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Year of the dragon

December 30, 2011

THEY say time speeds up as you grow older. Certainly, in 2011 this correspondent had the feeling of living life on perpetual fast-forward. For, 2011 was not only a year of hectic, rapid and unpredictable change, it also appears to have come and gone in a frantic rush.

Friends and colleagues agree that the past year has been one of the busiest for news in recent memory, with the Arab Spring, earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, violence in parts of Africa, the euro crisis and protest movements in the streets of many world capitals. Forget hopes of calm ahead, however: 2012 looks set to be no less turbulent and chaotic.

For evidence, delve into the Chinese zodiac. The incoming year of the dragon will be “full of energy” and the spirit of the dragon will make everything seem “larger than life”, say Chinese astrologists. The year, they warn cryptically, will be an over-ambitious and daring one but also bring good fortune and happiness. Successes and failures will be magnified. “Disasters and fortunes will occur on a larger magnitude with many surprises and violent acts of nature.”

In other words: if you can escape to a desert island, do so immediately (unless it’s in the Pacific where rising sea levels may make it a victim of global warming!). The rest of us should either run for cover or brace ourselves for some very interesting times ahead.

The outlook appears particularly daunting for dictators. After the disappearance of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s long-time leader Muammar Qadhafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — and the death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il — the world’s other strongmen, including Syria’s Hafez Al Assad, should be counting the days to their own relegation to the dustbin of history.

It isn’t only the Arab Spring that seems to be bringing leaders to their knees. In Europe, the persistent euro crisis led to hasty political changes in Ireland, Greece, Spain and in Italy whose longest serving and most controversy-prone Silvio Berlusconi was eased out of office and replaced with Mario Monti, a professor of economics and former European commissioner.

The impact of the euro crisis is expected to feature high on the agenda of the upcoming national elections in France, with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy fighting hard to retain his job in the face of an unexpectedly strong challenge from Socialist leader François Hollande. Public protests and anger will continue in 2012. Certainly, young people in the Arab world will not stop clamouring for reform and change. Their ‘occupy’ counterparts in the West are also unlikely to go away, determined to keep questioning the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

Interestingly, although China has managed to keep protests to a minimum, the 10-year jail term handed out to veteran dissident Chen Xi is proof that Chinese citizens are determined to campaign for more transparent and accountable governance. This could lead to friction in a year of major leadership transition in China, with Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Li Keqiang widely expected to succeed Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Wen Jiabao as Chinese president and premier respectively.

After a year of sudden uprisings, expect long-scheduled elections to take place in Russia and the United States. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has promised fair presidential elections in March to try and quell recent protests over alleged voter fraud. “Honest presidential elections in 2012,” Putin told reporters in Moscow recently, when asked what he can offer to Russians as a new year gift. The premier said he was ready for dialogue with the country’s opposition groups, though they need to articulate a coherent platform.

Putin is facing the biggest demonstrations since he came to power more than a decade ago over accusations of ballot-rigging in the December parliamentary elections. Never having lost an election in 11 years, he is seeking to return to the presidency in March 4 polls after pushing aside his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev.

The general consensus may be that with the US economy recovering slowly President Barack Obama will win a second term in the November US polls.

The colourful Republican candidates lined up against him, however, are not only destroying each other but also providing much-needed entertainment to the US public and a carefully watching world.

Elsewhere, Iraq and Afghanistan are expected to remain messy and violent places. Iran will probably continue to be the object of western ire while the rise of religious intolerance in Israel will cause trouble at home and abroad.

It is difficult to make any predictions about Pakistan — except to say that if current quarrels and squabbles between the army and the civilian leaders continue, the country will remain on the margins of a dynamic, buoyant and increasingly self-confident Asia, unable and incapable of responding to the unfulfilled aspirations of millions of its citizens.

Global events in 2012 are likely to be dramatic but — I hope — will also lead to positive change. There is talk of Africa rising out of decades of poverty. Democracy in the Arab world will take time to take hold but having tasted empowerment, the Arab people are not likely to go back to their passive past.

Like Miss World candidates, in 2012, I want global peace and prosperity for all — and for all Dawn readers, a very happy new year.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.