Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Egyptian national Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a video-recording broadcast by al-Jazeera news network on January 6. What is striking in this statement is his discussion of reform and freedom in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
In his latest statement, al-Zawahiri discusses reform and freedom in the Arab world, and draws a connection between jihad and freedom—a new element in al-Qaeda’s discourse. He stated, “My Muslim nation, you will not enjoy free elections, protected sanctity, governments which are being called to account by the people and a respectable judiciary unless you are free from the crusader-Zionist occupation and the corrupted governments, and this will not be fulfilled but with Jihad.” He criticized the Muslim Brotherhood experience in Egypt because they believe in political participation. This is, by the way, an old opinion of al-Zawahiri, who wrote a book on the political experience of the Muslim Brotherhood entitled “Bitter Harvest.” He also criticized elections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and described the democratic developments in the Arab World as “the fractions of freedom that America allows by force, and which wouldn’t be allowed unless under mujahideen attack in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.”
What is interesting is the new linkage between jihad and issues of freedom, rights, and the integrity of the judiciary. It seems al-Qaeda is keen to address the frustration in the Arab world that stems from the absence, or slow pace, of political and economic reform. This was clear in the results of the online poll conducted by aljazeera.net. In response to the question, “Do you agree with al-Zawahiri’s statement?” 57.9% agreed with the statement, 25.7% disagreed, and 16.3% partially agreed. The number of respondents totaled 30,487.
These numbers indicate that al-Zawahiri’s criticism of reform in the Arab and Islamic worlds resonates among lay people. It shows that al-Qaeda’s change of discourse aims at winning public opinion and at increasing the number of sympathizers more than an attempt to stress its ideological tenets, especially since the issue of “public opinion” has never been a major priority with the Salafi-Jihadist movement in general. It appears that this is the new element in al-Qaeda’s coming statements because the movement is attempting to adapt with the present and future pressures.