The year of possibilities

The year of possibilities

The year of possibilities

As the year 2011 is drawing to an end, Colin Todhunter offers a glimpse of the highlights of what has generally been a year defined by ‘people power’, and marked by protests and scams.

If one thing appeared to define 2011, it was ‘people power’. Most notably, there was the ‘Arab Spring’. This was followed by mass protests against social and economic inequality in the form of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the international ‘Occupy Movement’. And let’s not forget the anti-corruption protests in India as well. Dissent could be witnessed across the globe, and events reminded many of the radical days of the 1960s when ordinary folk believed they could effect meaningful social change by acting together. The year’s end presents an opportunity to look back on events and evaluate whether the optimism surrounding ‘people power’ was well founded.

First off, the ‘Arab Spring’, probably the most important phenomenon of 2011. The media coined the term to describe a series of protests that took place across the Arab world against a range of autocratic rulers. The ‘Arab Spring’ began in January after a market trader set himself alight in protest against the regime in Tunisia. The government subsequently fell after a month of increasingly violent protests, and President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

The focus then shifted rapidly to Egypt, where the world’s media homed in on the thousands who occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding democratic rights and for President Mubarak to step down. Well, he did, eventually. A military junta took control and sanctioned elections, but not before launching a major assault on thousands of people in November who were still occupying Tahrir Square in protest against the army. 
The King of Bahrain declared a three-month state of emergency in March as troops from the Gulf Co-operation Council were sent to quell unrest there. The West stood by as Saudi soldiers attacked civilians in Bahrain and put a brutal stop to any notion of democracy. Its attitude was rather different when it came to Libya, though.

A ‘spontaneous’ anti-Gadhafi uprising took place in the Libyan city of Benghazi, or so we were led to believe. Unlike the events in Bahrain, the US, Britain and France fell over themselves to get a UN resolution to ‘protect civilians’ from what they claimed was going to be an imminent, merciless attack on the people of Benghazi by government forces. Many pondered the West’s underlying motives in intervening in Libya, given that it was turning a blind eye to (even sanctioning) the violent attacks on civilians by troops in Bahrain.

Fuelled by an intensive NATO bombing campaign, an eight-month-long civil war ensued, leaving tens of thousands dead. A ragtag bunch of anti-government fighters, ably assisted by western special forces, subsequently captured and murdered Muammar Gadhafi. Not so much part of any ‘Arab Spring’ — more a preplanned policy of regime change by foreign powers.

The ‘Arab Spring’ rumbled on into Yemen and then Syria, with thousands fleeing that country to Turkey as protests and a government crackdown followed. Over the next few months, many were reported dead.


Apart from the turmoil in the Arab world, the tumultuous impact of the 2008 economic meltdown continued. As the economy nosedived in the UK, young people rioted in towns and cities across the country. Later in the year, however, a more constructive tactic emerged across the world in the form of the ‘Occupy Movement’, a kind of ‘democratic awakening’ that was partly inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ and aimed at redressing various injustices, including more equal distribution of income, banking reform and a reduction of the influence of big business on politics.

Taking their cue from events in Cairo, ordinary people occupied and set up camps in key locations, such as Wall Street, London’s financial centre and outside the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Much of the movement was directed towards the bankers and financiers who had been responsible for the economic crisis and its crippling effects on the lives of millions.

Over the weeks, despite attempts to discredit it by much of the media, the movement had more than a few politicians squirming, especially in the US, by drawing particular attention to the crooked links between Wall Street and various Washington politicians. Barack Obama, David Cameron and Manmohan Singh expressed a certain sympathy with the aims of the movement, implying that protesters were expressing legitimate concerns about fairness in society.

Fine words, but with no substance. A violent, co-ordinated police crackdown on protesters took place in many cities across the US during late November. Moreover, not wanting to pay any sort of financial price for their actions that had resulted in the destabilisation of so many economies, the bankers and speculators plunged Europe into a state of permanent crisis throughout 2011 by insisting that political leaders should fall in line and make ordinary people bear the cost. Politicians meekly obliged.

The good people of Greece, despite their highly publicised street protests, appeared powerless to prevent the onslaught on their public services and living standards to pay for a crisis they had no part in. The situation reverberated around Europe, with Italy, Portugal and a number of other countries sliding towards their own Eurozone sovereign debt nightmares.

Sections of the media in northern Europe conveyed the message that the ‘lazy’ Greeks (or ‘feckless’ Italians) were bleeding everyone dry with their failing economies and bailouts. It was a great Greek myth based on lies about the work-shy, welfare-loving people of Greece.

It was much easier to delegitimise the Greek protests by blaming the ordinary folk of Greece and their perceived character defects for a bulging national debt rather than focusing on culpable financial speculators and skewed economic relations between nations within the Eurozone. Europe’s pre-World War Two spectres of scapegoating and nationalism were thus beginning to rear their ugly heads again on the back of a major economic crisis.

And so to India, where scam after scam just keeps coming to light — the 2G telecom affair, the UP rice scam, Commonwealth Games corruption, the 2010 housing loan issue and… well, let’s be blunt, there are just too many to mention and on so many levels. In 2011, people had just about had a gutful.

Anna Hazare spearheaded the anti-corruption protests that sprang up across the country, and Swami Ramdev also led protests over the repatriation of black money from foreign banks. The government appeared to give way. Then it backtracked and dithered over the nature of the Lokpal Bill. Widespread support from various civil bodies and prominent figures across the country put pressure on the government to act. Things turned ugly with on-off hunger strikes, beatings and government crackdowns on protesters, and on Hazare himself. Bitter verbal attacks have become the order of the day.

