Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri's succession of Osama bin Laden as emir of Al-Qaeda did not come as a surprise to many.
The Egyptian doctor had been a companion to bin Laden for decades. His name was the most widely circulated of all potential candidates to become the leader of al-Qaeda since bin Laden's death on May 2nd in a US commando raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
But what does al-Zawahiri's ascendance to the top of al-Qaeda mean under current circumstances?
Al-Zawahiri will undoubtedly face a number of challenges, some of which are inherited from the bin Laden era, and some are related to the current situation in the Middle East, particularly the so-called "Arab Spring".
Inherited challenges are nothing new to al-Zawahiri, who knows them all too well, especially the continuous bleeding in the ranks of al-Qaeda's General Command (not the subsidiaries). The security pressures the organisation is under, especially in the tribal areas along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, cost al-Qaeda a number of prominent leaders who were killed in attacks by Pakistani forces or by pilotless drones.
This pressure has apparently forced the organisation's leaders to abandon their strongholds in those areas and seek safer quarters, including densely populated areas. This signifies that al-Qaeda leaders are constantly looking for new safe havens in order to regroup, instead of using them to build up their forces and prepare for future operations, as safe havens normally afford organisations the opportunity to accomplish. This was the case with the former emirate of Afghanistan during Taliban rule, when training camps "graduated" a large number of militants, including individuals who participated in the September 11th, 2001 attacks.
In addition to the continuous security challenges facing the leadership of al-Qaeda, it is clear that al-Zawahiri will have to deal with the additional challenge of regulating the relationship between his emirate and the organisation's branches around the world. However, as dealing with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq illustrated, regulating such relationships is not an easy proposition, especially when the leadership is geographically distant from its branches and communication between them is difficult, as the case is now.
Among other inherited challenges is the issue of finding a solution to the dilemma of the "aversion" some jihadists have towards al-Qaeda's practices, even though those jihadists are supposedly the principal allies of the organisation, which claims to follow a jihadist methodology. This means al-Zawahiri has to determine how to reconcile the new leadership of al-Qaeda and jihadist organizations that have publicly renounced its practices, such as the Islamic Group in Egypt and the jihadist ideologue, Dr. Fadl (Sayyed Imam Sharif, who preceded Zawahiri as emir of the Islamic Jihad group), in addition to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
All those groups have issued reviews that were vehemently critical of practices attributed to al-Qaeda or its subsidiaries and deemed contrary to the teachings of Islam, which had prompted al-Zawahiri to personally respond to the criticism, issue criticisms of the reviews, and defend al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri's responses ignited a fierce controversy between him and those he assailed in his responses, specifically Dr. Fadl and leaders of the Islamic Group in Egypt.
The most crucial inherited challenge al-Zawahiri faces, however, will undoubtedly be the "Arab Spring" which has demonstrated that Arab masses, especially the youth, do not sympathise with al-Qaeda and its ideas, and its methods in particular, even if the goals are sometimes congruent.
The goal of regime change, for example, is shared by al-Qaeda and the majority of the Arab population. But while al-Qaeda states that the goal is to overthrow the regime and replace it with one that applies Islamic Sharia laws, the prevailing opinion among the masses is that the regime ought to be changed because it is either undemocratic, or dictatorial, repressive, authoritarian, unjust, and does not permit a peaceful transfer of power, not because it does not rule in accordance with Islamic Sharia.
Much has been written about how, in some respects, the popular revolts in Arab countries surprised not only the incumbent Arab presidents, such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but also al-Qaeda.
Al-Zawahiri may have been among those taken by surprise, due to the fact that his group, Islamic Jihad, which he merged with al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, never believed in peaceful change of government, arguing instead, since the 1970s, that change can only be achieved through the use of force. Islamic Jihad's ideology was premised on the formation of armed cells, in the military specifically, to surreptitiously work towards overthrowing ruling regimes that it considered apostate, such as the former ruling regime in Egypt.
The merger with al-Qaeda does not necessarily imply that al-Zawahiri changed his thinking, only that he gave a higher priority to fighting the West over fighting the Egyptian regime, under the pretext of "incapacity", after the Egyptian regime had defeated Islamic Jihad militarily in the 1990s.
In view of that, al-Zawahiri may not have expected change to come to Egypt the way it did. The people of Egypt, millions of whom came out calling for regime change, did not carry pictures of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda played no known role in mobilising the people who took to the streets demanding peaceful change and renounced the use of violence.
Now that Mubarak's regime has been toppled, al-Zawahiri no doubt tracks the situation in Egypt, his home country. But despite the fall of the regime, the situation that has emerged probably does not appeal to al-Zawahiri, especially as he watches his jihadist "brothers" establish political parties to participate in the elections, which the government that was formed by the military - who took over from Mubarak after he was deposed – promises will be fair and free, a kind of election Egypt was not accustomed to during the Mubarak regime.
Holding such elections - despite pledges of fairness and freedom – would likely not please the new leadership of al-Qaeda. Elections, political pluralism, co-existence between secular and national parties, and the peaceful transfer of power are all concepts that are not in circulation in al-Qaeda. Just as they did not exist in a true sense during the Mubarak regime, which did hold elections that were neither free nor fair, and at the end of the day the regime did not permit a genuine transfer of power from the government to the opposition.
For that reason, the position the new al-Qaeda leadership adopts prior to the upcoming elections in Egypt in September is of great interest, especially al-Zawahiri's position on both the nomination and voting aspects of the participation of jihadists and other Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist) in the elections.
Al-Zawahiri faces the same issue with Tunisia where the new government is preparing to conduct new competitive elections with the participation of Islamists, who were suppressed during the Ben Ali regime. It is likely that what al-Zawahiri has to say about Egypt would also apply to Tunisia, but his problem with Tunisian Islamists might be thornier because of the fact that Tunisian Islamists hold views that contrast with al-Qaeda's views, specifically the freedom of women outlined in the Tunisian Constitution.
The biggest "Arab Spring" problem al-Zawahiri will have to address is the situation in Libya where NATO has taken charge of protecting civilians against attacks by the regime of Colonel Moammer Gadaffi, a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Al-Zawahiri knows without a doubt that NATO intervention enjoyed wide support in Libya, particularly among opponents of Gadaffi, who know that without the intervention by the UN Security Council, which in March authorised the protection of civilians, the Libyan leader would have marched on their cities and annihilated the rebels, as he almost did when his tanks reached Benghazi and threatened to wipe out the opposition in their own strongholds.
Al-Zawahiri has so far maintained a position that the rebels must fight NATO if it lands troops in Libya. He undoubtedly knows that NATO has no intention of occupying that Arab country and would have declined to intervene against Gadaffi if it did not know for certain that he would have slain thousands of people in Benghazi. Gadaffi had just threatened to pursue his opponents from house to house and alley to alley.
In conclusion, it is clear that al-Zawahiri is facing a myriad of challenges, whether they are tied to security (stopping the bleeding in the ranks) or to ideology (aversion by some jihadists to al-Qaeda's practices). Above all, the biggest challenge is determining the reason why such a wide gap exists between al-Qaeda and a large segment of the Arab masses even if their goals converge at times.