The year of almost unrelenting upheaval
NEW YORK: Natural catastrophes; global financial calamities; the deaths of despots and desperados; and roiling protests that shook the Arab world and occupied Wall Street – they made 2011 a year that will be remembered for its almost unrelenting turmoil.
As earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, tornadoes, wildfires, floods and hurricanes roared from the natural world, a tidal wave of sovereign debt threatened to fracture the economic one, shaking the foundations of the 18-year-old EU and its common currency and whipsawing equity markets in the process.
Uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia in January to rock Egypt, liberate Libya and threaten the Assad regime in Syria.
It was a bad year to be a dictator or terrorist. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is on trial in the country he once ran; Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was hunted down and killed by rebels; and Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was shot to death by US Navy Seals in a raid on his Pakistan compound.
A missile fired by a US drone in Yemen killed al-qaeda operative Anwar al-awlaki, a Us-born Muslim cleric accused of helping to plot attacks on Americans.
As conflict continued in Afghanistan and spread in Somalia, a chapter closed in Iraq where, after almost nine years, the last US combat troops left on December 18.
Worldwide in 2011, natural disasters, led by the March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami, took a $350 billion chunk out of the economy, according to reinsurer Swiss Re Ltd
Insurers were, in a way, lucky, with Swiss Re saying they were on the hook for only $108 billion of those losses.
The Japanese temblor and giant wave, which set off the Fukushima nuclear powerplant meltdown, amounted to the costliest of the calamities, with more than 15 000 dead and 3 400 missing, according to Japan’s National Police Agency, and insured damage estimated at $35bn.
One month before, a magnitude 6.3 quake struck Christchurch, New Zealand’s secondlargest city, toppling buildings, trapping office workers and killing 181 people. Damage was estimated at $12bn.
While natural catastrophes garnered headlines, world leaders sought to avoid financial disasters. The European debt crisis, simmering since late 2009, escalated in April as Portugal joined Greece in seeking a bailout; Ireland followed in last month. With hundreds of billions of dollars in sovereign debt and the stability of Spain and Italy in question, on De- cember 19 European leaders shored up their anti-crisis arsenal, channelling € 150bn (R1.7 trillion) to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Prospects that the euro zone could fall apart have been at the heart of world stock market volatility. The costs would be “horrific”, Paul Donovan, deputy head of global economics at UBS, told Bloomberg Television on December 16, risking “a global depression on the scale of the 1930s”.
The US had its own debt struggles. In August, Standard & Poor’s lowered the country’s long-term sovereign debt rating to AA+ from AAA, as the US Congress reached an 11th-hour accord to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. So far, the downgrade seems to have hurt little but America’s pride.
In September, members of the Occupy Wall Street movement began camping in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Organisers said they wanted to bring attention to US income equality and what they consider to be the corrosive role of Wall Street in the economic crisis. The occupation ended on November 15 when police moved in, took down tents and arrested about 200 protesters. Similar protests took place in other cities around the globe, notably protest-prone Athens.
Across the Atlantic, a media company became a story. News Corp, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, closed its News of the World tabloid in July after revelations that staffers had been involved in hacking the cellphone of a murdered schoolgirl.
The scandal has led to at least 16 arrests, among them Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor and onetime communications chief for Prime Minister David Cameron, and the resignation of several senior Murdoch lieutenants. On December 20, the company’s British publishing unit said it had resolved seven civil lawsuits over the interception of celebrities’ voicemail messages to get scoops for the tabloid.
In Africa, a new state was born with the formation in mid-year of South Sudan; several countries including the troubled Ivory Coast and DRC held elections; pirates and insurgents continued to make headlines for Somalia; and in Nigeria the previously littleknown Islamist sect Boko Haram set off several devastating bombs – the most recent on Christmas Day.
Throughout the year, the world was riveted by violent crimes and sensational allegations.
In January, US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson while she met constituents at a supermarket. The alleged gunman, 22- year- old Jared Lee Loughner, killed six people, including a federal judge, and wounded 12 others besides Gifford.
In May, Dominique StraussKahn, the Frenchman heading the IMF, quit after sexual assault allegations by a New York hotel worker landed him in jail under $5 million bail.
Charges were dropped in August after prosecutors decided the accuser had lied repeatedly. Strauss-kahn still faces a civil lawsuit.
Another mass shooting captured global attention in July. In Norway, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb in Oslo and later attacked a summer camp, murdering 77 people, many of them teenagers, some as young as 14.
While Breivik had written extensively about what he called “cultural Marxism” and rising “Islamisation” in his country, in November Norwegian forensic psychiatrists declared him insane at the time of the attack, saying he suffered from paranoid schizo- phrenia. He faces lifelong compulsory psychiatric treatment and will probably avoid a prison term, authorities say.
In August, riots spread across London, Manchester and other cities and towns in Britain, killing five, resulting in more than 3 300 arrests and causing an estimated $328m in damage. British police, caught by surprise, were criticised for not stepping in more quickly or firmly in some cases. The uprisings’ causes – with some blaming racism and poverty, others a culture of entitlement – are still being debated.
The riots cast a pall across Britain in what had been a year uplifted by the April 29 marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey. As many as 1 million people lined London’s streets, and an estimated 2 billion watched on television. By some estimates, the wedding added about $971m to the country’s tourism revenue. – Bloomberg