By Arch Puddington, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Arch Puddington is vice president of research at Freedom House. The views expressed are his own.
As the year 2012 drew to a close, events in the Middle East dramatized two competing trends: demands for change pushed forward by popular democratic movements, and an authoritarian response that combines intransigence with strategic adaptability.
The ambiguous nature of these developments, combined with either instability or authoritarian retrenchment in other regions, had a significant impact on the state of global freedom. The findings of Freedom in the World 2013, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties, showed that more countries registered declines than exhibited gains over the course of 2012. This marks the seventh consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements. At the same time, the number of countries ranked as Free increased by three, and now stands at 90, suggesting that the overall ferment includes a potential for progress as well as deterioration.
Developments in Egypt in particular encapsulated a pattern in which gains for freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were threatened by opposition from governments, security forces, ruling families, or religiously based political factions. In Egypt, the year was notable for a flawed but competitive presidential election, the withdrawal of the military from its self-appointed political supremacy, and a continued assertiveness by popular movements in the face of antidemocratic threats.
Yet despite the energy of civil society and the shift to civilian rule, the country was confronted by daunting problems, experiencing at various times a campaign to hobble foreign and local nongovernmental organizations, the dissolution of an elected parliament by the judiciary, a faulty process to draft a new constitution, resistance to change by entrenched elites, and a power grab by newly elected president Mohamed Morsy that was only partially thwarted by mass protests. Finally, at year’s end, the state prosecutor announced plans to investigate leading opposition figures on charges of treason, and political commentators for alleged defamation.
As in the world at large, more countries in the MENA region endured declines than made gains in their drive toward freedom in 2012. Aspirations for elections and accountable government were often fiercely suppressed through arrests, imprisonment, police violence, and in Syria, a murderous war waged by the state against its own people. However, there is reason to remain cautiously optimistic about the region’s future. Events in Tunisia and Libya, where popular uprisings before and after Egypt’s had also expelled longtime dictators in early 2011, were generally positive in 2012, even if each encountered challenges and setbacks. Moreover, the societal impulse to shake off autocratic rule, pervasive injustice, and rampant corruption has clearly spread from Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt to neighboring countries.
Much will depend on the commitment to democracy of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that now or may soon find themselves in positions of power. But the past year has provided more evidence that Middle Eastern countries long subject to the dictator’s heel are quickly developing resilient and informed civil societies willing to push back against attempts to curb freedom of expression and thought, distort the electoral process, or concentrate power in the hands of military or religious authorities. In this context, factions or governments that seek to reduce freedom could find it increasingly difficult to do so.
Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful authoritarian leaders have watched events in the Middle East with concern. The findings of Freedom in the World point to a stepped-up drive by authoritarian governments in other regions to weaken precisely the elements of democratic governance that pose the most serious threats to repressive and corrupt rule: independent civil society groups, a free press, and the rule of law. Indeed, a five-year set of comparative data show that while the indicators related to competitive elections and political pluralism declined slightly or actually improved on a global scale between 2008 and 2012, there were notable declines for freedom of the press and expression, freedom of assembly and the rights of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), an independent judiciary, and equal protection under the law. Of particular concern are the ongoing campaigns in Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and elsewhere to thwart those NGOs whose work is deemed to be political in nature. This can include activism in a wide range of fields, including opposing censorship, environmental protection, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-corruption efforts, and fair treatment for minorities.
Such repressive campaigns were especially apparent in Eurasia, where a number of already grim settings grew even more constrained. Russia took a decided turn for the worse after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. Having already marginalized the formal political opposition, he pushed through a series of laws meant to squelch a burgeoning societal opposition. The measures imposed severe new penalties on unauthorized political demonstrations, restricted the ability of NGOs to raise funds and conduct their work, and placed new controls on the internet.
In China, hopes for meaningful political reform were dealt a serious blow with the selection of a new Communist Party leadership team whose members have generally built their careers on hard-line policies. As if to emphasize the point that the new leaders are unlikely to usher in an era of political liberalization, the government has taken steps in the last two months to reinforce internet censorship and surveillance.
Despite setbacks and an accentuated pushback from leading authoritarians, developments over the past year have presented the world with new opportunities for democratic expansion. This is especially true in the Middle East, the one region which, until recently, resisted the democratic revolution of the past three decades. There is no guarantee that progress in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya will hold firm, and indeed quite pessimistic outcomes are possible. Nonetheless, no one predicted the breakthroughs that have already taken place. These breakthroughs clearly present the possibility of more far reaching changes over the next period. The challenge for democrats in the Middle East – and for their supporters elsewhere in the world – is to ensure that this remarkable opportunity is not lost.