Some of them, like Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi, became household names. Countless others remain anonymous but no less influential. As Time notes, “‘Massive and effective street protest’ was a global oxymoron until — suddenly, shockingly — starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.”
Certainly this year history has been made by those who took to the streets demanding freedom and opportunity. But it is important not to overstate what protests and protesters in and of themselves can do. When demonstrations bring down tyrants, it is tempting to picture the happily ever after. But protests that succeed in their early objectives are not the end of change, they are just the beginning. What comes next is less glamorous but equally – if not more – challenging.
The challenge is to keep the focus on what actually needs to be done to accomplish the protesters’ ultimate goals, how to transform lofty ideals into the reality of inclusive democratic governance and shared economic prosperity. And that’s not easy, as illustrated for instance by the highly variable outcomes of the revolutionary wave that swept the former Soviet Union 20 years ago. One can only hope that the Reformer will be Time’s Person of the Year in 2012.