It was the year of Cyclone Idai, Greta Thunberg and Juan Guaido, one that brought us the Mueller Report, the death of al-Baghdadi and the impeachment of a president. But as Foreign Editor David Pratt recounts, 2019 was above all the year when people took to the streets

Their motives were as varied as the locations in which they protested. Paris, Santiago, Caracas, Hong Kong, Beirut, Algiers, Barcelona, Baghdad, New Delhi among other places.

They walked out of classrooms, commandeered city squares and boulevards, and brought with them new slogans and new causes as well as old familiar ones.

In their wake presidents fled, prime minsters resigned and governments fell. It was a moment of global discontent and explosion of popular unrest, for 2019 will long be remembered as the year of the protester.

While taking to the streets in protest is not new, the unrest in 2019 in at least 18 countries in different corners of the world was characterised by the breadth and intensity of the protests. What we witnessed was perhaps more mass protests around the world than any other 12 months in history.

France, a country born out of barricades and revolution on the streets, set the early standard. In Paris the gilets jaunes or yellow vest movement that had begun to mobilise in 2018 continued to appear on the capital’s boulevards as opposition to the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron grew.

During periods of last year Paris seemed like a place in shock, the mood in springtime uncharacteristically even more sombre as Parisians and the world reeled before the sight in April of fire consuming the 850-year-old cathedral of Notre Dame, causing heavy damage to the iconic structure.

Even by the end of the year the mood in the country had not brightened as once again the gas masks were pulled on as riot police struggled to control protests opposing proposed pension reforms.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world as the trade war between America and China rumbled on throughout 2019 deploying arsenals of tariffs, there were rumblings of discontent in Beijing’s backyard as Hong Kong erupted.

An attempt to amend the territory’s extradition law triggered the worst crisis in the city since its handover to China in 1997. If Paris’s protesters still had a nostalgic touch of 1968 about them, then Hong Kong’s activists took the art of street resistance to a whole new level and near art form.

“Be water,” became the motto of those on the city’s streets as they sought to adopt Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee’s philosophy to be “formless and shapeless, like water”, in response to the increasingly draconian heavy handed security crackdown.

Occupy, disrupt, disperse and repeat, became the tactics in Hong Kong where at times the demonstration took on the air of a full-scale uprising as Beijing’s communist government looked on anxiously and impatiently.

Time and again across the globe during the course of 2019 sharp disruptions to normalcy characterised this resistance to what many saw as the dysfunctional status quo. In increasingly polarised societies the quest for political and socio-economic change seemed infectious. Nowhere was this more evident than in Latin America and the Middle East.

Latin America's citizens were and still are angry at their political systems due to corruption and a lack of results on citizen security and economic promises. They remain upset about inequality, low growth and the increasing cost of living.

From Santiago to La Paz, urbanisation and young people savvy with social media made rapid organisation of protests in cities possible.

For a time in 2019 the administration of the US President and the Venezuela opposition believed – indeed insisted – that this would be the year President Nicolas Maduro would fall. So much so in fact that as early as the end of January, National Assembly President Juan Guaido had declared himself Venezuela’s interim president and was quickly recognised by the US and dozens of other countries.

For a time those of us whose journalistic job is to provide a window on the world were convinced that Venezuela would be the international story of the year.

With an international drive for regime change headed by Washington, and given the country’s staggering economic collapse and massive refugee crisis, the scene seemed set.

“The administration over-promised, and I think it over-believed,” was how Fernando Cutz, who served as South America director on the White House National Security Council earlier in the Trump administration, summed up the US approach.

But as 2019 draws to a close Maduro still clings to power in Venezuela, while Juan Guaido has fallen from the headlines.

Meanwhile in other parts of Latin America, citizens are either still protesting or recovering from social unrest. In Bolivia President Evo Morales was forced to seek political asylum in Mexico and Argentina, and conservative President Jeanine Anez aims to hold new elections in the near future.

Elsewhere in the region, despite being one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, Chile surprised many as a 3 per cent rise in metro prices in October served as the catalyst for months of violent protests. As in so many of Chile’s neighbouring countries, social inequality has been steadily increasing and citizens struggle to make ends met on the minimum salary. In the Chilean capital Santiago the protests, which are demanding a new constitution, have been characterised by violent clashes with the Chilean National Police, and human rights groups have accused the security services of gross abuses.

Watching these entire goings-on, in what former US Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger once controversially described as America’s “backyard”, is of course Washington. Not that the administration of Donald Trump was spared from some traumatic political ups and down of its own in 2019.

