RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—News of Osama bin Laden's death reached a Middle East that has been vastly transformed in recent months by popular nonviolent uprisings against the type of regimes that helped first inspire his terrorist organization.
For many in the Middle East, the kind of violent jihad pursued by Mr. bin Laden had become increasingly unacceptable, with growing public disgust for suicide bombings and civilian targets, and the success of nonviolent rebellions that led to the ousters of authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
"For a long time political Islam was the paradigm, the galvanizer, the zeitgeist," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "That's what got the masses out and what the young people sacrificed for. Now…people are immolating themselves for human rights, and democracy and social justice."
Mr. bin Laden's loyalists found a fertile recruiting ground across much of the Middle East. They argued that an ideal world of justice and righteousness was being perverted by authoritarian governments in the Mideast—and infidel governments in the West—interested only in their own selfish policies instead of the public good.
Saudi officials took the lead in the 1990s of trying to isolate Mr. bin Laden and limiting his ability to launch attacks against their ruling family and nation. His exile to Afghanistan was in part due to the fact that the Saudis had revoked his citizenship. Saudi Arabia intensified its efforts to discredit al Qaeda after a wave of terrorist bombings in Riyadh in 2003.
A Saudi official said he hoped that "elimination of al-Qaeda leader is a step towards combating terrorism, dismantling its cells, and destroying the deviant ideology and those who support it." Many other Arab governments did not publish officials statements, but some officials said privately that they celebrated Mr. bin Laden's demise.
Response was mixed in the Arab world, where Mr. bin Laden was alternately praised as a folk hero for standing up to an unpopular U.S. superpower and a scourge for bringing the wrath of a vengeful West to Muslims across the world.
The death of Mr. bin Laden is "good for everyone—for Muslims and Christians. He killed a lot of people. He even killed a lot of Muslims in New York," said Azzam Estawro, a 65-year-old a civil engineer who was buying newspapers on a Cairo street corner. "But I think there is sympathy for him. Some people loved him."
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful Islamist political group, condemned what it called the assassination of Mr. bin Laden. The group, an outlawed political and charitable organization before mass demonstrations removed Egypt's former regime from power in February, said Muslims everywhere have "suffered" from a perceived association between Islam and terrorism.
"The Brotherhood announces that they are against using violence in general and assassinations and that they support a fair trial for any suspect whatever the crime is," the statement read.
The Palestinian group Hamas, which has run the Gaza Strip since 2007, gave one of the sharpest responses to Mr. bin Laden's killing. Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Hamas government, said the killing "continues an American policy that is based on the bloody oppression of Arabs and Muslims," according to a statement.
"[Mr. Haniyeh] strongly condemns the assassination of any human or Muslim Mujahed. He asked God's forgiveness and acceptance of bin Laden," the Hamas statement said.
The response surprised some Palestinian analysts. Hamas has long sought to distance itself from al Qaeda, seeking to gain acceptance as a resistance movement against Israel, rather than an international terrorist organization. Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
"I really didn't expect it," said Mkhaimar Abusada, associate professor of political science at the Al-Azhar University in Gaza. He said the Hamas statement could jeopardize efforts to secure international recognition and Western funding for a unified Palestinian state. Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian factions that govern the larger West Bank, are due to sign a reconciliation agreement Wednesday after years of bitter rivalry.
Mr. Abusada attributed the harshness of the statement to the Hamas leadership's desire to avoid angering Gaza's extremist Salafi movements, which have gained in strength and numbers in recent years.
An ear for popular opinion may also have played a role, with elections next year expected to be part of Wednesday's unification deal. Palestinians in Gaza expressed sadness and anger at the news.
"Osama bin Laden and [his colleague] Ayman Zawahiri both supported the resistance in Gaza," said Ayman Jeber, a 28-year-old salesman in a computer shop in Gaza. "I understand that Americans were sad at the loss of their citizens, but don't forget that we lost thousands of our people and we are still losing them."
Fayez Meqdad, 26, an unemployed graduate in Gaza, said "I am against his attacks on innocent people, but in the end, he is a Moslem and an Arab."
Mr. bin Laden's puritanical form of Islam is an outgrowth and radical form of the dominant strain practiced widely in Saudi Arabia known as Wahhabism, which celebrates the time period in which the Prophet Mohammed lived as the most pure and ideal model for society.
The Saudis have spent years trying to re-educate citizens who have followed the violent philosophy espoused by al Qaeda and to shepherd their society away from religious leaders who support acts of terrorism, often with mixed results. U.S. and Saudi officials have said Riyadh has successfully hunted and largely exterminated—or exported—its own homegrown terrorists.
The battle for hearts and minds, however, was largely won independently of any official campaign, as the Arab public grew increasingly uncomfortable and disgusted by suicide bombings across the region in which local al Qaeda cells killed large numbers of civilians, including children.
Although al Qaeda's popularity was already on the wane, the Saudis and other Arab rulers are likely to remain vigilant in their counterterrorism operations in the wake of Mr. bin Laden's death, due to the hard-core militant Islamists who still exist in the region and believe killing in the name of God is justified.
In recent years, the most active of the world's al Qaeda cells has emerged in Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the branch is called, launched a failed assassination attempt in August 2009 against Saudi Arabia's top counterterrorism official.
It is unclear what impact, if any, the killing of Mr. bin Laden will have on that group. AQAP believes in the same religious and philosophical tenets as the original al Qaeda network, but works independently and recruits locally to achieve the same aim, according to intelligence officials.
Rami Khouri, an Arab political analyst and columnist, warned that the underlying problems in Arab and other societies that led to al Qaeda's emergence still exist across much of the region.
"The death of bin Laden is a great political, psychological, and intelligence victory for the U.S. and its allies, but we shouldn't make the mistake that many in the West made in his death that we made in his life, of focusing too much on the individual and therefore missing the ideological impetus that created al Qaeda in the first place," said Mr. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, a think tank at the American University of Beirut.
The U.S. State Department issued a warning against possible al Qaeda retaliation attacks in the wake of Mr. bin Laden's death. In Yemen, where three-month-old popular protests have been calling for regime change, some people expressed fear that their longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would continue to use the threat of al Qaeda to justify the continuation of his tenure. Mr. Saleh has often tried to manipulate support from Western allies by claiming he was the only bulwark standing against an al Qaeda takeover of the country.
"I don't think that this means a lot to Yemen," said 24-year-old Ibrahim al-Saleh from San'a, about Mr. bin Laden's death. "However, the president may exploit the news and claim that al Qaeda is preparing to retaliate."—Matt Bradley in Cairo, Nour Malas in Beirut, Bill Spindle in Dubai, Marc Champion in the Gaza Strip and Erik Stier in San'a, Yemen, contributed to this article.
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