2011 was extraordinary, but rarely for the better

The biggest stories of 2011, from terrorism to natural disasters, social unrest and economic uncertainty, have given us great pause for thought.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
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How will you remember 2011? As the year of the Arab Spring or the era of the eurozone crisis? As a time when the twin blights of man-made and natural disasters visited our small planet, from the tsunami and earthquakes that arrived like successive curses on New Zealand and Japan, to the warped mind of Norway's Anders Behring Breivik who disturbed the peace and shattered the innocence of an entire nation on the small island of Utoya?

These stories and many more - from royal weddings to revolutions, from 40th birthdays celebrating extraordinary acts of nation-building to stalled bids for statehood in the UN, from riots to returning space shuttles, from the killing of Osama bin Laden to the recent death of Kim Jong-il - have been offering us great pause for thought in recent months, as we shuffled our pack and debated how best to sum up this most extraordinary year in the space available to us.

In the end, the choice proved relatively straightforward. The Arab Spring provided this year's most remarkable, most compelling and most far-reaching narrative. How one act of self-immolation in Tunisia late last year spreads first to Egypt and later bleeds to Libya, Syria and beyond towards, improbably, Wall Street in the US and the frustrated and feral youth of Britain. There are links and shadows, strong correlations and inherent contradictions in sitting each of these stories next to each other, but they share a collective echo that refuses to stop bouncing from pillar to post, from country to country around the world.

As such, it is hard not to begin in the tumult of Tahrir Square in the spring and follow the seasons from the hard-fought battle up and down the long roads to Tripoli, Misurata and Benghazi, to the slow and ungraceful fall of the entire continent of Europe as it struggles to come to terms with an ever-deepening debt pool, rising unemployment and shrinking opportunities, and finally to the winter of discontent, of the gathering gloom on the streets of New York, as economic distress seeped inexorably across the Atlantic. From it all, one thought emerges, that this has been not just a year, but the year of protest.

Or has it? As the Arab Spring unravelled and the fruit it bore proved of vastly different quality, many commentators sought to draw parallels with the past: was this the region's Berlin Wall moment, or its Soviet summer, or something else entirely?

The eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm believes the latter is the case. "It reminds me of 1848," he told the BBC earlier this week, "another self-propelled revolution which started in one country, then spread all over the continent in a short time."

In Hobsbawm's mind, the events of 1848 remind him of the so-called Springtime of the Peoples, which began in France and delivered revolutions right across Europe. In fact, only the Ottoman and Russian empires, the Netherlands and Great Britain remained immune from the sweeping unrest.

It is Hobsbawm's next thought, however, which offers greatest pause for reflection. Demonstrating a clarity of vision and analytical mind of someone several decades his junior - he will turn 95 in June next year - he comments that within two years the European Spring appeared all washed up. But it wasn't, he contends. Many advances had been gained, and while the uprisings settled, the ripples of revolution continued to upset the old order.

This much it would be worth remembering when any one of us seeks to analyse the events of the uprisings. Revolutions occur in perfect and imperfect ways, regimes bite back, struggles ebb and flow. Right now, Egypt's awakening seems close to being derailed, after the almost impossible promise of January and February. That said, it would be worth remembering Hobsbawm and the pages of history: demonstrable change occurs over several years and evolution may be as important as revolution in any nation's future.