Headliners 2011: The year the world changed

2012 will surely be like nothing we have seen before.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, daytime_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Tahrir Square, Cairo, daytime_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
This was a peculiar year. It exploded out of the starters blocks like a sprinter on steroids with the death of a Tunisian fruit vendor and ended with a Soviet-style funeral cortege rumbling across a massive frozen square in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, to protest a corrupt, nepotist and autocratic Tunisia. He died on January 4, before most of us had gotten used to writing 2011 on our checks. Ten days later, Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was gone and the Arab Spring was well under way.
Among the tyrants who exited the scene in 2011, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was the most mourned by his unfortunate, terrified subjects. The rest of the world won’t miss Kim much, but his nuclear-armed regime will now apparently be run by a guy in his late 20s whose sole experience of the outside world is a few months in school in Switzerland, as news presenters remind us. They may be hoping that this brief sojourn among the good burgers of Bern will have imparted to Kim Jong-un some nice Swiss manners.
All in all, 2011 feels like a world completely changed.
On February 11, Hosni Mubarak gave up the Egyptian presidency; he might have done better to flee to Saudi Arabia like his Tunisian counterpart, Ben Ali, did a month before; a quiet retirement to his palace in Sharm e-Sheikh was unlikely to satisfy the million of Egyptians who took on the police and mesmerized the world during the days and nights of Tahrir Square. Less than a month later, Mubarak’s shocked face stared out from a Cairo court cage.
The people of Egypt have since expressed their will, and to the dismay of the liberal activists who began the upheaval, they have chosen the Islamists.
Astonishingly, the desire for freedom spread to Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, and of course to Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years of vicious despotism came to an end in a ditch outside his hometown of Sirte.
But even 24-hour news TV stations can only really handle one major crisis at a time. As the Libyan rebels defended Misrata against Gaddafi forces’ tank shelling, nature had its say in the form of a massive magnitude 9 quake and terrible tsunami on March 11 that devastated Japan, leaving 15,000 dead and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant perilously close to a catastrophic meltdown.
By the time our attention was drawn back to Misrata, the city was razed to the ground.
In a year of demonstrations, riots, civil war and revolutions, it was an easy choice for Time magazine to name “The Protester” as its 2011 Person of the Year.
By its very nature, global media tends to take a global view. The mass demonstrations in Rome and Athens around the euro zone debt crisis that unseated Silvio Berlusconi and George Papandreou bore little resemblance to the summer riots on the streets of London involving people expressing their support for looted electronic equipment.
Half a million people taking to the streets in Tel Aviv to demand social justice are not the ideological cousins of the protesters on Wall Street or of the rallying Muscovites.
But taken together, these mesmeric events appeared to function as parts of a whole – an overwhelming zeitgeist of millions of people across the world, coming together for revolution. Taking all of that in, we were barely surprised when Standard & Poor’s in August downgraded the United States credit rating from AAA, for the first time in 70 years.
One thing many protesters did have in common was the use of social media, on iPhones and Macs from Alexandria to Auckland. Apple founder Steve Jobs died this year after doing more than most to make print media obsolete; Britain’s newspaper industry hastened the process with phone-hacking revelations that left one wondering what deleting the messages on a dead girl’s mobile phone has to do with journalism.
At the school I occasionally attended in England, a history master would become briefly animated if our essays suggested that the First World War was launched because a Bosnian Serb by the name of Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne. “A trigger is not a cause,” he’d intone.
A fruit vendor in Tunisia started an historical process the end result of which is uncertain. Today as we reach the last weekend of 2011, Arab League observers in Syria appear to be suffering from collective myopia as the killing goes on in Homs and Hama.
In 2011, Iran encouraged revolution in Egypt and tried to prevent it in Syria. It is plowing on with its nuclear weapons project even as scientists and generals get killed in accidents the frequency of which would have insurance assessors scratching their heads.
2012 will surely be like nothing we have seen before.