Freedom in the World 2012: The Arab Uprisings and Their Global Repercussions

Washington

The political uprisings that have swept the Arab world over the past year represent the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism, according to Freedom in the World 2012, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual global survey of political rights and civil liberties. Yet even as the Arab Spring triggered unprecedented progress in some countries, it also provoked a harsh and sometimes murderous reaction, with many leaders scrambling to suppress real or potential threats to their rule. The repercussions of this backlash have been felt across the Middle East, as well as in China, Eurasia, and Africa.

A total of 26 countries registered net declines in 2011, and only 12 showed overall improvement, marking the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements. While the Middle East and North Africa experienced the most significant gains—concentrated largely in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—it also suffered the most declines, with a list of worsening countries that includes Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Syria and Saudi Arabia, two countries at the forefront of the violent reaction to the Arab Spring, fell from already low positions to the survey’s worst-possible ratings.

“We’ve been through a multiyear period in which the world’s authoritarians seemed to be on the march and the democracies appeared to be in retreat,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “But the past year’s trends give reason for hope—especially because they arose in a region of the world where many observers dismissed the idea of democratic change as futile. We are at a historic moment, and it is imperative that the United States be fully involved in the difficult process of democracy building that lies ahead.”

Published annually since 1972, Freedom in the World examines the ability of individuals to exercise their political and civil rights in 195 countries and 14 territories around the world. The latest edition analyzes developments that occurred in 2011, and assigns each country and territory a status of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free based on a scoring of their performance on key democracy indicators.

Two countries changed in status this year: The Gambia, which declined from Partly Free to Not Free, and Tunisia, which moved from Not Free to Partly Free in one of the largest single-year improvements in the history of Freedom in the World. Tunisia’s gains came as a result of the ouster of longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the holding of free and fair constituent assembly elections.

Three of the world’s more promising young democracies saw a troubling backslide in 2011: Hungary, South Africa, and Ukraine. Although it suffered no net change in score this year, Turkey was also identified as a country of particular concern for a series of political arrests and pressure on media freedom. Among longtime authoritarian states, declines were noted in a number of countries in energy-rich Eurasia, including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

On a positive note, three of the world’s most repressive societies—Burma, Libya, and to a much lesser extent Cuba—experienced improvements. The Asia-Pacific region continued to record steady gains on a majority of indicators.

“Tunisia’s emergence as possibly the Arab world’s first genuine electoral democracy is a development of profound significance,” said Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House. “Unfortunately, the examples of Ukraine, which suffered major declines, and Turkey, where authoritarian tendencies have risen to the surface, are disturbing reminders of the difficulty of building durable democratic systems. Elections are the first step, but what comes after them may be even more important.”

Key global findings:

Free: The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2011 remained unchanged at 87, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and 3,016,566,100 people—or 43 percent of the global population.

Partly Free: The number of Partly Free countries stood at 60, or 31 percent of all countries assessed by the survey, and home to 1,497,442,500 people, or 22 percent of the world’s population.

Not Free: The number of countries deemed to be Not Free was 48, representing 24 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 2,453,231,500, or 35 percent of the global population, more than half of whom lived in China.

Electoral Democracies:  The number of electoral democracies increased by two and stands at 117. Three countries achieved electoral democracy status due to elections that were widely regarded as improvements: Niger, Thailand, and Tunisia. Nicaragua dropped from the list of electoral democracies in 2011.

Worst of the Worst: Of the 48 countries designated as Not Free, nine have been given the survey’s lowest possible rating of 7 for both political rights and civil liberties: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Two territories, Tibet and Western Sahara, were also ranked among the worst of the worst.

An additional 7 countries and 1 territory received scores that were slightly above those of the worst-ranked countries, with ratings of 6,7 or 7,6 for political rights and civil liberties: Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, Libya, and South Ossetia.

Key regional findings:

Middle East and North Africa: Tunisia rose from among the worst-performing Middle Eastern countries to achieve Partly Free status and a place on the list of electoral democracies. While Egypt and Libya remained Not Free, with the latter still far behind the former, both countries saw major improvements in 2011. Declines were noted in Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, most of which stemmed from the backlash against the year’s uprisings. Israel, the only Free country in the region, also suffered a decline due to a series of laws and policies that posed threats to freedom of expression and civil society.

 

Sub-Saharan Africa: The Gambia experienced the most notable decline over the past year. Its status moved from Partly Free to Not Free due to a presidential election that was judged neither free nor fair. Djibouti, Ethiopia, Malawi, Sudan, and Uganda also saw declines. Improvements were noted in Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Zambia.

Asia-Pacific: The Asia-Pacific region has been the only one to record steady overall gains in the majority of indicators over the past five years. In 2011, progress was noted in Burma, Indian Kashmir, Singapore, and Thailand. Declines were registered in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, as well as in China, where authorities carried out a major campaign of repression in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia: The region saw notable declines in two promising young democracies: Ukraine and Hungary. Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan also declined, while improvements were recorded in Slovakia.

Americas: Nicaragua suffered a decline in political rights and lost its electoral democracy status due to irregularities in advance of and during the presidential election, which gave Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega another term in office. Declines were also noted in Ecuador and Puerto Rico, while improvements were seen in Guatemala.

Western Europe and North America: In the face of the most serious economic crisis in the postwar period and significant political unrest as a result of austerity measures, the countries of Western Europe and North America remained unwilling or unable to develop effective policies to ensure assimilation and fair treatment of immigrants. In parts of Europe, far-right parties with an anti-immigrant and anti–European Union perspective continued to gather strength. While these countries generally maintained their existing democratic standards during 2011, Greece suffered a notable decline due to the installation of an unelected technocrat as prime minister. Italy’s similar experience was offset by a reduction in media concentration associated with the departure of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister.

To view the complete findings, click here.

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