That was the case this year in the Middle East, which in 2011 saw the Arab Spring. Egypt, which toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak last year, had a notable moment. "Egyptians choose their leader for first time in 5,000 years," read a headline in The Daily Telegraph of London.
But after elected President Mohamed Morsi claimed sweeping powers and rushed through a vote on a new constitution, tens of thousands of protesters chanted, "Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak's face!"
In Tunisia, President Moncef Marzouki, appearing at a ceremony commemorating the first revolution of the Arab Spring, was greeted by a stone-throwing crowd angry at police brutality. Human Rights Watch accused the Iraqi government of carrying out mass arrests and holding the detainees for months without charges and incommunicado.
The government that took over in Libya after Moammar Gadhafi's removal struggled to assert control over armed militias -- including one that killed the U.S. ambassador. Morocco's king, who responded to the 2011 protests by agreeing to share power, was widely accused of taking it back.
Syria's Bashar al-Assad declined to share power, preferring to carry out a savage war against opposition rebels that left 40,000 dead.
Green shoots were scarce elsewhere as well. The Islamist-dominated government of Turkey, a democracy that belongs to NATO, now imprisons more journalists than any nation on Earth. A 15-year-old Pakistani girl survived being shot in the head by a Taliban assailant for the sin of advocating education for girls.
When it holds elections next year, Pakistan may achieve something new. "No civilian, elected leader in Pakistani history has ever completed a full term in office and then passed power to an elected successor," noted The Economist magazine.
China installed new rulers, making Hu Jintao, The Wall Street Journal noted, "the first Communist Chinese leader to cede all formal powers without bloodshed, purges or political unrest."
Chinese novelist Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and said the government's censorship was no more objectionable than airport security measures. Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, may disagree, since he is serving an 11-year prison term for signing a petition in favor of human rights.