No one could fully comprehend the depth and the magnitude of change and transformation the Arab political system, its leaders and people are going through, without juxtaposing the sobering image that all Arabs were exposed to last week.
The scene was an unthinkable spectacle. A frail and ailing former president and strongman of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, in the defendant's cage, humbled and lying on a stretcher and being grilled before his own people. The man who ruled with an iron fist for 30 years was finally brought to book.
To add insult to injury, the Police Academy in Cairo where Mubarak was being tried, until a few months ago bore his name. That unthinkable scene was real and not imagined. As Gulf News Editor in Chief Abdul Hamid Ahmad aptly put it in his column on Friday, "Hosni Mubarak appeared in court at a public hearing on Wednesday and beat all Ramadan soap operas. It was genuine reality TV."
After all, the trial of Mubarak on the third day of Ramadan provided some stiff competition to the month-long soap opera mayhem many Arabs and Muslims get glued to on their TV sets throughout the month of fasting. That scene, which few Egyptians even dreamed of witnessing in their lifetime, summarises and captures the essence and magnitude of change the region is going through. Provided the change comes to fruition.
Ironically, through it, we are both making history and living it. As a Gulf News editorial summed it, "It was shocking. Yet exhilarating." Even Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, the former president of Tunisia, who is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, was tried in absentia and sentenced to over 50 years in jail.
Some would argue that Mubarak, the former president of the largest Arab country, Egypt, which has over 80 million people and a rich history, is not the first Arab leader to be put on trial. Saddam Hussain, the Iraqi tyrant, preceded him and was put on trial a few years ago before he was executed. I would say yes, but Saddam was captured and interrogated by Americans. He was later grilled by Iraqis, but during the American occupation and under US consultation and oversight. Mubarak is different, he was deposed in an 18-day revolt, after which the army stepped in and took over and ruled through the Supreme Military Council.
Who could have imagined that in a few months in 2011, the long-entrenched Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who brags about being the dean of all Arab rulers and the king of kings of Africa, along with Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, Mubarak of Egypt and Bin Ali of Tunisia, having among them over 125 years in power, would be either deposed, in self-imposed exile, humiliated or nursing their wounds and burns?
This is big stuff, and a watershed moment in the Arab collective psyche. These seismic revolutionary changes are emboldening the new generation, which has been more successful and more determined in carrying out the changes that their grandfathers, after the liberation from imperialist powers, and their fathers, who were intimidated by the tyrannical rule of their oppressors, were unable to do. The image of Mubarak, his sons Ala'a and Jamal (who was being groomed to succeed him), his menacing interior minister Habib Al Adly, all caged and raising their hands to state that they were present and denying the charges of corruption, profiteering and giving orders to the security forces to shoot demonstrators, was an eye-opener.
Those scenes will be forever stuck in the collective memories of leaders and the people. It will give impetus to those who are pushing and demanding change and, hopefully, the humiliating spectacle of Mubarak humbled before his own people and the whole world will serve as a warning to some beleaguered leaders to avert such a fate.
But the scene of Mubarak, his sons and his former interior minister in a cage, which should have evoked fear and trepidation in the hearts of autocratic rulers and tyrants, has apparently failed to do so. The images were not received accordingly. The mayhem, killing and crushing of the uprisings in Syria and Libya by the regimes of Bashar Al Assad and Gaddafi respectively, is going on with even more brutality. Hama last Friday was besieged and completely sealed off; the water, electricity and communications were cut. For the first time in its history, no Friday prayers were held in Ramadan. Witnesses claim the minarets of mosques were targeted.
It seems Mubarak's trial has made some tyrants rely on excessive use of force to avert his fate. Instead of learning lessons and accommodating the demands of the masses, they are relying on brute force.
But these tumultuous events and developments should put an end to patronising suggestions of "Arab exceptionalism", a term that has been coined by western governments and academics.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University.