Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”

Twelve years have passed since the fateful day of October 20th 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator of Libya for over three decades, met his end at the hands of rebels. This execution marked the climax of a series of events we now know as the Arab Spring.

To fully grasp the significance of the Arab Spring, we need to journey back to December 2010, when a Tunisian vendor who sold vegetables burned himself to death, driven to desperation by police harassment and government abuse. The shockwaves of this one man’s protest resonated far beyond its initial boundaries. The entire geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region underwent a profound transformation within the span of a year.

As the haunting images of this man in flames spread like wildfire on various social media platforms, Tunisians rallied against the government and its corruption. What was initially a spark in Tunisia soon ignited similar fervor and anger in neighboring countries including Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt. In these countries, especially the youth, took to the streets to protest against oppressive authoritarian regimes who in many cases had suppressed people through a variety of tactics to stifle dissent.

In Libya, Gaddafi remained obstinate, refusing to relinquish power or leave Libya. Instead, he doubled down and vowed to extinguish all opposition. Ultimately, the rebels, with the help of various benefactor states, ranging from Western nations to those in the Arab world, found Gaddafi and killed him.

At the time, I was a twelve-year old caught in the midst of a historical wave of events reshaping the very fabric of the political landscape of the region. Naively, I recall my elation at the news of my school’s cancellation during Egypt’s wave of protests during the Arab spring. Egypt is, and was, not known for its snow days; instead, it was the rare, relentless spring sandstorms that would force the anticipated announcement. Yet, in late January of 2011, school was canceled due to political unrest.

I look back at those few weeks with a sense of fondness. Once my sister and I completed our school work, we were granted the privilege of watching movies. Initially, the expectation was that we would soon return to our normal routine, but the days turned into weeks. We were “locked down”, somewhat akin to the lockdown era during COVID times. I was rarely allowed to venture outside due to safety concerns, and the men in the building would take turns guarding the entrance. My dad would venture out for food every few days and promptly return. To my simple, pre-teen brain, however, I was content to spend time with my family and to embark on the feat of watching Lord of the Rings, the extended version. In contrast, the gravity of the situation around me and its significance eluded my comprehension at that age.

In time, the dictator in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was ousted by popular demand and resigned in February 2011. For myself, school resumed and life reverted to its everyday rhythm. Nevertheless, the oversized impact of one Tunisian man’s desperate protest against his government continued to reverberate throughout the years.

The image of his self-immolation seared into the minds of countless Arabs throughout the region. It conveyed the pain and suffering more powerfully than a thousand words ever could. Today, a dozen years later, the proliferation of images on social media has grown exponentially. The photographs and videos shared on these platforms possess the extraordinary power to move people deeply, much as they did during the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, the digital world has been plagued with doctored images and “deepfake” videos designed to engineer reactions out of us. It has become increasingly challenging to  discern the truth, and I do not see how things will get better with the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence. When we encounter images that stir our emotions, whether heartwarming or heart wrenching, exercising discernment and caution has become more imperative than ever before.

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