Since protests erupted in the Middle East and North Africa, al-Qa`ida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri has released a series of five statements, four in the form of audio recordings and the fifth as a video.[1] All five share the same title: “Missive of Hope and Joy to our People in Egypt.”[2] Only the last three, however, responded to the protests that have thus far toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. To date, al-Zawahiri’s “Missive” is the most comprehensive response to the events in the Middle East by a leading jihadist figure.

This article presents analytical observations of the five statements, arguing that al-Zawahiri’s discourse is evolving to meet the challenges of the unfolding events in the Middle East. His discourse, however, suffers from profound tensions pertaining to jihadist identity and specifically to the role the jihadists can play in the changing political landscape.

Statements 1-2
Ayman al-Zawahiri’s first two statements did not respond to the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt. The jihadist websites that released them did al-Zawahiri a disservice by not withholding the first two until the third became available. Although the title is generic—the “hope and joy” presumably referred to his optimism that the jihadists are on their destined path to victory—the title nevertheless gave the impression that the first two statements were in response to the events in Egypt. Accordingly, initial media reports unfairly criticized him as being out of touch with Egyptian reality.

The first statement was most likely taped before protestors took to the streets of Tunisia. It was a routine discussion of what al-Zawahiri believed to be the secular and oppressive regime in Egypt. This oppression, he asserted, is a result of the historical events that saw Western encroachments on Egypt, beginning in the 18th century with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, then with the British occupation in the 19th and early 20th centuries and in recent times the United States’ indirect rule through its agents the “pharaohs” who have oppressed the Egyptians to advance their interests and those of the United States.

The subjects tackled in the second statement are more specific and provide evidence of the time period when al-Zawahiri is likely to have taped it. Since he discussed the New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria, Egypt, and also remarked on the protests that ensued, it is likely that it was taped in the first half of January 2011. In addition to the church bombing, the events that most preoccupied him are attacks that resulted in Muslim casualties carried out by groups espousing jihadist ideology and the possibility of the secession of southern Sudan. His discussion of Sudan is largely historical; he did not discuss the referendum that was scheduled to start on January 9 and last until January 15.

Concerning attacks against Muslims, al-Zawahiri echoed other jihadist leaders by highlighting the sanctity of Muslim lives, and proceeded to dissociate al-Qa`ida from attacks that involve shedding Muslim blood.[3] He must have been responding to a series of attacks targeting mosques and public places in Pakistan, the latest a suicide bombing that killed more than 55 worshippers in the Dara Adam Khel area. It coincided with another attack on a mosque in Peshawar, which resulted in additional Muslim casualties.[4] Al-Zawahiri stressed that al-Qa`ida has no involvement in such attacks and therefore reflects the lack of control the jihadist leadership can exercise over the broader jihadist theater: “Notwithstanding the truth or falsehood of attributing these operations to the mujahidin, my brethren and I in Qa`idat al-Jihad declare to God our innocence from having any involvement in these operations. Indeed we disapprove of such attacks whether they are carried out by jihadists or others.”

A considerable portion of the second statement is devoted to protests in Egypt, yet to the demonstrations that erupted in the first half of January following the bombing of the church in Alexandria. Al-Zawahiri is categorical that al-Qa`ida was not behind the bombing. He did, however, justify the resentment that he believes many Muslims in Egypt feel as a result of the Coptic Church’s numerous transgressions. Among the transgressions he highlighted are the Coptic Pope Shenouda’s support of the now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the previous presidential election and of the Coptic Bishop Bishoy’s remarks in which he questioned the authenticity of certain Qur’anic verses. Bishoy is quoted in the media to have said that Muslims are guests in Egypt, a report that al-Zawahiri is keen to record in the minds of his listeners.[5] He further blamed Mubarak, the regime apparatus, al-Azhar University and U.S. support of the Coptic Church, which together, he believes, fueled resentment among Muslims and ultimately led some to act on their inflamed feelings.

Although he justified the resentment, he did not condone the bombing of the church. Instead, he warned fellow Muslims that not all Christians are collaborators. Some Christians, he reminded them, “reject the Crusader-Jewish occupation of the Arab and Muslim world…[they] are proud of their Arab origin and of the Prophet of Islam, believing him to be one of the greatest figures in Arab and human history.”

