more desperate in using acts of terrorism to draw attention to themselves and their increasingly impossible view of the world. Yet the al Qaeda inner circle has never been large, and its organization -- though capable of conducting horrible acts of terrorism -- has never been a consistent and widespread threat.

So although the hardened activists associated with al Qaeda will linger on, the fate of the global jihadi ideology -- or rather the world view of cosmic war that the jihadi rhetoric promoted -- is a different matter. This view of the world as a tangle of sacred warfare has been an exciting and alluring image among a large number of mostly young and largely male Muslims around the world for over a decade. It is an image that was brought to dramatic attention by the September 11, 2001 attacks, and stimulated by the perception that US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were wars against Islam. This jihadi vision of sacred warfare was propagated by the internet, through postings on chat rooms and the dissemination of YouTube types of videos showing graphic acts of US military destruction in Islamic countries and calling on the faithful to respond.

Some did respond, and the response was a series of attacks during the first decade of the 21st century. These global jihad attacks -- in Madrid, London, Bali, Jakarta, Mumbai and elsewhere -- were not orchestrated by any single terrorist command. Some were connected with sophisticated regional organizations, but they were not in any direct sense al Qaeda-conducted. But they were all united by the jihadi vision, a vision that provided the moral and strategic legitimation for the terrorist attacks. The jihadi image of warfare provided the moral justification by linking real acts of violence in the world with the divine struggle between the forces of good and evil, order and disorder, that lies within the mythology and symbolism of every religious tradition, including Islam. And the jihadi idea of cosmic war provided a strategic legitimization of violence by the implicit promise -- as a leader of Hamas once told me -- that if one is fighting God's war, one could never lose. God always wins.

Yet, as Tahrir Square showed, God does not always have to fight, at least not in the terrorist ways that the jihadi warriors imagined. In a couple of weeks of protests, the peaceful resistors demonstrated the moral and strategic legitimacy of nonviolent struggle. And they succeeded, where years of jihadi bloodshed had not produced a single political change.

This is a profound anti-jihadi lesson, and the significance of Tahrir Square has quickly spread around the world. It has ignited similar nonviolent protests elsewhere in the Middle East, and it may also have altered the thinking of activists in other cultures as well. Intense discussion is underway in Palestine, where the Hamas-dominated strategy of strategic violence has been largely counterproductive; will a new nonviolent and non-extremist movement of young educated Palestinian professionals create a different kind of impetus for change in their region of the Middle East?

The rise of a new nonviolent populism in the Middle East may seriously undercut the viability of the jihadi image of violent social change. On the other hand, a significant number of failures of nonviolent resistance may lead to a violent backlash once again. Not all protests will end like Tunisia and Egypt. Others will be ruthlessly crushed, as was the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009. The current protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Libya face an uncertain end. Failure of nonviolent revolution has, in the past, been the occasion for renewed acts of violence.

So the jihadi warriors may again have their day. For the moment, however, Tahrir Square has raised the question of whether God really is on the jihadi side, or whether the committed, interfaith, and nonviolent protestor has been on God's side all along.

Mark Juergensmeyer is author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence and Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State.