Ed Blanche reports ‘There is still a long way to go to achieve democracy”.

Muammar Gaddafi is dead, put to death on 20th October 2011, by a Libyan mob howling for his blood to avenge more than four decades of his megalomaniacal madness.

Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, another tyrant, narrowly survived an attempt to blow him up in his own palace in Sana’a on June 3rd, but was forced to step down on 27 February.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s latter day Pharaoh, forced to relinquish power on 11th February 2011, is facing a probable death sentence at a Cairo trial, which he attends on a sickbed inside a cage, accused of mass murder and three decades of corruption.

These three former Arab strongmen, who once seemed so invincible and untouchable, were all bought down by the convulsions of the so called Arab Spring that erupted in Tunisia in January 2011, and is now threatening to topple President Bashar Assad of Syria as well. The man-in-the-street uprisings of the Arab Spring have been hailed as ushering in a new democracy in a region long under the heel of tyrannical regimes, kept in power by the Americans and the region’s former colonial powers for strategic purposes throughout the Cold War and the Pax Americana that followed.

But regime change, as the fate of this once-un-assailable leader has shown, is a risky, and usually messy, business. One of the more sinister aspects of the dictator-toppling Arab Spring is the marked increase in the number of executions in the Middle Eastern states, which many see as intended to stifle that same dissent.

In spite of a “significant reduction” in the number of countries that have the death penalty, Amnesty International (AI) reported a sharp increase in executions in the region. ‘The escalating use of the death penalty in the Middle east is seen as a tactic by the authorities to spread fear among dissidents in order to prevent them from participating in pro-democracy movements”, Britain’s liberal daily, the Guardian observed.

AI said that at least 676 judicial executions are known to have been carried out around the world in 2011, excluding China- where there are reportedly thousands every year- up from 527 a year earlier.

Confirmed executions in the Middle East increased by almost 50% in 2011 to 558, Amnesty noted in its annual report on the death penalty. More than half of the global total were conducted in Iran, which carried out 360 known executions, compared to at least 252 in 2010.

AI said there were 253 reported executions in the first six months of 2011, with credible evidence that as many as 274 unreported judicial killings, including mass hangings, were carried out in secret in the Islamic Republic last year.

The sharp rise in the number of executions reported in Iran has raised suspicions that the Tehran regime has, in the words of British international affairs official, Simon Tisdall, “embarked on a judicial killing spree” to intimidate it’s many opponents.

Human rights organisations say this underlines the alarm within the regime that Iran could be infected by the wave of pro-democracy uprisings that has toppled four dictators across the Arab world in less than a year.

A longer version of this article appears in the print edition of The Middle East magazine.