The uprisings represent opportunity for progress
The news of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of American forces has sparked commentary around the globe on the ways in which his world and influence had already diminished drastically in the decade since 9/11. Few voices have emerged from the Arab world protesting his death or the nature of the American intervention that caused it. Bin Laden himself had been living relatively quietly in his Pakistani compound, his network having shrunk to a small circle of family and local advisers based mainly outside the Middle East, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, bin Laden's movement had certain affinities with the more recent political developments coming under the rubric "Arab Spring." Both movements had at their core the determination to reject the legacy of Western colonialism in the region that lasted for several decades after World War I, a history whose long-term effects included the post-colonial maintenance of long-lasting authoritarian regimes throughout the region. Both attempted to provide a new path forward for a region struggling under the weight of a series of impunities engendered by decades of anti-Arab Western policies, permitted and guaranteed by those Arab local dictators who ruled as buffers between their societal buildup of frustrations and indignities and the wealthy Western nations that benefited from their policies.
Bin Laden, with his call for a single Muslim nation united against the West and his weapons of secrecy and terrorism, appealed to people in the region who had suffered politically but also economically under the repressive and exploitative regimes propped up by Western money and interests. The demonstrators of the Arab Spring have taken a radically different path towards protesting the same institutions, calling for democratic representation, economic equality and the use of national resources for the benefit of the many rather than the enrichment of the few. Using a national rather than a religious model, they nevertheless find themselves protesting many of the same structural inequalities that formed the bête noire of bin Laden's al-Qaida.
The death of bin Laden represents the failure of a closed movement using violence against civilians as a primary weapon against Western economic and political domination. It thus also offers an opportunity to bring the political fringes represented by bin Laden's followers into a new movement that has many of the same goals but takes, for the moment, an entirely different view of the path necessary to get there and the mechanisms by which a new regional order would function. Such a movement, if it is to be successful, must take an essentially psychological view of the crisis, viewing the needs of the populace as the true function of government and reordering political priorities to reflect basic human needs.
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper titled "A Theory of Human Motivation," in which he proposed a basic "hierarchy of needs" for humans. In his reading, there were five levels of needs, ranging from the most basic to the more sophisticated. The first level was physiological (food, shelter, water); the second physical security; the third love and belonging; the fourth esteem, arising from both the self and others; and the fifth self-actualization, engagement in some sort of personally meaningful pursuit. In rejecting the dictatorships of the last 50 years, the demonstrators of the Arab Spring need to promote just such an understanding of the role of government in providing for the needs of the citizenry.
The new regimes that will take over from the long-standing dictatorships of the Arab world must first ensure the basic needs of the populace are met — food, shelter, safe water. They must provide a baseline level of security and justice, rejecting the tactics of political arrest and unjust imprisonment that has characterized nearly all the Arab governments for decades. They will be responsible for creating a new sense of regional community - one that will ideally include non-Arab nations like Israel and Turkey in its vision. Esteem is a central part of this new vision; these new governments shoulder the responsibility of erasing century-old memories of domination and exploitation, replacing them with a genuine sense of empowerment and a real, strong belief in civil society and self-representation. It is only within this new context that the kind of individual self-actualization Maslow envisioned will finally become possible.
Failure by anyone involved - the West, Israel, new or surviving regimes - to afford the region the fulfillment of its needs will lead to a prolonged period of instability if not the outbreak of a major regional conflict. It is already clear in Egypt that the removal of an authoritarian figure has not, thus far, led to a dramatic shift in the relationship between the government (still dominated by the military) and the Egyptian people. Further, the surviving or new regimes will need to align with one another in order to withstand the inevitable waves of new protests that are bound to emerge when government reforms do not immediately lead to mass economic improvement.
The death of bin Laden has removed the remnants of a particular type of protest against a century of foreign domination over the Arab world, one that depended on a rhetoric of hate and tactics of violence. The new form of protest has the opportunity to incorporate his former followers into a kind of regional self-actualization based in the positive principles of identifying and satisfying broad human needs. The confluence of bin Laden's death with the uprisings of the Arab Spring represents an opportunity that must not be missed.