By Joel Brinkley

Al Qaeda's leaders languishing in their lairs are probably taking Valium right now -- if not something stronger. Watching the revolutions spreading across the Middle East, they look like utter fools.

The most obvious point of ridicule is Egypt, where thousands of youths accomplished in a few weeks a feat that Al Qaeda had been pursuing for 20 years: throwing Hosni Mubarak out of office.

Worse, however, the Arab world -- Al Qaeda's home turf -- is unequivocally rejecting the supreme principle the group has been trying to impose since its founding in 1988: that Islamic law is the only acceptable form of governance for the region and the world.

So now these retrograde terrorists are watching the upcoming generation -- the very people they had hoped would step up one day to strap on suicide vests -- raise their fists to the sky and call out for freedom, democracy. Not so long ago, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who is Al Qaeda's second in command, pronounced his view that the only possible alternative to Mubarak was "an Islamic state," meaning a theocracy like Iran but run by Al Qaeda.

Certainly Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have been watching Al Jazeera, like everyone else in the region and beyond. Surely they are noticing that not only are the demonstrators calling for democracy -- but also, among them, shouting and jostling just like everyone else, are thousands upon thousands of women!

Al Qaeda was formed amid the cultural and economic stagnation of the Arab world -- and fed upon it. Young boys with no hope for the future were easy prey for silk-tongued preachers who lured these kids to accept violence and murder as their paths to martyrdom -- and to all those virgins waiting for them in paradise.

Now, we see, that's not what these young people are dreaming of. They want social justice and, hopefully, prosperity. Whether citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and others states actually ever experience a day of true democracy remains to be seen. In all of these places, the situations remain dangerously fluid. But among the protestors, have you heard anyone calling out for Osama bin Laden or any of his acolytes? Through all of this, they have been invisible.

In only one country, Yemen, has anyone stood before a microphone and called for an Islamic state. Yemen is so saturated with extremists that it, more than any other state being contested right now, seems likely to fall into malign hands. In most every other Arab nation, the dictators long ago wiped out Islamic extremist movements, afraid those people would threaten their rule.

But Al Qaeda's ham-handed approach to the uprisings is now helping to assure that no other states will fall into its pockets. Have you heard even a single word from bin Laden about the protests, his region's most epochal event in generations? And then there's Zawahiri, who has had a few things to say. They can most charitably be called embarrassing.

Late last month, he issued a half-hour screed in which he actually complained about Gamal Mubarak, the former Egyptian president's son, whom he described as the "anticipated leader" -- two weeks after Mubarak and his son had fled Cairo. And to further demonstrate how far behind the times he really is, Zawahiri complained mightily about Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he described as Egypt's great villain. Of course, that was more than 200 years ago.

Zawahiri also blamed Egypt's Coptic Christians for sowing discord, apparently unaware that Christian and Muslim demonstrators had made a great show of working together. Could Al Qaeda have further alienated the region's future leaders? Well, the answer is yes.

Zawahiri also offered an acrid denunciation of democracy, the goal of all those youths region-wide. A few days earlier, Al Qaeda in Iraq, an affiliate, issued a statement warning Arabs to "beware of the tricks of un-Islamic ideologies, such as filthy and evil secularism, infidelic democracy, and putrid idolic patriotism and nationalism." I'm sure that gave every young Arab who heard it a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

As if all of that weren't embarrassing enough, when demonstrators in Libya first reached the gates of Tripoli, seriously threatening Muammar al-Qaddafi's rule, whom did Qaddafi blame? He didn't call the uprising a grand Zionist plot. Nor did he denounce the perfidious Americans. No, Qaddafi actually blamed Al Qaeda, saying bin Laden's minions had drugged his people and sent them to go after him.

That was, of course, ludicrous. Still, Qaddafi's choice of a scapegoat was both timely and telling.


Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times


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