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Associated Press photo by Ben Curtis

Nations rage and kingdoms totter

2011 News of the Year | The 2011 street proved a potent vehicle for upending old orders

Issue: "2011 News of the Year," Dec. 31, 2011

Convulsive changes defining a year of street rage began shortly before the year itself did, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit seller in central Tunisia, had enough.

Authorities confiscated Bouazizi's street cart in December 2010, saying it was illegal. The vendor, who quit school as a teenager to support his extended family amid a 30 percent unemployment rate, planted himself in front of a government office in the city of Sidi Bouzid, doused himself in gasoline, and lit a match.

His immolation-and the Tunisian government's attempts to block Facebook pages constructed in his honor-ignited street protests. Bouazizi survived for 18 days, his cause pushing then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali even to visit him in the burn unit. But the 23-year regime of Ben Ali itself outlasted Bouazizi by only 10 days. On Jan. 14 Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

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That evening Lebanese broadcaster Abeer Madi al-Halabi ended a report quoting a Tunisian poet: "And the people wanted life," she said, "and the chains were broken."

Ben Ali's departure marked the first time popular protests had overthrown an Arab leader. Bouazizi and his pushcart had demonstrated that one man in a small place could stand against dictatorship-and across the Middle East men and women took notice.

"The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters His voice, the earth melts," wrote the psalmist in Psalm 46.

By mid-January protesters in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen had joined Tunisians in demanding the ouster of ruling parties. In Egypt four men set themselves on fire on Jan. 18, inspired by events in Tunisia. As thousands of Egyptians joined protests, the army deployed on the streets of Cairo for the first time in 25 years.

By Feb. 1 more than a quarter of a million Egyptians massed in Tahrir Square, and President Hosni Mubarak announced he would not seek reelection. Ten days later, with Egypt's economy at a standstill, violence growing, and crowds of protesters undeterred, Mubarak resigned-ending three decades of rule.

February and March saw street action explode across the region, with daily protests in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Oman, Yemen, and elsewhere. The demonstrators demanded an end to oppressive rule, high food prices, and rampant unemployment. They wanted political prisoners released and a halt to internet censorship. And increasingly, as Islamist movements exploited the discontent, they sought the overthrow of authoritarian leadership left over from the Cold War in favor of Islamic-based governments that would rule by Quranic law.

By March all-out fighting in Libya broke out, as forces attached to Col. Muammar Qaddafi confronted an organized-and armed-rebel movement that took control of eastern cities. When Qaddafi launched air strikes to attack rebel positions, NATO began preparations for a military reply.

The Obama administration initially opposed intervention, but abruptly President Obama about-faced, embracing a military campaign aimed at "regime change." On March 17 the UN Security Council authorized military strikes on Libya, and on March 20 a British- and U.S.-led NATO assault began. In the months that followed, U.S. warplanes dropped more firepower on Tripoli than they had in 2003 while ousting Saddam Hussein from Iraq.

House Republicans scolded Obama for consulting more with the Arab League than with Congress, but a steady Western air campaign allowed rebels to put a choke on all but Qaddafi's last strongholds near Tripoli. The fighting culminated Oct. 20, when revolutionaries captured alive Qaddafi, 69, in his hometown of Sirte but later killed him.

Libya's eight-month civil war resulted in about 30,000 deaths. But clashes wore on across the region-with 5,000 killed in Syria, nearly 2,000 in Yemen, an estimated 1,000 in Egypt, and over 230 in Tunisia. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, became the fourth entrenched ruler to go, in a Gulf states-orchestrated plan to transfer power that ended his 33-year regime on Nov. 23.

With Islamist militants joining the upheaval, Christians and other religious minorities suffered. Libya, with 180,000 mostly expatriate Christians before the war, by year's end had an estimated 150 indigenous believers remaining. Egypt's Coptic Christians, the largest Christian population remaining in the Middle East, faced repeated attacks on churches and leaders, with 26 Christians killed on Oct. 9 while peacefully protesting the growing violence.

Early elections promised more power to Islamists, as radical parties won big in Tunisia and Egypt. The 2011 street proved a potent vehicle for upending old orders, but a volatile and inconstant place to right wrongs or establish liberty. The psalmist guides those undone by 2011 upheaval, continuing in Psalm 46: "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. ... Be still, and know that I am God."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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