In naming "The Protester" as its Person of the Year, Time magazine is gazing ahead to what may happen in 2012 and beyond, not looking back on the past 12 months. The opening sentences of the cover story admits just as much: "History often emerges only in retrospect. Events become significant only when looked back on," writes Rick Stengel.
An honest cataloguing of the events of this year would reveal that for all the media coverage and online bombast protesters around the world weren't really that successful in achieving their goals. And on some of those rare occasions when they did manage to effect change, the new reality was worse than what preceded it. In other cases, protesters' objectives were so vague that we couldn't really tell whether or not their goals were met.
In Syria at present, the most significant protest around the world, the government of Bashar al-Assad has responded to challenges from angry citizens with violence. As many as 5,000 Syrians are now dead, and another 30,000-plus are in jail. And despite complaints from the Arab League, EU, UN and U.S., al-Assad shows no signs of giving up the presidency. It is likely he will stay in power barring a Libya-style UN/U.S. offensive.
Speaking of Libya, that country's protesters did in fact effect change, deposing and eventually killing Muammar Gaddafi. Of all the protest stories of the past year, this is the most inspiring because it actually led to the deposing of a legitimate, world-class tyrant. But this was less a protest and more a civil war (with one side getting a big assist from NATO) that claimed the lives of more than 30,000.
In Egypt, not the opening salvo in the Arab Spring but certainly its epicentre, protesters were successful in removing Hosni Mubarak from the presidency. This would be considered a great victory, except for the fact that the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood appears poised to take the leadership,a development that will likely be a destabilizing factor in the Arab-Israel situation (Israel's embassy in Cairo was stormed by Egyptians in September, leading to the hasty retreat of the ambassador).
Has the Arab Spring been successful? It's hard to say yes -- while one dictator was toppled, another has managed to stay in power and the ouster of Egypt's president has led to the empowering of group that will likely be worse for Egyptians and the Middle East in general. At best, that's a shootout loss for the protester side.
Closer to home, the Occupy movement cannot claim any success, really, and moreover, it is quietly fading from the public consciousness. It has been a tame protest, certainly by the standards of the Arab Spring, undercut by a central message that is mostly ambiguous. Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partyers all claimed Occupy as there own, which has had the effect of dulling its edge. And while the general non-violence of the Occupiers is honourable, it has led to the easy eviction of the movement's major hubs by government and law enforcement. It is hard to see how Occupy will recover from this -- one wonders whether the movement will even make it through 2012.
We have a tendency to romanticize protesters, those who nobly publicize injustice, and bravely fight against government and all-powerful institutions. We wish we had their guts. But results matter too, and in 2011 protesters weren't very good at getting anywhere. For all the optimistic verbiage of the Arab Spring and Occupy, what major changes have been achieved aside from Libya?
A better choice for Time's year-end award would have been Twitter, which absolutely exploded this year. Twitter has proven to be a transformative means of communication for so many of us -- media and news organizations, celebrities and regular people, it's 140-character-minimum the logical next step from the shortform lexicon we all now use. If Facebook, whose founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was TIME's Person of the Year last year, has become the favoured means for broadcasting our lives, Twitter provides the constant stream of information and opinions that shape our ever-changing personalities. Indeed, without Twitter the protest movements of the past year were effectively fueled Twitter. Now that's what you call results.
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