A friend recently made the observation that historians have been saying 2011 is a year which has completely changed the course of human history. While, on reflection, I think that he was pointing out the silliness of historians predicting the future, it is a point worth considering.
On January 4th, almost a month after setting himself on fire in protest against ongoing extortion and abuse by Tunisian police, Mohammed Bouazizi passed away in hospital. The original act of self-immolation proved to be the catalyst for the Tunisian people to rise up and his passing gave the Tunisians the inspiration needed to complete the revolution.
As the revolution was being fought in Tunisia it spread across the region. By late February a number of countries had had some successes: protesters in Jordan, Oman, Yemen and Iraq had secured mass resignations of politicians, the Lebanese and Oman governments had granted greater economic concessions to their citizens, Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak found himself awaiting trial by the interim government.
The chapter of the Arab Spring that remains freshly stamped in our collective memory is that of the Libyan revolution and the death of Muammar Qaddafi after several months of bloody civil war.
While coverage of the various uprisings has waned as the days have passed, the Arab Spring is far from over: Egyptians are now rallying against the brutal military regime that replaced Mubarak, Libyans are having to work out a way to rebuild their country without further fighting and fighting continues in Syria.
In the early days of the Arab Spring, and particularly in Egypt, the Internet was lauded as a vital tool for protesters as mobile technology, Twitter, Blackberry messaging and other services could be used to quickly disseminate information, organise rallies, direct protesters and gather photographic and video evidence of what was going on. This adaptation of mobile technologies was seen again later in the year during the English riots and was a key factor in the establishment and ongoing organisation of the Occupy movement.
Speaking of England, April saw the wedding of Prince William and Cate Middleton in a televised ceremony estimated to have been watched by some two billion people worldwide. After a decade-long lull in the Republic debate it appeared that all but the staunchest republicans were drifting back in favour of the Monarchy, though the prospect of Prince William becoming our next Governor-General was met with a tepid response.
But the glory and pomp of the Royal Wedding was quickly moved aside as economic and social woes forced their way to the forefront. Students, angered by universities raising their fees to £9000 a year took to the streets and occupied their campuses, public servants marched against austerity measures and a combination of anger, frustration and opportunism led to the Tottenham riots and, in turn, looting and destruction.
As we speak, the British government is trying to mitigate traditional English separatism with the need to sustain the Euro and we will enter 2012 with greater uncertainty over the future of the Eurozone than at any time during its existence. The manner in which this is resolved (or not resolved) will have a lasting effect on Europe, and will quite probably set the global economic trend until the next crisis. The dominance of France and Germany over the rest of Europe is already creating an interesting dynamic within the region and it will be exciting to see what structures emerge from the current crisis.
America, not wanting to be outclassed by Europe, has been dealing with its own people’s frustration at the crumbling economy, unemployment and the threat of terrorism. On the last point, President Obama at least had some success with the announcement in May that US troops had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. President Obama also announced the partial demobilisation of US troops serving in Afghanistan and, more recently, the withdrawal of forces from Iraq. Given the cultural and political impact of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns it will be interesting to see how the US and other western nations fill that gap.
Back in New York, protesters angry about a range of issues, both social and economic, came together to occupy Wall Street and launch a global movement. By December the Occupy movement had spread to over 2,700 sites around the world and had met with fierce, violent resistance from local authorities. To avoid the violence and mass arrests many occupations have adopted new tactics but the Occupy movement has earned its place in our history books and the organisational lessons learned will have a major influence on future movements.
One would have thought that 2011 had had its fill of important events yet the very recent passing of Kim Jong-il has thrust more uncertainty upon the world. Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un, has been named as his father’s successor but it is unclear whether that transition will happen peacefully or whether military leaders will seize the opportunity to take control. Either way, many powerful eyes will be fixed on the Korean peninsular.
So will 2011 prove a watershed year? I believe it will. We are seeing new social and cultural movements emerge and the structures that govern our world are being tested in ways that usually precede change. Who can say if there will be change or if it will be for the better? Not me.
But one thing we can be certain of: 2012 will be an interesting and exciting year.