On October 20th, 2011 the world witnessed the final moments of Libya’s former leader Muammar Gadhafi. And with that the Arab World rid itself of yet another dictator, and came one step closer towards democracy. This was a well deserved victory for the people of Libya. It was a victory no less momentous than the flight of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and the arrest of Hosni Mubarak.
With the death of Gadhafi, the people of Libya celebrated in the streets and sent a clear warning to the dictators of Syria and Yemen—“you’re next!” However, the feeling I got while watching Ghadafi stupefied, spattering blood, and beat up by the crowd of fighters hauling him off the back of a pickup truck was neither joy nor excitement. While such sentiments are certainly the prerogative of the Libyan people whom Gadhafi repressed and brutalized for four decades, I felt somewhat nauseated.
Perhaps this was because the scene of a deposed Arab leader, battered by the mob and whose fate was sealed, resembles countless videos documenting crimes against humanity committed by current Arab regimes desperately clinging to power. It also reminds me of scenes depicting Saddam Hussein’s capture and his eventual execution in 2006, or videos uploaded by extremist Jihadi groups depicting the decapitation of their hostages in response to the US-led invasion of Iraq. All these videos depict graphic footage of the Arab world in great political turmoil.
From the perspective of an Arab expatriate, the Arab Spring—the end of dictatorship and the beginning of the democratic process in the Arab world—is an extremely positive movement in history. However, the “snuff films” and gruesome scenes posted on the internet and sometimes broadcast on TV imbue this positive movement with a great deal of horror. It would seem to an unsuspecting western audience that the Arab world is nothing more than a violent, political arena with little by way of compassion. It would be like going back in time to the year 1789 and watching daily videos of the French revolution as the monarchy executed the masses under the guillotine or the angry mob stormed Bastille and killed all the palace guards. Revolution, no matter how justified, is an ugly business. And nowadays, cell phone cameras, the internet and satellite TV give people complete access to the bloody side of the Arab Spring.
One cannot help feeling that the Arab public image—that being Arab—in the 21st century is a bit of an agonizing experience, especially in countries like the US where anti-Arabism and Islamophobia are on the rise. The toppling of each authoritarian regime in the Arab World comes with great many fatalities, each revolution bloodier than the one before it. The question is how much death and destruction will remaining dictators bring to their own people and how will their gruesome fate be recorded and broadcast for the whole world to see. I only hope that the videos documenting the bloodiness of the Arab Spring as it drives a wedge into the heart of dictatorship, does not inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes of Arabs propagated by some media outlets.
The freedom fighters and youth of the Arab Spring are fighting to bring an end to the cruel punishment and wholesale violence that they suffered at the hands of their authoritarian regimes. They need to be careful—in a world in which their actions are caught on video—that they are not sending the world the opposite message. To this end, I hope that whatever dictator falls next will be handed over to stand trial and not killed by an angry mob in public for the world to see.