Letter from Cairo: Down goes the terrorist, hail to the martyr


Osama bin Laden is dead. Since the crack of dawn, this has become Cairo’s new “good morning” and “how are you doing?” and “any plans for tonight?” All those I’ve met or talked to since the fate of the much-hyped militant was made known to the whole world seem to have been connected to Osama bin Laden in one way or another and his death suddenly seemed like the piece of news that is bound to change their lives.

Which, really, is quite interesting since as far as I know, very few Egyptians cared about bin Laden if not because he does not have a direct impact on Egypt then maybe because his destructive powers were believed to have been blown out of proportion by the US administration to justify its war on terror.

For several others, bin Laden is just this crazy man who every now and then makes a TV appearance threatening to wipe the United States off the map or blow up the whole world or, of course, he’s this cartoon character who gets highest viewer rates on YouTube.

Why then is he suddenly so important and how come his death is becoming as much important news as the ouster of the Hosni Mubarak regime under whose brunt Egyptians suffered for three decades? What do they see in bin Laden’s life or death that they relate to? And most important of all, why is it that while Americans have been celebrating since President Obama announced the fate of the world’s most wanted terrorist, none of this joy is spotted here in Cairo, and apprehension is the first reaction you get when the topic is brought up?

For average Egyptians, bin Laden is neither the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, nor the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, nor the main supporter of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, nor the man held accountable for the indiscriminate death of civilians in several parts of the world.

Go back in time a little bit more and you will realize who bin Laden is for the majority of Egyptian citizens… yes, as far back as 1979… when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Bin Laden then emerged as the man who revived the idea of the “jihad,” or the holy war, and fought for the dignity of Islam… and he has been remembered as such ever since.

For many Egyptians, “jihad” is a word they learnt at school to refer to the struggle of The Prophet and his companions to protect Islam against those who wanted to nip the new religion in the bud. The word, therefore, has become impregnated with all those pristine values associated with the dawn of Islam, and proponents of jihad are seen as protectors of the religion and its followers.

Separating between the context in which the concept of jihad originated and the circumstances in which it was revived is what many Egyptians failed to do. Veneration of any kind of action precipitated by a religious cause created heroes of the Afghan Mujahedin and rendered their leader, Osama bin Laden, an icon of Islamic valor and the architect of God’s war against the powers of darkness.

Believe it or not… till now when you mention the name Osama bin Laden to a cab driver, a shop attendant, or a civil servant, you get more or less one response: “Ah! He is the man who fought the Communists,” or “the infidels” in some other versions. Indeed, Osama bin Laden had done a great job pulling just the right strings as far as his war on “the enemies of Islam” is concerned.

He capitalized on the traditional association between Communism and atheism to demonize the Soviet Union; very few bothered to check the facts and realize that Islamist militants in Afghanistan committed as many atrocities as the Marxist government they were fighting. One other fact was totally overlooked: bin Laden and his Mujahedin were funded, trained, and supported by the United States, which wanted to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam and which found in Afghanistan the perfect opportunity to fight a proxy war and score a memorable victory against its staunch enemy… the Cold War was never that “cold” any way!

While average Egyptians may focus on bin Laden the man, intellectuals are preoccupied with bin Laden the tool. For them, bin Laden was just a pretext for a neo-colonial approach adopted by the United States under the pseudonym of “the war on terror.” Hunting down the reported perpetrator of the Twin Towers attack and several other terrorist operations, they argue, was the excuse the American Administration used to pose as the world’s promoter of democracy and the rescuer of “backward” nations from the quagmire of autocratic/ extremist regimes—the same rationale used in Iraq, only with Islamic fundamentalism replaced by weapons of mass destruction.

Double standards are also not hard to detect here, for the same bin Laden of whom the United States made a hero owning to his ability to crush the Soviets had suddenly become the most menacing threat to the world’s security and wellbeing, and his elimination had become as necessary as destroying Nazi Germany… or may be even bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki!

While those very intellectuals are aware of the crimes against humanity bin Laden had been committing since the Afghan War, they also reject the polarizing effect the United States aimed at creating and which revolves around George W. Bush’s famous assertion that it’s either you are with us or against us.

Since the start of the propaganda campaign to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States had been coercing public opinion, nationally and worldwide, to the effect that if you are against bin Laden, you have to support the United States in whatever attempts it makes to rid the world of his evil. Therefore, opponents to the war on Afghanistan suddenly turned into proponents of terrorism and maybe bin Laden sympathizers; and those who did not object to the killing of thousands of civilians in search of one single person were not only on the good side of America, but also participants in the noble mission of spreading world peace and saving humanity.

For both categories of folks, bin Laden’s death was definitely not good news. For the first, the United States has become the new “infidel” enemy of Islam—remember Bush’s remark about “crusades”—and Osama’s death signals an unmatched victory of a country whose influence on the Muslim world has so far been nothing but destructive.

This sentiment is becoming more overtly highlighted with the increasing influence wielded by the Islamist trend in Egypt and with the way it portrays the United States as the promoter of Western ideals that violate the principles of Islam. Some of them might realize that bin Laden is no angel, yet they do not want to see America emerge victorious from what they perceived as its war on Islam, and they do not want to see the repercussions of this victory echoing in their homeland.

“If Americans rule the Muslim world, they will ban the veil, allow gay marriages, and spread vice all over the place,” goes the most common answer to “Why don’t you like America?”

While realizing that bin Laden is indeed a criminal, the other group is categorically opposed to the way his end was orchestrated—same reservations being voiced about the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein. The fact that the United States is now posing as the superhero that saved the world is absolutely unacceptable for Egyptian intellectuals who are very well aware of the “fine line” between imperialism and benevolence.

Their realization of how the bin Laden card will be flashed for decades to come in the face of anyone who dares question America’s sincere wish to see justice prevail and might even serve as a pretext for more “wars on terror” in the futures makes them extremely apprehensive. The anticipated rise of US hegemony in the region following the “heroic” taking out of the “villain” is, according to them, a prelude to another occupation… not one with tanks and warplanes, but the more dangerous type—that which makes you fully and totally under the mercy of a Big Brother who for the sake of protecting you keeps threatening to kill you!

Between this and that, there remains one fact: terrorist or martyr, dead or alive, bin Laden has indeed managed to baffle the world. How he managed to do that does not really matter. Who enabled him to do is what really matters… and that will be enough food for thought until we manage to solve the conundrum… if we ever do!