A single fact has gone unmentioned in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. The American public is too busy pumping their fists in the air, but that is to be expected of the general public. Obsessed with ratings, America’s infotainment industry (the mainstream media) has ignored this looming issue, as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature loathes it even more. Someone will step up and take the place of Osama bin Laden.
The Shi’ite sect of Islam has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, but he is limited by his Iranian nationality. He must also contend with Iran’s potent Shi’ite clergy and a battery of western sanctions against Iran. Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah in Lebanon is constrained by his relationship with Ahmadinejad. Hamas, while dangerous, is ridden with behind-the-scenes power struggles and is primarily focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Muqtada al Sadr of Iraq, while locally powerful, does not have the theological acumen to become a truly transnational Shi’ite leader. He also lacks a secure powerbase in Iraq. Thus, Ahmadinejad will continue to lead Shi’ite fundamentalism for the time being.
Who will become the next Sunni fundamentalist transnational leader? The bin Laden clan’s ancestral homeland was northern Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The former hosts al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP, for short. However, it is also experiencing a whiff of “Arab Spring” in the form of pro-democracy demonstrations, as well as being racked by an intermittent civil war. Yemen will continue to be unstable, but is unlikely to produce a leader capable of meeting the urban elite’s demands for greater democracy and calls for increased tribal authority, while establishing a Sunni fundamentalist regime.
Born in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden only emerged as a leader during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. There is a reason for this. The Saudi regime is just as oppressive – even more so in some respects – than the recently fallen autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt. Wahhabism – Saudi’s puritanical brand of Sunni Islam – serves the interests of the royal family first. No Wahhabi cleric will arise to challenge that hegemony. It is even less likely that one of the kingdom’s 200 royal princes will attempt to transform himself to something above the Saudi monarchy.
One bet is Egypt, the home of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the oldest of the modern fundamentalist movements. It has already stated its intention to contest up to half the seats in the country upcoming parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most organized of the myriad political parties that have sprung up in the wake of Mubarrak’s demise. It is also the most disciplined. There is little doubt that if they were to contest all the seats, they would walk away with a working majority. However, this is something that might very well trigger a Nasserist coup by the Army.
It has watched both Shi’ite electoral success in Lebanon and Sunni success electoral success in Turkey with great interest. In both countries, fundamentalists have slowly consolidated power for years. They use the legitimacy that electoral success affords to whittle away at democracy’s institutions slowly, from the inside. In both instances, the military has been neutered and the independent judiciary subjugated to political control.
Will this be the Brotherhood’s tactic in Egypt? If successful, can they lead an impoverished nation of 80 million, while at the same time assuming a transnational leadership of the Sunni fundamentalist movement? Nasser attempted that fifty years ago and ultimately failed. However, Nasser had few roles models, operated in a world split with East and West tensions, and was subject to the demands of maintaining an aggressive stance towards Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has a number of successful models to copy. The East-West conflict is dead (for the most part), but the West has not been successful in consolidating its victory. Currently, Egypt enjoys the fruits of a cold peace with Israel.
Thus the question is, can Egypt produce a leader of bin Laden’s stature? Does it want to?