UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The year of protest - a world changing but not changed

I was struck, reading the Economist's Christmas edition, just how dominated this year has been by protests.  The obvious wave of protest is the Arab Spring, where one man burning himself to death in Tunisia sparked uprisings in Egypt, Libya and those being bloodily resisted in Syria.  London was ablaze for one night in August, with police powerless to respond to the scale of mass public disorder.  The 'Occupy' movement camped outside St Paul's Cathedral, throwing the established Church into confusion as to how it should respond.  The eurozone crisis saw huge public protests in Greece and elsewhere against austerity measures.  In Russia, people seemed to be waking up to the fact that their post Soviet 'democracy' was in need of an overhaul.

Precisely what's going on deserves serious thought.  Are we just in bad times, economically broke and therefore miserable?  Is there a collective crisis of confidence in our leaders, that the scale of the challenges is greater than their ability to resolve them?  Or are we realising the potential of people power, recognising our own power to change the world around us?

But I guess we need to look too at what is actually changing.  Qadhafi has gone, yes.  Mubarak went, but has been replaced by military rule dragging its feet on reform.  Bin Laden was captured, but the war we're fighting stopped having anything to do with him a long way back.  The Occupy movement's empty tents remain outside St Paul's, but their demands are unclear and unlikely to be acted on.  The UK vetoed a European treaty, but it concerned a single currency we had never been part of.  London burned and we were appalled, but life goes on.    The eurozone was close to collapse many times, but came back from many brinks.  There is no doubt, however, that it remains in deep crisis.

Protest may be great, but I think what we really learn is that our world has been changing this year but is not changed.  The Middle East and North Africa, where the change has been most "dramatic", is the perfect example of this.  Apart from Tunisia, the so-called revolutions are works in progress, to be generous.  More negatively, the eurozone has been collapsing but has not yet collapsed - no eurozone member has yet had to leave.

Perhaps it's facile to try to quantify change.  Perhaps by its very nature it is hard to discern an endpoint, change is a process not an event.  But this year, and those preceding it, have seen unshakeable notions called into question - big global economies, big unmoveable autocrats.  The common denominator that has called all of these into question has been people power.   And perhaps it has always been this way, revolutions led by the people shaking our body politic into action.  From the French Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the thing I will be watching most of all next year is how the path that the Middle East and North Africa takes in its journey of change.  We intervened in Libya to protect civilians, but stood aside whilst 5,000 Syrians perished and continue to perish in Assad's civil war.

Probably the biggest mistake that we could make in reviewing 2011 is to think that the job anywhere is done.  Or that it can't get any worse.  It might, and probably will, just about everywhere.


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