Tough Year for Dictators

PHOTO: A woman reads a copy of an extra edition newspaper reporting the death of Kim Jong Il.
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I used to play a kind of parlor game with friends on New Year's Eve, with each of us making predictions about the year ahead, what might happen in our neighborhood, our city, our nation and around the world. As a global news junkie and foreign editor at ABC News, I'd always throw in some potential global unrest or upheaval. Then others would vote on what guesses seemed most likely. We'd check back in a year's time and see how everyone did.

Sometime Sunday night I remembered those New Year's games and found myself imagining what friends would have thought had I offered any of the following "predictions" last Dec. 31:

Hosni Mubarak will fall from power -- and by midyear we'll see him in a cage, on trial in Cairo; Moammar Gadhafi will face a NATO bombing campaign -- and then meet his end on the hood of a car outside Tripoli; Osama bin Laden – living a short walk from a military garrison -- will be taken out by Navy Seals; And for good measure – the year's end will mark the end for Kim Jong Il.

I doubt anyone would have believed in or "voted" for any of these. And of course, I wasn't prescient enough to predict any of them, either.

2011 may already be known as the Year of the Protestor (see the Time's cover story last week), but it must also go down as one of the worst-ever years for long-serving tyrants.

2011 was only 14 days old when Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali was overthrown, after 24 years in power. Opposition groups rallied in Cairo 10 days later, and when they did a lot of cognoscenti insisted "Can't happen here – Egypt is different. Two and a half weeks later, Mubarak's three-decade rule was over.

Moammar Gadhafi had the Arab dictators all beat -- 42 years in power for him -- and for months Gadhafi bobbed and weaved his way around those NATO bombs, and the messy rebel movement. "All my people, they love me," he told ABC's Christiane Amanpour in February. But finally there he was on that car, set upon by a roadside mob, precisely seven months after the NATO mission began. Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh hung on a bit longer, but he took a shrapnel wound and ultimately signed a deal to cede power -- another three-decade dictator biting the dust. Among this group, Bashar al-Assad of Syria looks like that rare thing -- a 2011 survivor.

While we're at it, not a great year for international terrorists, either. A New Year's prognosticator might have predicted bin Laden's demise, though it would have stretched a Hollywood screenwriter to imagine the way it really went down, the Seal team's stunning raid and capture of the man under cover of darkness and under the noses of the Pakistani military.

But there was another bonanza still to come for terrorist hunters: The man who had probably inspired more actual terror of late, Anwar al-Awlaki, had a bad year, too. He wasn't even born when Gadhafi took the reins in Libya, but they died a month apart, Awlaki at the hands of a drone attack on Sept. 30. Did anyone predict that?

Finally there came the bulletin at two minutes past 10 Sunday night, New York time: "North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died."

I suppose, in the last days of this unprecedented year of global tumult, no headlines or late-night calls should surprise us anymore. And, of course, this was different 00 no revolution, just natural causes (apparently) -- but the implications are as profound as with any of the other stories. A 20-something dictator-in-training, now in charge of an utterly reclusive nuclear nation.

It's all enough to start you wondering what 2012 could possibly bring, and which malefactors stand in its crosshairs. But then I think, Wait … this crazy year isn't over yet …

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