Steve Chapman
In the time since the end of the Cold War, there have been many years in which advocates of freedom and democracy found endless reasons for gloom and few for hope. This was not one of those years.

January witnessed protests that led to the departure of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981, and December brought the death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, whose country erases any distinction between communism and hell. In between came obituaries for a reclusive resident of Abbottabad, Pakistan, who expired during an unscheduled meeting with U.S. Navy SEALs.

Muslims in the Middle East, which had been markedly resistant to the spread of liberty, were responsible for the year's most momentous human rights development. The "Arab spring" began last December when a young Tunisian produce vendor set himself on fire after being abused by police. His act sparked a mass uprising that on Jan. 14 induced tyrant Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.

Egyptians took to the streets chanting a slogan borrowed from Tunisia: "The people want the fall of the regime." Soon Mubarak was gone, making way for November elections. But before year's end, crowds returned to Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding that the military relinquish its remaining control.

Not all Arab rulers submitted to demands for change. Libya's Moammar Gadhafi fought for months to suppress an armed revolt assisted by NATO, only to be captured and unceremoniously killed.

Syria's Bashar al-Assad was more successful in his savagery, slaughtering some 5,000 constituents dissatisfied with his rule. The Arab League surprised him and the rest of the world by imposing sanctions.

Osama bin Laden died as he was simultaneously losing the military war with the United States and the political battle for the favor of Muslims the world over. The Economist magazine noted that "the most striking feature of the Arab spring remains the complete failure of violently radical Islam."

_After decades of almost universal autocracy, Africa has experienced some 30 democratic transfers of power since 1991. In September, Zambian President Rupiah Banda lost at the polls and calmly stepped down. Nigerians re-elected President Goodluck Jonathan in a contest "largely free of the fraud, ballot-stealing and violence that have plagued elections since the country's return to democracy 12 years ago," according to The New York Times.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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