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BLOCK: Al-Qaida has remained silent. Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian, and for many years al-Qaida was committed to overthrowing the government of Hosni Mubarak by force.
NPR's Mike Shuster has more.
MIKE SHUSTER: For Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, it couldn't happen this way, says Dan Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
DANIEL BYMAN: For now at least, it's quite a blow to bin Laden's ideology. What Egypt shows is that peaceful demonstration, peaceful protest can topple autocratic governments that are quite repressive. This is a direct refutation of bin Laden's claim that only violence will work to affect political change.
SHUSTER: The implication of the recent events in Egypt was not lost on President Obama when he spoke from the White House last Friday, after it was learned Hosni Mubarak was stepping down.
BARACK OBAMA: Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence - not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force - that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.
SHUSTER: The example of Egypt has been central to al-Qaida's narrative of repression and political change in the Arab world. Ayman al-Zawahiri was a member of the extremist group Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Zawahiri was jailed for three years. That and other terrorist attacks in the 1990s prompted Mubarak to intensify his strong-arm tactics.
Zawahiri joined bin Laden and al-Qaida and, in a challenge to Mubarak and other Arab leaders like him, they formulated an ideology based on Islamist militancy and violence.
According to Shibley Telhami, a professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Maryland, they argued that ousting a figure like Mubarak could only come about through force.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: What we've seen here is exactly the opposite - that the people of Egypt and really the people of Tunisia have done so peacefully, in a manner that bin Laden has not been able to do in any country by force.
SHUSTER: Telhami calls the recent events in Egypt bin Laden's nightmare. But he cautions the process is not yet complete and hardly irreversible.
TELHAMI: If, in fact, this experiment, this revolution succeeds and people see that these peaceful demonstrations are bringing about change, al-Qaida's power will diminish considerably.
SHUSTER: The risk, of course, is that there will not be a smooth pathway to democratic and representative government. Some fear the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist group in Egypt, may be a stalking horse for militancy. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida trace their foundation to some common sources. But there are big differences between the two, says Dan Byman.
BYMAN: One of the biggest is that the Brotherhood has renounced jihad and violence. Skeptics may say that was simply tactical, that it was forced to do so. But nevertheless, that renunciation was something that Zawahiri and al-Qaida have been quite critical of.
SHUSTER: Still, the aftermath of revolution has rarely been untroubled. Should Egypt descend into political chaos, it could present an opportunity for bin Laden and other extreme groups, says Dan Byman.
BYMAN: The biggest risk is that if the revolution in Egypt fails, if it goes back to another dictatorship of some sort, if it dissolves into chaos, that this will vindicate bin Laden; that this will show his message that there should have been an organized jihadist leader of this, it will show that to be correct.
SHUSTER: Before the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, al-Qaida's prospects seemed to be on the rise in Pakistan and in Yemen. But at the center of the Arab world, al-Qaida's influence had weakened in the decade since the 9/11 attacks. It seems for the moment, the events in Egypt and Tunisia will only weaken it further.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
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