Osama bin Laden's deputy is urging fellow Egyptians to establish Islamic rule over the country after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who sought to curb Islamists throughout his nearly 30 years in power.
Al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahri made the appeal in an Internet audio message released Friday, his second recording since Mubarak was forced out on Feb. 11. It is unlikely his call for an Islamic state will resonate among the overwhelming majority of those who took part in the 18-day popular uprising and seek a democratic system to replace Mubarak's autocratic rule.
"The Egyptian people's demand to establish Islamic rule is one of the most prominent Egyptian realities, a demand by the vast majority which foreign powers try to deprive them of," al-Zawahri insisted.
Before becoming deputy al-Qaida leader, the Egyptian al-Zawahri headed Al-Jihad, an extremist group that fought Mubarak's regime in the 1990s with a wave of bombings and other attacks that also targeted foreign tourists.
The protesters who eventually toppled Mubarak's regime included people from all walks of life, including secular activists and — in smaller numbers — Islamists, particularly from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political opposition movement. While the Brotherhood advocates the creation of a purist Islamic state in Egypt, it seems unlikely it would have enough support to dominate in a free election and push through such a goal.
Though some in al-Qaida have Brotherhood roots, the terror group and other jihadists despise the movement for participating in elections.
Instead al-Zawahri appealed to the Muslim scholars of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's pre-eminent institution of learning, to "rise up and lead the nation's struggle to build the Islamic sharia (law)."
It was a turnaround for the al-Qaida No. 2, who has often ridiculed the Cairo-based institution for following the dictates of the Egyptian government. Al-Azhar has also made efforts to combat extremism and promote moderate views and has always had close links with the government, which appoints it chief.
In Friday's recording al-Zawahri called Al-Azhar's scholars the "lions of the nation."
He accused the U.S. of seeking to spoil the uprising by installing a puppet regime in Egypt and in Tunisia, where protesters also overthrew a longtime autocratic leader.
"America has kept silent for 30 years about the corruption and thefts of Mubarak and his family and did not move to speak about the transfer of power in Egypt until after the security apparatus failed to quell the Egyptian uprising," he said.
He warned Egyptians not to trust Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Armed Forces Supreme Council, which took over control from Mubarak and says it will implement democratic reforms and return the country to civilian rule.
"Don't be deceived by Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's man and lackey who is trusted by the Americans, who consider him as the guarantor of stability in Egypt," Al-Zawahri said.
He also urged Yemenis to continue their struggle to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime, which he said turned Yemen into an American spy base. Yemen is home to an al-Qaida offshoot.