Egypt, Languages, Middle East, Pakistan, Politics, Terrorism

#OBL est mort

Something tells me Osama bin Laden would be furious to be reduced to a Twitter acronym. He who wanted to drop-kick society back 1,400 years to the Caliphate…with him as the Caliph, of course.

Oh, plus the Imam Mahdi, The Prophesied Redeemer Awaited By Followers. (Remind you of anybody?)

I found out about bin Laden’s death the old-fashioned way: by listening to people gossip on the London tube.

I had a semi-legitimate reason: they were speaking Arabic and I was happy about how much I understood, being happy at present with 20%.

Two of the guys were probably Egyptian, I surmised, and the other guy was something else and was learning Arabic very slowly with Rosetta Stone. They were talking about some other guy “yadros” (studying) “al-handasa” (engineering) at some “jami3ah” (university) − remember what I wrote before about what the 3s mean − somewhere in “Misr” (Egypt), but they pronounced it “MAH-sr,” and also pronounced certain consonants in a strange way.

Strange only if your professor is a native speaker of Levantine Arabic, although at Stanford you learn Egyptian Arabic, too, if for no other reason than to sing pop lyrics accurately.

One of the guys took a call on his mobile phone from “my mother” (walidati).

No clue about the 3rd guy, who turned out to work for Hewlett-Packard, which made the previous conversation suddenly make perfect sense…which is how it usually works when you’re learning a new language.

Still trying not to be obvious here, which is really hard to do in a virtually empty car en route to the airport on a bank holiday.

But then they started talking about dead people.

So, something about Libya and the number 6 and “son of”…could it be Colonel Qaddafi? Seriously?

So, it had to be Saif, not the Saif al-Islam we know and love but haven’t heard from on the news lately, thankfully (which probably means he evaded the sanctions/travel ban and is drinking margaritas on a beach somewhere), but Saif al-Arab, Qaddafi’s unimportant younger son.

(How frustrating it must’ve been for Saif al-Arab, overshadowed all his life by his younger brother Khamis, whose elite military brigade is even named after him.)

Saif al-Arab was apparently living at or near a NATO military target. So, the UN Security Council resolution is finally starting to hit Qaddafi close to home, after over a month of air strikes.

But the Egyptian guys weren’t done. Then they started talking about…Osama bin Laden? Haven’t heard that name in awhile, since he’d taken a break from sending rambling videos to Al Jazeera. Isn’t that evil cowardly murderer still hiding out in some cave in Afghanistan?

Not even close, as it turns out.

Having exhausted my Arabic, I had to come clean about my blatant eavesdropping and get the full news report in English.

The 2 guys were indeed Egyptian, and laughed when I told them on what basis I decided that.

Before we tell you anything, though, you need to answer some questions about how you came to study Arabic in the first place. Looking at you…well, I guess you never know.

Right back at you.

So, they caught me up on the morning’s events, with some astute political commentary absolutely free.

The Egyptians had a lot to say about the Pakistanis, little of it complimentary. They didn’t believe for a moment that #OBL had been living for several years within shouting distance of a military base and nobody suspected a thing.

Either they should be fired, or they were in on it. We voted unanimously for the latter.

Keep in mind that Egypt overthrew its dictatorship only 3 months ago and has a long way to go “to cut off all the tentacles of the octopus.” Although the #jan25 movement was successful partly because of the faith Egyptian citizens place in their military’s neutrality, they’re oh so familiar with rampant, inbred police corruption.

“Somebody was paying” to keep bin Laden’s presence a secret. Simple as that.

Egyptians’ new-found taste of freedom seems to make young people who actively participated in the revolution hyper-aware, even hyper-critical, of other countries that aren’t there yet, and may never be. These guys attributed Pakistan’s apparently duplicitous behavior to the fact that the USA gives the Pakistani military billions of dollars per year to find bin Laden, so it’s in their best interest to keep not finding him and cashing those checks.

Fair enough. However, the Egyptian military gets billions per year from the USA, too. Just because Mubarak is gone doesn’t mean that cash flow ends, or are you prepared to give that money back?


By this time, we’re at Hounslow Central station, just 3 stops from Heathrow.

The wrap-up: what can be the significance of this one man, especially this bin Laden, who by the looks of him seemed most likely to inspire absolutely no-one?

In a positive sense, Egypt’s one man was Wael Ghonim. Someone who, while not officially in charge of anything, exemplified the goals of the peaceful revolution and articulated it perfectly.

Then, after Mubarak resigned, went back to his day job at Google. (He’s since taken a sabbatical to start a technology non-profit in Egypt.)

By contrast, the job description bin Laden really wanted was The One Who Is Worshipped By True Muslims (as defined by him) Everywhere 24×7.

“9/11” is self-explanatory. Bin Laden was the mastermind behind the most devastating terrorist attack in American history, an attack he didn’t answer for until almost 10 years later.

Ten years he was alive and well and his victims in the Twin Towers, on the 4 airplanes, and at the Pentagon were not.

I don’t wish anyone’s death, but sometimes the world needs to rid itself of certain people and I think #OBL qualifies. The Egyptians put it this way: we’re all better off that he’s gone, that despicable low-life killer and misguided embarrassment to Islam.

He wasn’t Egyptian, al-hamdu lillah (“thanks be to God”)!

However, the threat he represented isn’t over. The moment we think it’s over, we’re all in serious trouble.

Whether it’s the transition to a newly democratic government, or the fight against terrorism in an established democracy, there will always be dynamic personalities whose life’s work is to undermine those ambitions. Self-styled leaders who attract like magnets an easily recruited − and easily replenished − farm team of weak-minded fanatics to do their dirty work.

Although Osama was thousands of miles away when 9/11 took place, it was his brainchild and he made sure the whole world knew that, and gave him credit.

Bin Laden’s naïve foot soldiers didn’t just stop believing in him as of early Monday morning. Al Qaeda wannabe successors – Yemen’s “regional commander” Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, who’s on the CIA target list and probably looking for a new HQ right about now − would jump at the chance to fill that power vacuum.

Meanwhile, Egypt is finding out that democracies are hard work! Standing your ground in Tahrir Square was the easy part. There are so many things you don’t have to decide and deal with if somebody else has been deciding and dealing with them for you for 30 years.

It’s like starting a workout routine when you’ve never exercised before. It’s going to hurt for awhile. You’re going to fall off the wagon.

Dictators, terrorists, and other undermine-ers are counting on you, us, and everybody else to get lazy and frustrated, and to lose our nerve (or our will, or both).

Push through it.

Two of this week’s best quotes:

From Syria: “I want to be a citizen who is accountable, and can hold accountable.”

From Ground Zero: “Obama 1, Osama 0.”


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