2011 was one of the most tumultuous, earth-shattering years in living memory. I can’t recall a calendar year in my lifetime which boasted a greater number of extraordinary geo-political events and/or epic natural disasters (although 1989 and 1968 might be comparable).
The incredible events of 2011 will likely influence global history for decades to come.
Arab Revolt: Last December a young Tunisian vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated to protest the heavy-handed action of local police. He not only set himself ablaze, but unknowingly lit a fire that has spread into a huge inferno engulfing the entire Arab world, ultimately overthrowing long-time dictators, sparking terrible civil wars (and brutal crackdowns), and costing thousands of lives.
The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has turned North Africa and the Middle East upside-down, but it has also compelled established regimes to crack down harder on dissent. The actual success and legacy of these outbreaks of protest will likely take years to accurately gauge.
Nonetheless, the former president of Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country (he is now believed to be living in exile in Saudi Arabia) and many of his former ministers and relatives are under arrest. A moderate Islamist party called Ennahda recently won a free election -- a party that was banned under Ben Ali’s rule.
Tunisia’s giant neighbor Libya convulsed in an eight-month—long brutal civil war that ultimately led to the spectacular (and very public) killing of Moammar Gaddafi, once the unquestioned leader of the country for more than four decades. Libya witnessed an almost unprecedented wave of bloodletting and atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict. Libya was (thus far) the only Arab country which NATO became involved in – conducting a relentless campaign of air strikes that crippled the Gaddafi regime’s infrastructure and eventually doomed his reign.
Long before Gaddafi’s humiliating death, the longtime President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak was deposed and placed under arrest, along with his sons and many of his former henchmen. However, with the military now in control of Egypt, public unrest has not diminished, rendering the removal of Mubarak somewhat unsatisfying.
Even Saudi Arabia, the most repressed, conservative (and apparently stable) Middle East country witnessed disorder among its Shia minority in its restive oil-rich eastern regions. The Saudi King was even forced to release billions of dollars to stimulate the economy and create thousands of jobs in order to appease the public.
Protests have also erupted in smaller Arab countries like Bahrain and Yemen – with varying degrees of change enacted by government opponents.
However, in the Arab world, Syria may be the most tragic narrative. President Bashar al-Assad remains firmly in charge, after his security forces have killed at least 6,000 civilians while arresting unknown thousands more. Syria is on the brink of a civil war that will likely produce even more atrocities and casualties.
Japan Tsunami: On March 11, an earthquake of magnitude 9.1 in the North Pacific Ocean triggered a tsunami that smashed into the northeastern coast of Japan. Not only did this epic disaster kill more than 15,000 people, it crippled a nuclear plant in Fukushima that created the world’s worst radiation crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
Although the plant has reportedly reached stability, radiation fears will remain for decades. Indeed, a band of real estate around Fukushima has been evacuated and depopulated, perhaps permanently.
Osama bin Laden/Pakistan: In early May, U.S. commandos broke into a compound in a small garrison town near Islamabad, Pakistan and assassinated Al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist. The sensational cinematic killing not only cut the head off of a fearsome militant group, but also raised passionate suspicions about Pakistan’s true loyalties in the so-called war against terror.
Charges and countercharges flew back and forth between Washington and Islamabad, with senior U.S. government and military officials openly accusing Pakistan’s military and intelligence networks of working in league with the militants they are supposed to be fighting against.
The Americans have threatened to suspend billions in dollars of aid to Pakistan – relations between the two allies have sunk to all-time lows. Complicating matters, of course, is that the U.S. and other western powers need Pakistan’s help with the security situation in Afghanistan.
U.S. Involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan: 2011 marked the year that U.S. troops departed Iraq after eight years of war; while the path to withdrawal from Afghanistan also became clearer after a decade of conflict. However, even after the Americans leave, fears are rising about the future of these two deeply troubled and strife-torn countries. In Iraq, sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis has already reared its ugly head; while in Afghanistan, remnants of the Taliban and other militant groups remain a formidable challenge.
Euro-Zone debt crisis: While revolutions and earthquakes rattled distant nations, Europe found itself deeply ensnared in a rather man-made financial crisis that threatens the existence of the euro currency.
Debt-stricken peripheral countries have reluctantly agreed to impose draconian austerity measures and spending cuts in exchange for billions of euros in bailout packages. Across the continent, joblessness is climbing, services are diminishing, and the populace is increasingly burdened with despair and hopelessness.
An endless series of summits and conferences have produced ‘solutions’ that have satisfied no one… and may not even be sufficient to avert a financial Armageddon.
There were, of course, many other notable events in 2011 – from the sublime to the tragic.
Earthquakes devastated Turkey and New Zealand; historic floods ravaged parts of Thailand, Tanzania and Australia; the streets of Britain exploded in youth rioting in the summer; blues singer Amy Winehouse died; Julian Assange’s Wikileaks organization disclosed shocking and embarrassing information about dozens of governments; IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned in disgrace after a rape charge in New York; North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suddenly died; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. media empire was revealed to have been involved in illegally hacking the phones of many celebrities and ordinary folks; and Prince William got married.
It was indeed, a monumental year.