Were Ayman al-Zawahiri to have a taste for polls, al Qaeda's new leader might be embarrassed to learn that he is less popular than Barack Obama among his former countrymen. In a recent poll of 800 Egyptian voters by the New York-based Institute for International Peace, President Obama's approval rating was 12%; Zawahiri's just 11%.
The Cairene who quit his native land a quarter century ago for the call of the jihad had loftier expectations. Imprisoned in 1981, in the aftermath of President Anwar Sadat's assassination, he had dreamt of a triumphant return, the overthrow of the secular autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, and the imposition of an Islamic theocracy. To that end, he had made common cause with Osama bin Laden. Their "World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders," formed in 1998, was the coming together of a band of Arab jihadists on the run from the security services of their homelands.
These men had made use of the zeal of the Taliban and of the anarchy of the tribal lands of Pakistan, but their gaze was forever fixed on the Arab regimes that had banished them. For bin Laden, the vendetta was against the House of Saud; for Zawahiri, his deputy, the fury was against a military regime that had imprisoned and tortured him, and that had turned Egypt, by his lights, into a servile American protectorate.
The inheritance that came Zawahiri's way in the aftermath of the death of bin Laden bespeaks the ironies history has thrown at this jihadist project. Mr. Mubarak, the military autocrat who had been Zawahiri's tormentor, is but a shadow of his old self—the pharaoh of years past, sick in captivity, with charges of corruption and murder pending against him. A big, boisterous revolution demolished his reign.
But this revolution was unkind to Zawahiri as well. The country had forgotten and gone beyond him. The young men and women who had filled Liberation Square wanted nothing of that deadly standoff between the ruler's tyranny and the jihadists' reign of piety and terror. Egyptians, like other Arabs of late, had come to understand the way the autocrats and the theocrats needed each other, fed off one another. Nothing grew in that barren middle between the rulers in the saddle and the theocrats in prison or in hiding.
The revolution had swept clean the Egyptian landscape. No one was paying heed to Zawahiri's odyssey; his sojourn in far away Hindu Kush was of no interest to this revolution. Countries can be fickle and willful in what they retain and discard. And Egypt, an ancient and sly country that had known all sorts of changes of fortune and loyalties, was in one of those historic moments of reassessment. Beyond Egypt, there was the wider Arab Spring overwhelming the jihadist enterprise, drawing onto itself the hopes of the aggrieved and the disgruntled.
Zawahiri, of course, made it seem as though fair winds attended his enterprise. "Today, praise God, America is not facing an individual or group or a faction," he said upon his anointment as al Qaeda's leader. "It is facing a Muslim nation that is in revolt, having risen from its lethargy to a renaissance of jihad." He paid tribute to his fallen companion and took bin Laden's burial at sea as evidence of America's fear of the appeal of his predecessor.
But surely Zawahiri understands the diminished state of his bequest. Born in 1951—six years before bin Laden—he was a teenager when he chose the Islamist way. It was the mid-1960s. The Nasser regime's brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and all movements Islamic, was at its peak. In 1966, the signal figure of the Islamists, Sayyid Qutb, the most talented of their expositors, was sent to the gallows. The prisons were filled with politico-religious activists, and those who survived opted for quiescence or exile. It was at the nadir of political Islam that young Ayman flocked to it.
A child of Cairo's elite neighborhood the Maadi, Zawahiri was born of Egyptian aristocracy. His father was a renowned professor of medicine. More prestigious still, his grandfather was the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt's and Sunni Islam's most revered university. There was no less distinction on his maternal side. His mother's family, the Azzams, were people of genuine power and standing—a relative was the first secretary-general of the League of Arab States in the 1940s.
Alas, for all his privilege, we know well the trail of Ayman Zawahiri—activism in secondary school, fanatical religiosity, and unbound admiration for the martyred Sayyid Qutb. He was picked up by the police within weeks of Sadat's Oct. 6, 1981 assassination. By all accounts, he was a bit player in that drama and didn't know the assassins. But a friend of his, Issam Qamri, an army officer on the fringe of the conspiracy, had more information.
Under torture, Zawahiri gave up Qamri's whereabouts and led the police to his hiding place. In prison, Qamri, who would later die in a shootout with security forces, forgave Zawahiri for his betrayal. But the guilt and shame remained. Montasser al-Zayyat, an Egyptian lawyer and biographer of Zawahiri who once knew him well, says that quitting Egypt for Pakistan and Afghanistan was in part motivated by Zawahiri's quest for penance and redemption.
The aristocratic boy who came to political Islam at 15 is now 60 years old. Zawahiri watchers say that the quarrelsome man, all his life divisive and unforgiving, will falter; that he lacks "combat experience" and the manners of bin Laden. Last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that bin Laden had a "peculiar charisma that Zawahiri does not have," and that the new al Qaeda leader's "Egyptian roots and focus" are destined to limit his appeal to "militants from other countries."
Yet on the face of it, Zawahiri's Egyptian background shouldn't be a detriment. Egypt is where modern political Islam was born, where the Muslim Brotherhood was established in the late 1920s. And the pedigree of Zawahiri has a decidedly more religious aura than that of bin Laden, the son of a Yemeni entrepreneur who had come to wealth with the patronage of the House of Saud.
True, there had been an Egyptian obsession to Zawahiri's early quest. But we would do well to remember that it was Zawahiri himself who supplied that crucial distinction between the "near enemy" (the Arab regimes) and the "far enemy" (the United States), and who opined that it was right and permissible, nay obligatory, to strike at the far enemy in an attempt to bring down the Arab tyrannies. He, like bin Laden, is owed his measure of retribution.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.