There were no banners hailing Osama bin Laden in Egypt's Tahrir Square; no photos of his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri at anti-government protests in Tunisia, Libya or even Yemen, a key staging ground for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and bin Laden's ancestral home. An occasional image would appear, now and then, almost as an afterthought, say as a sticker on the rifle butt of a rebel in Benghazi, who really wanted to oust a dictator and establish democracy - not al-Qaeda's Caliphate.
During these past few months of momentous political upheaval in the Middle East, Al-Qaeda's leaders were barely seen or heard. Their feeble attempts to claim a role in unshackling Arabs from their decades-old, repressive (and largely pro-American) regimes were ignored. In many ways, Osama bin Laden and his band of extremist brothers were already largely irrelevant in this region long before news of the terror mastermind's death in Pakistan. The movement was marginalized and "little more than a symbol as a result of his past achievements," as Peter Harling, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, told TIME. (See a Bin Laden family album.)
Bin Laden's appeal to the so-called Arab street was overstated by secular regimes like that of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, which had vested interests in claiming to keep the extremist bogeyman at bay. If anything, Al-Qaeda's influence and ideology were perhaps more potent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than in Zawahiri's homeland of Egypt, or bin Laden's Saudi Arabia. But even in those South Asian countries, the homegrown Taliban seem to be leading the "anti-imperialist, anti-Crusader" charge, rather than the Arab foreigners. "There is a reality to this Salafi Jihadi phenomenon, it's real, there's no doubt about it," the ICG's Harling says. Still, "regimes throughout the region have exploited this phenomenon to make their case for conservative policies and a lack of reforms." Ironically, it was those same repressive polices and lack of reforms that helped bring about the demise of the despots.