Just as Julian Assange was threatening to declare precisely who had siphoned off what from the Indian economy into their personal foreign bank accounts, the US Government, Bank of America, PayPal and the like willingly lined up to financially cripple WikiLeaks and effectively prevent it from operating.

Under house arrest in the UK on what may well be bogus sexual abuse charges, Assange appears to be moving closer to being extradited to Sweden and then possibly the US to face espionage charges over the leaking of sensitive government information. With WikiLeaks and Assange on the ropes, it’s not just Washington that is letting out a sigh of relief. Many an Indian politician, private organisation and ‘high net worth’ individual might be too, who, according to a report by Global Financial Integrity, are the ones mainly responsible for depriving the ordinary people of money equivalent to 13 times India’s national debt.


What else happened in 2011? The new state of Southern Sudan came into being, Formula 1 roared its way into India, and there was pandemonium in parliament, as US retail giant Wal-Mart and other international multi-brand retailers took a step closer to entering India’s retail sector.

The ‘William & Kate’ spectacle took place in London, a royal wedding that some say drew in an estimated two billion TV viewers, corruption yet again reared its head in cricket, with a number of Pakistani cricketers being sent to jail, and the global population officially reached seven million.

A massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan and dominated the headlines for weeks. Leaving a trail of death and havoc in its wake, particularly around the Fukushima nuclear power plant, some serious questions were raised by governments around the world about nuclear power and its safety, so much so that Germany decided to phase it out.

The UN declared a state of famine in Somalia, a car bomb killed 100 in the capital Mogadishu, and Norway mourned after 76 people were murdered in Oslo because a gunman had a grudge against the ruling political class and decided to go on a shooting spree.

And there was, of course, also the increasing instability in Pakistan. The US killed at least 24 Pakistani troops on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border in November, adding to the ongoing destabilisation of that country. With its influence in Libya already having been curtailed by NATO intervention there, warnings came out of China concerning possible military confrontation with the US over its role in Pakistan. This was preceded by Osama Bin Laden’s illegal assassination by US personnel, again on Pakistani soil, and unbeknown to the Pakistan authorities at the time. 

Throughout the world, thousands of people lost their lives due to various natural and manmade disasters, including floods in Pakistan, Brazil, Thailand and Cambodia, a pipeline explosion in Kenya, a massive earthquake in Turkey and the bombing of Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport.

But it was the rich and famous that tended to get more column inches. And on that note, 2011 said goodbye to Hollywood legends Jane Russell and Elizabeth Taylor, spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba, painter M F Hussain, British singer Amy Winehouse, actor Dev Anand, director and actor Shammi Kapoor and computer guru Steve Jobs.

Looking back, the general narrative for 2011 was shaped by the mainstream media. However, although much news was underreported, or only featured in little known yet well respected ‘alternative’ websites or niche journals, we can safely say that 2011 was a year of uprisings and instability.


It would be nice to state that 2011 was the year when autocracies came crashing down in the Arab world and democracy prevailed, when the corrupt in India were shaking in their boots and when the bankers and politicians in the West were trembling in the face of protests on the streets. If only that analysis rang true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Although the media focussed on the spontaneity and grassroot nature of events in the Arab world, and there’s no denying that many ordinary folk with genuine grievances were involved, there is evidence that many of these ‘uprisings’ were sparked off or manipulated from outside, with the US helping to fuel protests in the region for its own self interest. 

Egypt’s President Mubarak had become a thorn in the side of Washington by disagreeing with US policy in West Asia. He was removed. The West’s erstwhile bogeyman Muammar Gadhafi was conveniently got rid of too. And with Iran’s ally Syria also being destabilised, USA’s long time goal of toppling the regime in Tehran appears to be a step closer.

As for the ‘Eurozone crisis’, with French and German leaders Sarkozy and Merkel zipped firmly into their pockets, the bankers and speculators are attempting to secure a guarantee that their future financial losses will be offset by the European taxpayer. An increasingly banker-dominated, centralised and autocratic Europe is looking less appealing by the day, with many, not least in Britain, demanding their government retain some semblance of national sovereignty and leave the European Union.

And, in India, the highly placed crooks seem likely to do their utmost to intimidate, procrastinate, water down or dodge the consequences of any anti-corruption parliamentary bill.

Too negative an assessment of ‘people power’ in 2011? Not really. Perseverance is the key to change. Nothing worth anything ever came easily, as Egyptians, more than most, know full well.

Notwithstanding the role of outside forces in the ‘Arab Spring’, many protesters seem likely to continue with their efforts to try to leverage at least some measure of democratic accountability from the new regimes. Despite media hostility and the crackdown on the ‘Occupy Movement’, the various occupation protests could be regarded as some kind of a starting point for effectively challenging the erosion of democratic rights and the corrosive power of big finance. Same too with India. A broadening of the anti-corruption movement beyond what it has now become is required to force politicians’ hands.

Whether this is at all realistic lies in the resolve of the people themselves. But given our digital age and the much talked about power of social media, it’s not wholly unreasonable to assume that perhaps many more Assanges, Hazares and dissenters will eventually emerge, especially if Julian Assange gets extradited to the US, Anna Hazare’s shoulders prove too narrow to carry the fight in India, or the occupation movements hit a dead end. After all, in ancient Greek legend, didn’t the Hydra of Lema sprout more heads after one of its originals was chopped off?

Too much wishful thinking? Yet another fanciful Greek myth? Only time will tell.