The world became slightly more authoritarian over the past year, according to the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual survey. For the sixth consecutive year, more countries experienced more democratic backsliding than improvement, writes Arch Puddington, the group’s research director.
The pro-democracy surge across the Arab world represents “the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism,” he writes in the following extract from Freedom in the World 2012, released today. But democratic progress in Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, in Egypt and Libya was “offset” by the autocratic backlash within and beyond the region.
Yet the overarching message is one of hope, not reversal. Authoritarian governments who were confident and assertive twelve months ago are now on the defensive.
Freedom’s Trajectory in 2011
The number of countries exhibiting gains for the past year, 12, lagged somewhat behind the number with declines, 26. The most noteworthy gains were in the Middle East—in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—and in three Asian countries—Burma, Singapore, and Thailand. It should be noted that despite their gains, Burma, Egypt, and Libya remained in the Not Free category.
Moreover, while the Middle East experienced the most significant improvements, it also registered the most declines, with a list of worsening countries that includes Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Declines were also noted in a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including Albania, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
The political uprisings that swept across the Arab world over the past year represent the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power. In some cases, protest and upheaval was followed by the beginnings of democratic institution building. At year’s end, two countries with unbroken histories of fraudulent polling, Tunisia and Egypt, had conducted elections that observers deemed competitive and credible, and freedom of expression had gained momentum in many Middle Eastern societies.
Unfortunately, the gains that were recorded in Tunisia, and to a considerably lesser extent in Egypt and Libya, were offset by more dubious trends elsewhere in the region. Indeed, the overthrow of autocrats in these countries provoked determined and often violent responses in many others, most notably in Syria, where by year’s end the Assad dictatorship had killed over 5,000 people in its efforts to crush widespread antigovernment protests. Similar if less bloody crackdowns took place in Bahrain and Yemen.
This pattern of protest and repression—with an emphasis on the latter—was echoed elsewhere in the world as news of the Arab uprisings spread beyond the Middle East and North Africa. In China, the authorities responded to events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with a near-hysterical campaign of arrests, incommunicado detentions, press censorship, and stepped-up control over the internet. The Chinese Communist Party’s pushback, which aimed to quash potential prodemocracy demonstrations before they even emerged, reached a crescendo in December with the sentencing of a number of dissident writers to long terms in prison. In Russia, the state-controlled media bombarded domestic audiences with predictions of chaos and instability as a consequence of the Arab protests, with a clear message that demands for political reform in Russia would have similarly catastrophic results. In other Eurasian countries and in parts of Africa, the authorities went to considerable lengths to suppress demonstrations and isolate the democratic opposition.
The authoritarian response to change in the Middle East had a significant impact on the state of global freedom at year’s end. The findings of Freedom in the World 2012, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties, showed that slightly more countries registered declines than exhibited gains over the course of 2011. This marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.
The continued pattern of global backsliding—especially in such critical areas as press freedom, the rule of law, and the rights of civil society—is a sobering reminder that the institutions that anchor democratic governance cannot be achieved by protests alone. Yet if there is an overarching message for the year, it is one of hope and not of reversal. For the first time in some years, governments and rulers who mistreated their people were on the defensive. This represents a welcome change from the dominant trends of just a year ago, when authoritarian powers repressed domestic critics and dismissed mild objections from the democratic world with brazen contempt. In 2010, China conducted a bullying campaign against the Nobel committee for honoring jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, Russia imposed a second prison term on former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a fraudulent judicial proceeding, and Egyptian president Hosni to have won heavily rigged parliamentary elections with well over 80 percent of the seats.
In 2011, by contrast, the signal events were the overthrow of Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi; successful elections in Tunisia; and democratic ferment throughout the Arab world. Meanwhile, China’s perpetual campaign of repression, directed at writers, lawyers, journalists, religious believers, ethnic minorities, and ordinary citizens who had spoken out against injustice and state abuses, seemed only to show the staggering fears and weaknesses of a regime that otherwise presents the image of a confident, globally integrated economic powerhouse. And in Russia, Vladimir Putin faced his first serious political crisis, as election fraud and the prospect of 12 more years without new leadership drew tens of thousands of protesters to the streets.
Whether the events of 2011 will lead to a true wave of democratic revolution is uncertain. Tunisia was clearly the greatest beneficiary of the year’s changes. It experienced one of the largest single-year improvements in the history of the Freedom in the World report, rising from among the worst-performing Middle Eastern countries to achieve electoral democracy status and scores that place it roughly alongside such Partly Free countries as Colombia and Philippines. But much remains to be done, and there are some questions about the positions of the new leaders on such crucial issues as minority rights, freedom of belief, and freedom of expression. Egypt also made significant gains, but they have been overshadowed in many respects by the continued political dominance of the military, its hostility toward media critics, its campaign against human rights organizations, and its humiliating treatment of female protesters. In many other Arab countries, democracy movements have yet to reach even the initial milestone of forcing the resignation of their longtime rulers. The perceived success or failure of these efforts will either continue to inspire similar changes in the rest of the world, or bolster authoritarian calls for “stability” at any price.
Conclusion – Winning Freedom, Sustaining Democracy
As 2011 drew to a close, officials in Egypt made headlines by conducting a series of raids on NGOs that monitor human rights and promote democracy. Most of the targeted organizations were Egyptian; a few were international groups (Freedom House was one of the latter). The authorities were insistent that the raids, which included the seizure of files and computers, were legal and technical in nature. Government officials emphasized and reemphasized that they believed human rights organizations had a role to play in a democratic Egypt. Their actions indicated otherwise. In fact, the behavior of the Egyptian authorities, now and under Mubarak, reflects a deep-seated hostility to NGOs that support democracy and human rights. This in turn points to a broader institutional continuity between the current Egyptian state and the old regime that will present major obstacles to democratic development in the coming months and years, and similar dynamics may play out in other countries where authoritarian rule is being defied.
