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.