It was the best of times and it was the worst of times around the world. Dickens’ famous line aptly describes a wide swath of the Arab world in 2011. It was a good year for the Arab Street as popular uprisings, fueled by the social media, swept across the Middle East, toppling some despots and threatening others.
It was a bad year for dictators — Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is in exile, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is in the court dock, Muammar Kaddafi is in Hell, and Syria’s Bashar Assad is on his way — but was it really that good for the pro-democracy movement?
We can’t be sure whether Egypt had a democratic revolution, a military coup, or an unholy alliance of the military and the Islamists, who have done disturbingly well in recent elections.
It was a good year for Gilad Shalit, free after more than five years in captivity, but it was also a good year for his Hamas captors, who won freedom for 1,072 of their followers and a public relations coup in their rivalry with the secular Fatah.
Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki, and many of their cohorts had a very bad year, thanks to the Obama administration’s stepped-up targeting of terrorist leaders.
On the domestic political scene, the year was characterized by polarizing partisan gridlock, and acrimony in Washington and on the campaign trail. The campaign for the Republican presidential nomination looked like a stampede to the far right as candidates vied for the title of most conservative. There was more flip-flopping than a carp out of water. And it is still happening.
Some politicians started out the year as serious people and are leaving it as punch lines in a bad joke: Donald “The Birther” Trump, Anthony “Tweets” Weiner, Herman “Libya Brain Freeze” Cain, Arnold “the Impregnator” Schwarzenegger, Rick “Oops, I forget “ Perry, Michele “Chootzpah” Bachmann, and Dominique “Grab a Chambermaid” Strauss-Kahn.
It was a year in which former Speaker Newt Gingrich blamed his adultery on his patriotic zeal, and current Speaker John Boehner was for the compromise on the payroll tax holiday before he was against it before he was for it again.
The year had a tragic beginning for Rep. Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was severely wounded in an assassination attempt that left six dead and 11 others wounded. Her courageous struggle to recover has been inspirational.
Millionaires who think they pay too much in taxes enjoy a solid voting block in Congress — keep those contributions coming — which is more than can be said for folks who rely on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
President Obama gave up on making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, at least for the rest of this term, when their leaders showed scant interest in talking peace, especially with each other.
Bibi Netanyahu had a very good year. He may have dissed the president of the United States with a rude lecture on live television, but that didn’t stop Barack Obama from leading the campaign to block the Palestinian bid for UN membership, raising the level of security cooperation to new highs, and approving the transfer of weapons system denied by the Bush administration.
As a bonus, Netanyahu got standing ovations at a joint session of Congress that insulated him from pressure to be more flexible in the peace process; he returned home stronger than ever — and less interested in fulfilling his end of the U.S.-Israeli partnership.
And it was a year when Israel’s tolerance of the antics of West Bank and religious zealots came home to roost in a Jewish state that sometimes seems to be imploding, politically and socially. The “Price Tag” movement and other settler extremists expanded their attacks with little more than a wrist slap, if that, from the Israeli government, even when they burned mosques, attacked Israeli soldiers, and vandalized IDF bases.
Mahmoud Abbas didn’t fare so well. Not only was his much vaunted UN strategy derailed, but it also cost him valuable White House support and threatens hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. If his reconciliation with Hamas goes through, he can kiss goodbye to that aid and the chances for peace.
It was supposed to be a very good year for the Iraqis, getting their country back and the Americans out, but as the year ends it looks like the country could be headed back to sectarian warfare.
Iran continued its bombast and bluster but admitted the sanctions are hurting. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported it believes Iran, despite denials, is working on a nuclear weapon. There was a lot of talk about an Israeli strike on Iran — not just in Israel but here as well, encouraged by Republican presidential wannabes anxious to show they love Israel more than Obama does.
As the election campaigns heat up, the Mideast peace process cools off, and the Arab awakening remains uncertain, the coming year does not hold great expectations.