It is noteworthy that al-Zawahiri ignored the protests in Tunisia. Even if al-Zawahiri had taped his second statement before January 14 when the Tunisian president resigned, protestors had already taken to the streets on December 19, 2010. Did he, like some analysts, consider events in Tunisia to be an exceptional aberration and not worthy of his attention? It seems likely. Indeed, while he applauded the people’s uprisings in statements 3-5, in the second statement he was in full jihadist mode. For example, he remarked that the technological gap between the West and the Muslim world is insurmountable and the solution he proposed is not through revolutions, but through 9/11-style attacks. “While we cannot produce weapons that match [the sophistication] of those produced by the Crusader-West, we are capable of disrupting its complex industrial and economic system,” he explained. “That is why it is necessary for the jihadists to come up with new ways [to disrupt the West’s progress]. Among such innovative ways is the courageous utilization of airplanes as a weapon, like the blessed raids in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.”

Statements 3-5
A different texture emerges in statements 3-5. The mujahidun no longer hold a virtual monopoly on being the Muslim world’s drivers of genuine change and salvation. Al-Zawahiri saluted different actors: the “free and the noble people” who have made their presence felt on the Arab world stage.[6] He recognized that these actors are not one and the same with the jihadists, but he was keen to convince his listeners that they are all fighting the same enemy: “your jihadi brethren are confronting alongside you the same enemy, America and its Western allies, those who set up [tyrants] like Husni Mubarak, Zein al-Abidin b. Ali, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Abdallah b. Hussein and their ilk to rule over you.”[7]

The strength of al-Zawahiri’s statements 3-5 is the way in which he clearly articulated what one may describe as the “original sin” that some Western powers have committed and which have resulted in some of the dramas that inflict the modern Middle East. In making his case, al-Zawahiri was not short of examples. Focusing on the U.S. legacy in Egypt, he cautioned the people of Egypt not to be deceived by the current U.S. support of their cause. He reminded them that:

“[America] that is [now] weeping over the safety of journalists in Egypt [is the same America] that bombed the offices of al-Jazira in Kabul and Baghdad…America that is [now] weeping over the victims of torture in Egypt is [the same America] that resorts to torture in the prisons of Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghurayb and in its secret prisons in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Poland and on board of its ships and airplanes…this is the truth of the international legal system…it is the law that [enshrines] the domination of the arrogant (mustakbirin) [of the earth] over the disinherited (mustad`afin). America that weeps over the [deficit] of democracy [in the Middle East] is [the same America] that refuses to recognize the [elected] government of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. America is the last [entity] that is allowed to speak of [the virtues of] democracy and human rights.”[8]

Beyond highlighting what he deemed to be the hypocrisy of the United States and its allies, al-Zawahiri warned the people of Egypt of the likelihood that the fruits of their revolution may be squandered if they do not institute an Islamic government premised on the principle of consultation (nizam islami shuri). Perhaps sensing that the United States is not alarmed by the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could potentially win an election in Egypt, he warned Egyptians that the United States does not care as to whether the regime is democratic, despotic or even Islamic (similar to Saudi Arabia) so long as the regime serves U.S. interests. What the United States will never accept, he asserted, is an Islamic government that serves the interests of the umma, rejects the occupation of Muslim lands, counters the ambitions of Israel and in which its rulers are accountable before God and their people.[9] More specifically, he called for the abrogation of the constitution and establishing in its place an Islamic system of government free of positive law. It is noteworthy that al-Zawahiri was keen to stress that his call for an Islamic government should not be misconstrued as a call for his supporters to resort to violent confrontations to achieve their ends. For now, jihad is not on his agenda for Egypt or Tunisia, but he is hoping or betting that the “original sin” of the United States and its allies is min al-kaba’ir, or much too grievous, to be forgiven by the people of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Al-Zawahiri is also pleading with the Arab people not to turn inward following the revolutions—to lend support, including military support, to the Libyans who are currently enduring Mu`ammar Qadhafi’s bombing campaign. He chastised the Arab armies for not defending the Libyans, asking whether “their role is limited to oppressing the people.” In the event that NATO forces enter Libya, al-Zawahiri called on Muslims of the region to rise up and fight against “Qadhafi mercenaries and those of the Crusader-NATO.”[10]