Among the top traumas for Trump this past year of course has been the report into Russian meddling in American politics that was at last completed by former FBI chief and special counsel for the US Department of Justice, Robert Mueller.

While Trump’s critics were disappointed by a lack of evidence tying him to the Russian provocateurs, they would have got some consolation toward year's end after the president became only the third in US history to face the fate of impeachment.

Trump’s big mistake was his request to Volodymyr Zelensky the Ukrainian president, to “do us a favour” and dig up dirt on Democratic presidential campaign rival Joe Biden’s son, who had business relationships in Ukraine.

That Zelensky, a former comedian, trounced Petro Poroshenko in the Ukrainian presidential election earlier in the year was just another of 2019’s more unusual political stories. There were of course other global headline makers, events and issues throughout the year.

In March Nairobi-bound Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed near the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia, after taking off from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. All 157 people on board lost their lives and the crash resembled that of a Lion Air plane in Indonesia in October 2018.

Both aircraft were Boeing 737 MAX 8 models, sparking a worldwide debate about the plane's safety and resulting in the grounding of the model by carriers and regulators around the globe.

Still in Africa, Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, taking hundreds of lives and leaving a trail of destruction that made it one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere.

For a continent already racked by the effects of the climate crisis, Idai was another chilling reminder of the destructive power of the kind of storms that will become more common as the world warms up. Its impact in 2019 only added to the growing concern over climate change that was another of the year’s big stories leading to yet more protests.

As the scientific prognosis for our planet worsened, it was 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg who became the face of anguished opposition to “business as usual”. Her fiery speech at the United Nations in September warned of the end of the world and inspired other school students to organise protests across the globe.

At one point there were at least two coordinated multi-city protests in 2019 involving more than one million students. Perhaps not surprisingly Thunberg went on to become the youngest person to be chosen by Time magazine as its 2019 “Person of the Year” in a tradition that started in 1927.

While the climate change debate took on a new urgency and momentum this past year, other stories had a depressing familiarity about them. Global Islamist-inspired terrorism has become such a preoccupation these past years, and 2019 was no exception. Across a three-month span we were reminded yet again of its bloody transnational nature. In February a suicide-bomb attack, which was carried out by a young Kashmiri and killed more than 40 Indian security forces personnel, brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan into a dangerous face off.

In March a terrorist gunman killed 50 people and wounded 50 more at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, leading Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to describe the attacks as “one of New Zealand's darkest days”. Six days later the country passed a sweeping ban on semi-automatics and assault rifles.

Islamist-inspired bombers were back on Easter Sunday, in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo where a series of blasts at churches, hotels and a housing complex killed more than 250 people and wounded hundreds more. On April 23, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Four months later of course the infamous IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died after detonating his own suicide vest when US Special Forces carried out a raid to kill him in the Syrian province of Idlib.

“We killed the last murderous b****** who ran IS, let’s go get the next one,” proclaimed one tough-talking US Republican Senator in the wake of al-Baghdadi’s death, but IS still lives on.

Meanwhile, as the world was still recovering from the shock of Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in northeastern Syria, in other parts of the turbulent Middle East some elected leaders of countries were being removed albeit in very different circumstances. Once more it was 2019’s hallmark street protests that led to the departure of prime minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon and his counterpart in Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Now, as this year ends, the talk is of a new Arab Spring – one that, while sharing certain characteristics of 2011, has some very distinctive qualities of its own.

Drawing parallels between the protests in Lebanon and Iraq is always dangerous given their many historical and structural differences, but they do have key similarities that point to important political and regional trends.

From Beirut to Baghdad the common factors that connect the protests include a deep and widespread feeling of antipathy toward the Iranian regime and general discontent with mass poverty and unemployment. In both a predominantly young population are sick and tired with high levels of unemployment, corruption and the elite’s pickpocketing of wealth.

“From Iraq to Beirut, one revolution and it won’t die,” chant protesters in the Lebanese capital, their call reciprocated in Baghdad.

And so the cry of protest and change has reverberated around the world during 2019 with long-term rulers being ousted by popular demonstrations in Algeria, Sudan and Bolivia. Many of these mass protests have in effect been leaderless themselves driven along by sheer weight of numbers and support.

The motives of the millions who marched this year might have been diverse but at their heart signifies the failures of representational politics where out-of-touch politicians are oblivious, condescending or dismissive of the concerns of the masses.

Perhaps what’s most distinctive about 2019’s protests is the way governments – from the democratic to the autocratic – have tried to defuse unrest with concessions and offers of reform. This at least is a good sign, suggesting that the protests of 2019 may eventually lead to significant political change for the better.

Here’s hoping that’s indeed the case. A happy and peaceful New Year to one and all.