The dramatic protests and revolutions that swept across Muslim countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 were the biggest story of the year. This is a story -- or rather a multitude of stories -- of heroism and tragedy set against the backdrop of realpolitik.
While observers optimistically described these events as the "Arab Spring," my colleague Clifford May has aptly remarked, "I don't see any red robins yet." Indeed, my co-workers have labeled these events more neutrally as "the Great Arab Revolt."
The assumed outcome of spring, in other words, is hardly certain. The Syrian regime's ongoing brutality toward its people and the Egyptian military's cruel treatment of female protesters are only two of many examples that expose the wintry bitterness of these revolts. That the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take power in Egypt alongside the Salafi fundamentalist Al Nour party raises myriad concerns as well. Will Egypt's peace treaty with Israel remain secure? Will the Islamists continue to support democratic processes once they gain power?
While it is too early to say for sure, the results to date cannot be overstated. The governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have fallen. The leaders of Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen have pledged to relinquish their positions after their current terms expire. And Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have made certain political concessions to their populations.
In all these states, people have rebelled against corruption, autocracy, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of their leaders. Similar grievances are now on display in Russia, where protests against Vladimir Putin's seemingly never-ending rule continue to gain steam. The impact of these demonstrations on Russia may be the story to watch for 2012.
In comparison to the aforementioned protests, the Occupy Movement in Canada and the U.S. this past year fell flat. As National Post columnist Matt Gurney commented, "No doubt some of the more starry-eyed protesters actually had delusions of taking part in an Arab Spring-like movement that would transform our society, which was always nuts -- whatever capitalism's flaws, I bet that most...are comfortable enough in their lives...that they're not inclined to rock the boat."
Life in Iran, on the other hand, is not comfortable enough to breed such complacency. While 2009 was a more significant year for Iranians -- with mass demonstrations in protest of rigged presidential elections -- the revolutions rocking Iran's neighbors have encouraged increasing domestic unrest this year.
Still, the 2011 Iranian protests grabbed far fewer headlines than the regime's continued advancement of its illegal nuclear weapons program. The sanctions that Canada and other Western governments subsequently imposed on Iran have received considerable attention, but they will probably not be enough to stop the Iranian regime from building an atomic bomb.
We can only hope that next year's top story will not be that of a successful Iranian nuclear test, and that this year's Arab revolutions serve as a model for the Iranian people to overthrow their regime before irreparable damage is done.