It wasn't such a bad year after all
By Amir Taheri , Special to Gulf News
Tired of reading bad news for a whole year? Well, here is some relief: 2005, designated by doomsayers as annus horriblis, drew to a close as one of the best years of the new century so far.
Let us start with the good political news.
The annual report of Freedom House, which measures the advance of liberty across the globe, describes 2005 as the best year since the reports started in 1975. Of the 198 member-states of the United Nations only eight Cuba, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Syria and Libya experienced setbacks in terms of freedom in 2005. By contrast 27 nations advanced towards greater freedom an all time record. In Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine peaceful revolutions succeeded in toppling despotic regimes and installing people-based governments. There were clean elections in other countries emerging from decades of dictatorship, civil war and anarchy. One was Liberia, arguably the world's most unfortunate nation in recent memory.
It was also in 2005 that Afghanistan and Iraq adopted new democratic constitutions. Afghanistan held presidential and parliamentary elections while Iraq organised a constitutional referendum and two general elections. Predictions that Afghanistan and Iraq were about to plunge into civil war or disintegrate proved groundless as did Noam Chomsky's "scientific forecast" that six million Afghans would die as a result of their liberation from the Taliban.
There was more good news across the broader Middle East region.
Egypt held its first presidential election in conditions that, though not ideal, represented improvement on past exercises. That was followed by the first genuinely contested general election in Egypt since the 1952 military coup d'etat. Saudi Arabia also held its first elections, albeit at the municipal level and without the participation of women. In neighbouring Kuwait, however, women won the franchise after 40 years of struggle. Lebanon recharged its national batteries with a "Cedar Revolution" that culminated in the expulsion of Syrian troops after three decades of occupation.
Libya's decision to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programmes was also good news. The quantities of chemical and bacteriological "substances" that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi handed over to the United States and Britain were large enough, if converted into weapons, to kill tens of millions of people.
Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was good news, especially since it led to a re-organisation of the Israeli political scene and the emergence of a new centrist force promising peace.
You may be surprised but I also regard the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new president of the Islamic Republic as good news. The reason is simple: Ahmadinejad has the courage, some might say recklessness, to cast aside the hypocritical mask worn by his two predecessors, both businessmen-mullahs, in a strategy of deception. He has eschewed taqiyah (dissimulation) and that, believe me, is welcome news. His presidency will force the people of Iran and the rest of the world either to come to terms with the Khomeinist revolution or challenge it in a meaningful way.
Looking at Europe the best news, perhaps, was the rejection by the French and the Dutch of the proposed European Constitution a convoluted document produced by technocrats with little regard for democratic principles. The secret of Europe's success as a civilisation has been its diversity, a fact that always allowed those who thought and did things differently to find a home within the continent. The scheme to kill that diversity by inventing a European super-state is the worst threat facing the European civilisation.
Opposition to the liberation of Iraq was supposed to topple the governments of Britain, Denmark and Australia, which are committed to helping Iraq. But that didn't happen. All three won new mandates, at times with increased majorities. Opponents of the liberation of Iraq, however, did not fare so well. Gerhard Schroeder, the most opportunistic chancellor that federal Germany has had since its creation, was chased out of office by Angela Merkel who had shed no tears over the demise of Saddam Hussain.
In France, President Jacques Chirac, who had also done all he could to keep Saddam Hussain in power, ended up losing every local, regional and European election that his party contested, not to speak of his humiliating defeat in the European Constitution referendum.
Even when the year was marred by bad news, some good eventually evolved in every case.
The Asian tsunami, which struck five days before 2005 started, claimed many lives. But it also ended the 40-year insurgency that had claimed over 100,000 lives in the Indonesian province of Aceh. By last November, according to the United Nations reports, more than 60 per cent of those affected by the tsunami had been re-housed and helped to return to work, an unprecedented achievement by any standards.
Good also came out of another tragedy: The earthquake that devastated Kashmir. The tragedy forced India and Pakistan to open the ceasefire line for the first time since 1947 and, more importantly, to agree on a framework for resolving an issue that has kept them in conflict for half a century.
The series of deadly hurricanes that hit the United States also claimed many lives. But predictions of economic collapse and racial war proved groundless. Katrina did hurt the US economic momentarily but did not provoke the black-vs white conflicts that some had hoped for. The claim that most victims of the hurricane had been poor blacks was debunked when the final list showed the majority of the 3,400 people who died had been white and middle-class. Incidentally, the number of deaths was far below the "tens of thousands" predicted by doomsayers.
There was also good news in the fact that none of the bad news forecast materialised. The "Arab street" which was supposed to explode didn't, except when it did in the form of backlash against terrorism in Morocco, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Although oil reached the $70 per barrel mark, this did not trigger an economic slump. The global economy absorbed the shock with relative ease. Some even claim the price rise led to a transfer of cash to the oil exporting nations which, in turn, increased their imports thus giving a boost to the dull economies of Germany and Japan, the world's first and second largest exporting nations.
In any case, the global economy grew by 3.4 per cent, better than the Consensus Forecasts had predicted in December 2004. The US economy, which, if we believe The New York Times, has been on the "verge of collapse" since Bill Clinton left office, grew by a staggering 3.5 per cent. Even Japan, emerging from a decade of stagnation, achieved a 2.4 per cent annual growth rate. The much predicted bursting of the Chinese bubble did not happen. In fact, China ended 2005 becoming the world's fourth largest economy with a dazzling 9.3 per cent growth rate. India, too, did well with a 7.5 per cent annual growth that has already made it one of the world's 10 largest economies.
All this, of course, will not drive doomsayers out of business. They will say: OK, 2005 wasn't bad, but wait for 2006!
The Persian poet Saadi, however, is said to have worn a ring bearing the hadith: "There is good in what happens!" (Al-khair fi ma waq'aa). His English colleague Shelley also had a ring with a different message: The Best is yet to come!
Happy 2006 to you all.
Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.