To begin on a happy note, the world didn’t end this year. Dec. 21 came and went without a sign of the Four Horsemen, leaving the Mayans (or rather their ancestors) with egg all over their faces. It just goes to show the perils of prediction – but why would we let that deter us? Nobody is keeping score.
So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the past year, why don’t we use this year-ender to examine the entrails of recent events for portents of the future? Like, for example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past 12 months.
On one hand, there were the first truly free elections in modern Egyptian history. On the other hand, judges inherited from the old regime dismissed the lower house of Parliament on a flimsy pretext, and then the Islamist president retaliated by ramming through a new Constitution that entrenched conservative “Islamic” values against the will of more than a third of the population. Is this glass half-full or half-empty?
Well, both, of course. How could it have been otherwise, in a world of fallible human beings? But the mould has been broken, and already half of the world’s Arabs live in countries that are basically democratic.
The political game is being played pretty roughly in some Arab countries, but that’s quite normal in new democracies – and in some older ones, too. In the years to come the transformation will deepen, amid much further turbulence, and most Arab countries will emerge from it as normal, highly imperfect democracies. Just like most of the world’s other countries.
November brought a week of massive Israeli air and missile strikes against the Gaza Strip, allegedly in retaliation for Palestinian missile attacks against Israel, but the tit-for-tat has been going on for so long that it’s pointless to discuss who started it. And nothing Israel does can stop the growing support for a Palestinian state: in late November the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-voting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.
And then there’s the United States, where Barack Obama, having accomplished little except health care reform in his first presidential term, was re-elected anyway. The Republican candidate concentrated his campaign on Obama’s slow progress in overcoming the deepest recession in 70 years (which had been caused by the previous Republican administration), but just in time the numbers started to turn upward for Obama.
The economic recovery will probably strengthen in the coming year (unless the United States falls off the “fiscal cliff” in the next week or so), and strong growth will give Obama enough political capital to undertake at least one big reform project. The highest priority is obviously global warming, but there is a danger that he will fritter his resources away on hot-button issues like gun control.
So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the usual scatter of promising changes like Burma’s gradual return to democracy, the start of peace talks that may bring an end to the 60-year-old war between government and guerillas in Colombia, and the return to the rule of law in growing areas of anarchic Somalia.
Similarly, there was a steady drizzle of bad news: the revolt by Islamist extremists that tore the African state of Mali in half in April, the pogrom against Burmese Muslims in July, and the police massacre of striking miners in South Africa in August.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is probably dying of cancer, and the rules for choosing his successor are in dispute. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin faced unprecedented public protests after the elections last March, but his power still seems secure. The Mars rover landed successfully in August, and is now busily trundling across the Martian landscape. The existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed (or at least tentatively confirmed).
Business as usual, in other words. 2012 wasn’t a particularly bad year; if you think it was, you’ve been reading too many newspapers and watching too much CNN. Their stock-in-trade is crisis and tragedy, so you can always count on them to give you the worst news possible. It wasn’t all that great a year either, but never mind. There’ll be another one along shortly.