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As we approach the final stretch of the year of the “Arab Spring”, as it has been termed, new challenges and ventures have begun to appear.

Much has been said around the clock over the past few months, creating a mountain of rumours and news that has spread and circulated from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

It all started in Tunisia. The first spark was ignited by the story of [Mohamed] Bouazizi, a young Tunisian man who allegedly burnt himself to death after being slapped across the face by a Tunisian policewoman, in the town of Sidi Bou Said. It later transpired that this piece of news was false or at least highly dubious, even though dozens or indeed hundreds of articles were based on it. There was a firm popular belief in the story, not to mention scores of psychological, social and political analyses by acknowledged experts and so on. Most probably, the majority of such experts did not even bother to confirm the facts of the story; they just said what they wanted to say and carried on.

What about the other news?

We all remember the story of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s degree, which he obtained from the London School of Economics and political Science (LSE). It was later alleged that the degree was in fact sold to Saif al-Islam. A lot of analysis and jokes followed, but according to a BBC source, LSE Interim Director Judith Rees denied the claim that Saif al-Islam “bought” the PhD degree he had obtained in 2008.

Rees’ denial came in response to the results of an independent investigation. The investigation directed strong criticism towards the links formerly connecting LSE to the Gaddafi regime, and its acceptance of £1.5 million (US$ 2.3 million) in donations from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, previously headed by Saif al-Islam. Rees maintained that the investigation could not find any evidence to prove that the PhD awarded to Saif al-Islam in 2008 was actually sold to him. From what we can see here, the report criticised this distinguished academic institution for its dubious financial transactions, yet there is no substantial evidence to corroborate the story of the degree being sold.

Will this revelation change anything in the eyes of those who circulated the story originally, or those who have heard it throughout the entire year?

What about news in places other than Libya? News which has been consumed amidst the pandemonium and pitfalls of the Arab Spring?

It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth itself, but it is also the first casualty of revolutions. In order for a revolution to maintain its initial momentum, it needs to build on its own imagination, individual heroism, sacred blood, heroic martyrs and of course the villains which it is rising up against. Here, neither accuracy nor credibility is important. Instead, imaginative portrayals are promoted for the purpose of popular mobilization. All is fair in love and war, as they say.

The late Iraqi poet Maarouf Al Rasafi once gave an account of a time he witnessed a prominent figure giving out alms at night, without being noticed by anyone else. However, the man was secretly also engaging in a less virtuous night-time activity. Al-Rusafi contemplated this and said:

The bulk of what history has recorded and presented

To its readers, is nothing but fabrication.

Even when we look at our contemporaries, we are suspicious,

So how can we be certain about what happened in the past?

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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