* Bin Laden seems irrelevant to Arabs focused on uprisings
* His defiance once resonated, violent methods lost appeal
* Arab sense of injustice tapped by al Qaeda lingers on
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT, May 2 Osama bin Laden, slain by U.S.
forces in Pakistan on Sunday, seems curiously irrelevant in an
Arab world fired by popular revolt against oppressive leaders.
"Bin Laden is just a bad memory," said Nadim Houry, of Human
Rights Watch, in Beirut. "The region has moved way beyond that,
with massive broad-based upheavals that are game-changers."
The al Qaeda leader's bloody attacks, especially those of
Sept. 11, 2001, once resonated among some Arabs who saw them as
grim vengeance for perceived indignities heaped upon them by the
United States, Israel and their own American-backed leaders.
Bin Laden had dreamed that his global Islamist jihad would
inspire Muslims to overthrow pro-Western governments, notably in
Saudi Arabia, the homeland which revoked his citizenship.
He espoused jihad largely in anger at what he viewed as the
occupation of Muslim lands by foreign "infidel" forces -- the
Russians in Afghanistan, the Americans in Saudi Arabia in the
1990 Gulf crisis, or the Israelis in Palestine.
But al Qaeda's indiscriminate violence never galvanised Arab
masses, while his networks came under severe pressure from Arab
governments helping Western counter-terrorism efforts.
"Bin Laden's brand of defiance in the early days probably
excited some imaginations, but the senseless acts of violence
destroyed any appeal he had," Houry said.
Nowhere was this change of heart more marked than in Iraq,
where anger at Muslim casualties inflicted by al Qaeda suicide
bombings -- and the Shi'ite sectarian backlash they provoked --
eventually drove Sunni tribesmen to ally with the Americans.
Popular sympathy for al Qaeda also evaporated in Saudi
Arabia after a series of indiscriminate attacks in 2003-06.
If the ideological appeal of bin Laden and his Egyptian
deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who advocated the restoration of an
Islamic caliphate, was already fading, the pro-democracy
uprisings across the Arab world have further diminished it.
"At some stage Arab public opinion looked on bin Laden as a
hope to end this kind of discrimination, the West's way of
dealing with Muslim and Arab nations, but now these nations are
saying, we will do the change ourselves, we don't need anyone to
speak on our behalf," said Mahjoob Zweiri, of Qatar University.
He said bin Laden's killing would affect only a few who
still believe in his path of maximising pain on the West.
ARABS CHOOSE OWN PATH
"The majority of Muslim and Arab nations have their own
choice. They are moving towards modern civil societies," Zweiri
argued. "People believe in gradual change, civil change, they
don't want violence, even against the leaders who crushed them."
Peaceful Arab protests have already toppled autocrats in
Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening the leaders of Yemen and
Syria, while a popular revolt against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi
has turned into a civil war with Western military intervention.
These dramas appear to have shocked al Qaeda almost into
silence. Even its most active branch, the Yemen-based al Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula, has mounted no big attacks during
months of popular unrest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for
near eastern affairs, described bin Laden's death as "a body
blow" to al Qaeda at a time when its ideology was already being
undercut by the popular revolutions in the Arab world.
"Their narrative is that violence and terrorism is the way
to redeem Arab dignity and rights. What the people in the
streets across the Arab world are doing is redeeming their
rights and their dignity through peaceful, non-violent protests
-- the exact opposite of what al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have
been preaching," said Indyk, now at the Brookings Institution.
"He hasn't managed to overthrow any government, and they are
overthrowing one after the other. I would say that the
combination of the two puts al Qaeda in real crisis."
Bin Laden may have become a marginal figure in the Arab
world, but the discontent he tapped into still exists.
"The underlying reasons why people turn to these kinds of
violent, criminal, terroristic movements are still there," said
Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri, alluding to the "anger and
humiliation of people who feel that Western countries, their own
Arab leaders or Israel treat them with disdain".
Nevertheless, he predicted a continued slide in al Qaeda's
fortunes, particularly as U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and
later from Afghanistan remove potent sources of resentment.
"The Arab spring is certainly a sign that the overwhelming
majority of Arabs, as we have known all along, repudiated bin
Laden," Khouri said. "He and Zawahri tried desperately to get
traction among the Arab masses, but it just never worked.
"People who followed him would be those who would form
little secret cells and go off to Afghanistan, but the vast
majority of people rejected his message.
"What Arabs want is what they are fighting for now, which is
more human rights, dignity and democratic government."
(Editing by Jon Boyle)