As a year ends, we all tend to look back and try to capture the essence of key events that transpired that year, often associating them with individuals who were particularly influential. Since 1927, Time magazine has been running an annual cover story meant to do just that – highlight somebody who, for better or worse, personifies the most important developments that year. In 2011 that person is the Protester. The cover photo features a female Arab demonstrator epitomizing the upheavals of the Arab Spring. But the idea behind this choice is supposed to be more inclusive and encompass protesters championing various political and economic causes around the world.
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.