It has been many centuries since the Mediterranean Sea was the centre of civilisation. But in 2011 the Med was back – not just as a holiday destination but at the very centre of world affairs. The year was one of global indignation, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Moscow election protests and China’s village revolts. It was popular protests on either side of the Mediterranean – in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Syntagma Square in Athens – that set the tone for the year.
Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia at the beginning of the year sparked off the Arab spring, a political earthquake whose after-shocks were felt as far afield as Moscow and Beijing. On the other side of Mare Nostrum, Europe’s sovereign debt crisis spread from riotous Greece to Portugal, and then to Italy and Spain. By the end of the year, the fate of the world economy seemed to hang on the ability of southern Europe to service its debts.
For that reason this column – devoted to my annual list of the five most important events of year – has to begin with the Arab spring and Europe’s debt crisis: regional crises with global implications. Both events brought crowds on to the streets. But the Arab uprisings were also marked by bloodshed and warfare. Even the relatively peaceful transition in Egypt cost some 800 lives, while Muammer Gaddafi in Libya was only deposed (and ultimately murdered), after a full insurrection, backed by western air power.
However, while the costs of the Arab spring were far higher – it, at least, was driven by a faith that the future could be better. Europe’s debt crisis, by contrast, was characterised by fear of the future. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia gave many ordinary people a heady sense that, at last, they had the chance to take control of their own destiny, while Europe’s debt problems left most citizens feeling they were at the mercy of economic forces that they could not control.
The appointment of governments led by unelected technocrats in Italy and Greece, towards the end of the year, strengthened the sense that decisions were being taken out of the hands of voters. Although Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos were both appointed in a constitutional manner, their arrival on the scene showed that the normal processes of democracy in Italy and Greece had been unequal to the economic crisis. The European Union’s repeated failure to find a solution to the debt-crisis – and so secure the future of the euro – illustrated that pan-European politics were working no better than the national variety.
For all the patent differences in levels of wealth and freedom between Europe and the Arab world, it was difficult not to see some parallel between the crowds of angry, young unemployed people in North Africa and southern Europe. The indignados – who occupied central Madrid in May to protest against a youth unemployment level of 40 per cent in Spain – made the connection explicit by rather vaingloriously claiming the mantle of Tahrir Square.
After riots in London and popular protests against inequality and corruption in countries as diverse as Chile, China, Israel and India, I wrote a column at the end of August, headlined – 2011, the year of global indignation. At the time, I speculated that the US might prove immune to the wave of social protest spreading around the world. But that idea was quickly proved wrong. By September, the Occupy Wall Street movement had got going. Combined with Standard & Poor’s decision in August to downgrade US debt from its triple-A status, OWS underlined the depth of the country’s economic problems.
Some argued that the fact that occupiers lacked a coherent program meant that their significance was limited. But the Occupy movement did serve to push inequality to the centre of debate in the US. Its slogan – "We are the 99 per cent” – became the phrase of the year. The resonance of the slogan beyond the shores of the US also connected the events in Wall Street to the protests against austerity in Europe and even to anti-corruption movements in Asia, all of which used inequality and anti-elitism as rallying cries. For that reason, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street is my third most significant event of the year.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, a decade after the September 11 attacks, is my fourth choice. The death of the leader of al-Qaeda allowed Barack Obama in effect to call an end to the "War on Terror” as the organising principle of US foreign policy. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq at the end of the year sent the same message and set the stage for a similar pull-out from Afghanistan over the next three years.
What should be the fifth story of the year? Any account of the main events of 2011 has to include the Japanese tsunami, which swept away as many as 20,000 people. The dignity and stoicism of the Japanese in the face of a natural tragedy put the political and economic problems of the rest of the world into a proper perspective.
But one event, right at the end of the year, may yet prove as important as, if not more so than, most of my top five. Protests against the alleged rigging of elections in Russia saw the year of global indignation arrive on the streets of Moscow. The protests threaten the system of ‘managed democracy’ put together by Vladimir Putin and may even undermine his bid to return to the Kremlin as president, after elections next March.
The virus of popular protest and demonstration that began in Cairo and Athens in 2011 is now visible from Wall Street to the Kremlin. This year, it is likely to intensify.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.