There were many heroes, many casualties, and many martyrs to freedom’s cause in 2011. There were also many extraordinary achievements. Authoritarians who aspired to rule in perpetuity were toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and autocratic heads of state in Yemen and Syria seem likely to follow. But unlike in communist Eastern Europe in 1989, today’s oppressive leaders have for the most part refused to go quietly, without a fight. Some have adopted a rule or ruin strategy that threatens to condemn those who would supplant them to failure.
Indeed, one of the great disappointments of the Arab Spring is that its principal lesson—that people will eventually rise up against despotism and injustice—has been almost universally rejected by the world’s authoritarian powers. Rather than responding to popular demands for freedom with, at minimum, a gradual plan of moderate reforms, despots in the Middle East and elsewhere have either tightened the screws or flatly excluded changes to the status quo.
China fell into the first category with its frenzied campaign against political dissent. So too did Bashar al-Assad in Syria, with his repudiation of talks with the opposition and a murderous campaign against peaceful protesters across the country. Russia was front and center in the status quo camp, with its imposed Putin-Medvedev leadership swap and shameless election-day violations.
Clearly, constructing successful democratic states in the Middle East and elsewhere represents a far more formidable challenge than was the case in Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. Adding to the difficulty is the role of China and Russia, both major economic powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council whose political elites have a stake in the failure of new and aspiring democracies. There is reason to believe that the influence of these two powers could become magnified in the near future. As the European debt crisis deepened in 2011, there were widespread reports that EU leaders were looking to Beijing for bailout assistance. Likewise, the Russian president traveled to several European capitals with a package of economic deals designed to help the beleaguered region in its time of need, with strings attached. Ultimately, China seems to have rejected serious involvement in Europe’s woes, and nothing of significance materialized from Medvedev’s initiative. But the very fact that the world’s most successful league of democracies would countenance involving two of the world’s great authoritarian powers in its financial rescue is a chilling commentary on the current state of both the global economy and the democratic world’s political morality, not to mention its survival instincts.
What of the United States? Can it be relied on to stand as the international beacon of freedom given its present economic torpor and political gridlock? American politics have sent conflicting signals over the past year. The notion that it is time for America to shrug off its global commitments has been increasingly posited by foreign policy analysts and some political figures. A prominent candidate for the Republican presidential nomination has put himself squarely in favor of backing away from the world’s problems, saying the United States should simply “mind its own business.” Leading figures from both major political parties criticized the Obama administration for its role in the NATO campaign that helped Libyan rebels overthrow the Qadhafi regime.
On the positive side, the Obama administration has evolved from its early discomfort with democracy as a foreign policy theme to a position where it episodically places its words, and in a few cases policy muscle, behind struggles for freedom abroad. Despite the unfortunate characterization that it was “leading from behind,” America’s firmness in assisting NATO’s Libyan campaign was an important step. After initial hesitation, the administration has also cautiously supported the process of building democratic systems in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. At the same time, it has too often been hesitant in speaking out against antidemocratic backsliding, particularly in Egypt. President Obama himself has made several important statements about America’s commitment to democratic change around the world, but he has failed to invoke the authority of the White House on specific cases. Instead it is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has publicly addressed violations of human rights in Russia, Hungary, and Turkey, and aligned the administration with the forces of change in Burma and elsewhere where prospects for freedom’s growth have opened up.
If the past year has demonstrated that courage and sacrifice are essential to the achievement of freedom, a somewhat different set of characteristics are required to build the democratic infrastructure that will ensure long-term observance of political rights and civil liberties. These characteristics include the self-confidence needed to accept the complexities, and occasionally irresponsibility, of a free press; the fortitude to impose restrictions on oneself as well as on one’s political opponents as part of the fight against corruption; and the perspicacity to accept that the judiciary, police, and other critical institutions must function without political interference.
In far too many parts of the world, these qualities proved to be in short supply during 2011. Thus in addition to singling out the full-fledged authoritarians for special attention, it is imperative to shine the spotlight on leaders who, having come to power through legitimate democratic means, have set about systematically undermining the aspects of freedom that they find inconvenient. The temptation to create a quasi-authoritarian regime, in which standards that reinforce the leader’s authority are embraced and those that complicate his goals are dispensed with, can have disastrous consequences for democracies with shallow roots. Prosecuting an opposition leader or closing a television station can be the first steps down a slippery slope, as witnessed in the careers of Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chávez, both of whom dragged seriously flawed political systems into new depths of dysfunction and stagnation.
Still, while the year 2010 ended on a pessimistic note, with authoritarianism seemingly on the march, the events of 2011 have presented more hopeful prospects. Unaccountable and oppressive rulers have been put on notice that their actions will not be tolerated forever. The year of Arab uprisings has reminded the world that ordinary people want freedom even in societies where such aspirations have been written off as futile. This is a lesson to which the world’s leading democracies, especially the United States, should pay special heed. It should dispel free societies’ persistent doubts about the strength and universal appeal of their institutions and values. The opportunities that have been opened up by brave people in Tunis and Cairo should prompt a reenergized democratic world to address the twin challenges of how dictatorships can be overturned, and how stable and durable fellow democracies can be built in their place.