x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lies of old leaders provide the fuel for region's unrest

The Arab street has experienced an awakening in the last two months, and the old language of deception will no longer be tolerated.

'If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, may have little in common with Muammar Qaddafi. But his words seem to hold true for dictators across the ages, especially those fighting for survival in the Arab world.

On Wednesday night, in a rambling two-hour speech on Libyan State television, Col Muammar Qaddafi told his people, and the watching world, that he in fact holds no constitutional power over the country and that the Libyan people are free to rule themselves as they wish.

"I congratulate the Libyan people on the Declaration of Citizens Power in 1977, when I gave up my powers to Libyans," he stammered.

It was the latest in a long list of confusing, intelligence-insulting messages from the Libyan leader to his citizens in recent days, the victims of death squads, live gunfire and air strikes by their own military.

What has become clear is that the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others, continue to treat their citizens with barely disguised contempt. First came the violent clashes. Now, it's tongue lashes.

As Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli burns around them, the region's despots have increasingly resorted to the same meaningless oratory and dictatorial language they've used to pull the wool over their people's eyes for the last 40 years.

In his last speech as president, Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, offered concessions to his people and confirmed that he will not run for office in 2014.

It was far too little, too late. He had badly misjudged the level of discontent among a population seething after the self-immolation of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi.

The next day, January 14, he stepped down. In retrospect, he now seems a paragon of reason in comparison to what was to come in the following weeks.

Hosni Mubarak, it has been claimed since his ousting, was living in an "ivory tower", shielded by his family and advisors from the true extent of the anger in Egypt. This will come as no surprise to anyone who saw his delusional final address on February 10.

With millions of his own countrymen venting their frustration across the country, he stubbornly declared that he will not bend to "outside interference". The disconnect with the aspirations of his people, developed over his 30-year reign, were summarised with these two words.

Meanwhile in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, having already played his "Won't run again" card, was reaching for a tried and trusted favourite.

"There is an operations room in Tel Aviv and is controlled by the White House," he said, once again blaming regional unrest on outside forces. The absurdity of belittling the desperate plight of many Yemenis aside, his statement ignored the fact that he had covered up US army strikes against al Qa'eda, as the WikiLeaks cables in late November revealed.

For illogical - some might say insane - ramblings, though, Muammar Qaddafi remains in a league of his own.

Having declared the demonstrations in Libya "international terrorism" and "not people's power", his tone continues to switch from threatening to remorseful, from vowing to fight "to the last drop of blood" to mourning of "Libya's children". Naturally, the violence is once again blamed on outsiders, this time Osama bin Laden, the al Qa'eda leader, who is apparently arming the country's youth.

"We don't know when this violence will come to an end. It's clear you should take the guns away from the kids," he rages. "It's all because of bin Laden."

Qaddafi's son, Saif al Islam, long seen as the family's voice of reason, seems intent in following in his father's footsteps, mimicking the colonel's delusions with unscripted TV appearances. In one he denied any killings of civilians or resignations by Libya's ambassadors. (The International Criminal Court, for their part, are investigating Qaddafi and his three sons for alleged war crimes).

In some instances, the delusions have been completely irrational, seemingly ignorant of the unrest in the streets. "People were getting all their daily needs," Col Qaddafi reasoned. "Why did you have to get involved with the bin Laden ideology". In other words: Libyans should be happy with the bare minimum.

For years, dictators have accused the West and foreigners of sowing unrest, diverting attention from their countries' dire socioeconomic situations - and their own failings. For years these tactics worked. Now, however, leaders seem to have misjudged the mood of their overwhelmingly young populations in the 21st century.

Plenty has been written about the use of Facebook and Twitter by the Arab demonstrators, but more important than the media is the message. The young, tech-savvy protesters are no longer burning effigies of US presidents or western flags. Nor are they turning to conspiracy theories to explain their hardships. They are demanding more jobs, better pay and a respect for their individual rights.

From Tahrir Square's "Game over" and "Leave", to Libya's "Yes we can, too" and "Newsbreak: Qaddafi Lies", the messages today are succinct, news friendly, and, crucially, in English.

It is said that the first casualty of conflict is the truth. Like Col Qaddafi, it is time for this cliché to be retired. The Arab street has experienced an awakening in the last two months, and the old language of deception will no longer be tolerated. The message from the people is clear: you can run, but you can't lie.