Al-Zawahiri: Evolution and Confusion?
Just as the international community has been caught by surprise by the events in the Middle East and is struggling to come to terms with a clear and consistent strategy to address the new reality, it is not surprising that the jihadists have also been caught off-guard. Ironically, the jihadist narrative enjoyed greater credibility under the autocratic regimes that they have devoted their lives to oust through jihad. Al-Zawahiri’s response reveals a combination of evolution and confusion: his discourse is evolving in the sense that his typical jihadist rhetoric is vague at best, but confused in that he does not have a clear vision of the role the jihadists will play in the changing climate. He calls on the imprisoned and recently released jihadist leaders who recanted their jihadist principles under duress by the Mubarak regime to recant their recantations, but it is not clear what he wants them to call for. How are they expected to define the role of the jihadists in the Middle East? Can they cooperate with the secularists and therefore violate the terms of wala’ and bara’ they espouse?[11] More precisely, what is to become of the self-professed jihadists if, to use their parlance, God’s Word does not reign supreme and yet they are not called upon to take up jihad to establish His Law? It will no doubt pain al-Zawahiri to learn that `Abboud al-Zumar of the Egyptian Islamic Group (al-Jama`a al-Islamiyya) and a former military intelligence colonel in the Egyptian army implicated in the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat—whom al-Zawahiri congratulated on his release from prison—has embraced the electoral process.[12] In an interview with the New York Times, al-Zumar declared that “the ballot boxes will decide who will win at the end of the day.”[13]

This is not to suggest that there is no longer a role for the jihadists in al-Zawahiri’s mind. The jihadists are still present in his discourse, but they do not feature as the drivers of the revolutions. Instead, they continue to achieve their virtual victories in Afghanistan now that the United States declared that it will withdraw its troops.[14] This is also not to suggest that some jihadists may not act on their own against the guidance of al-Zawahiri; just as he and other jihadist leaders cannot stop the indiscriminate killings of Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere, it is not certain that their nuanced and confused guidance is going to be observed by jihadist enthusiasts.

What al-Zawahiri is failing to realize is that the new era is one of contestation and compromises—not of steadfastness and principled rigid positions onto which he wants to hold. Thus, the actors who play by the rules of compromises are more likely to advance their agenda through creating new, even if challenging, possibilities. What is perhaps ironic about al-Zawahiri’s “Missive” series is that some of the political points he raised would make for a powerful election speech that would resonate with some Arabs who are reluctantly accepting the current U.S. support. One has to ponder whether al-Zawahiri has any regrets that he has ruled his role out of the nouveau regime by his own outright dismissal of positive law, a principled rejection that prevents him from running for office.

Nelly Lahoud is Associate Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point.

[1] This article is the outcome of conversations with Abdullah Warius and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi. The author is grateful for their input and for assisting in gathering some of the article’s sources.

[2] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Missive of Hope and Joy to our People in Egypt,” statements 1-5, 2011, available at

[3] `Atiyyat Allah, to whom he refers, had written a treatise in response to the attacks in the marketplace in Peshawar in 2009.  His treatise can be accessed on Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad at

[4] “Attack on Mosque in North-West Pakistan ‘Kills 55,’” BBC, November 5, 2010.

[5] “Egypt Pope Apologizes over Bishop’s Anti-Islam Remarks,” Associated Press, September 26, 2010.

[6] Al-Zawahiri has used these terms before to designate jihadists or people to whom he was appealing to rise up against the political order, but in the statements under review these terms designate actors distinct from the jihadists. See al-Zawahiri, statement 3.

[7] Al-Zawahiri, statement 4.

[8] Ibid., statement 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wala’ is to associate with God’s friends and bara’ is to dissociate from God’s enemies. For a discussion of these terms, see Nelly Lahoud, “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Jihadist Ideology,” CTC Sentinel 3:10 (2010).

[12] Al-Zawahiri, statement 5.

[13] Neil MacFarquhar, “Religious Radicals’ Turn to Democracy Alarms Egypt,” New York Times, April 1, 2011.

[14] Al-Zawahiri, statement 5.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up