One might expect given last year’s headlines across the Middle East as well as promising political developments in authoritarian countries from Burma to Cuba that 2011 was a banner year for freedom. The reality is more complicated. The year was noteworthy for some significant and potentially even historic achievements, but many societies endured intensified repression.
Each year, Freedom House issues its Freedom in the World report, a comprehensive global tally of the gains and losses for freedom over the previous year, designating countries as free, not free, or partly free based on their performance on a series of numerically based indicators. In raw numbers, the state of freedom at the end of 2011 looked like this: 87 free countries, 60 partly free countries and 48 not-free countries. Out of 195 countries, 117 are electoral democracies, two more than the year previous, but still six fewer than in the high-water mark year of 2005.
Unfortunately, the number of countries exhibiting gains this past year, 12, was lower than the number of countries that declined, 26. Yes, several Arab countries improved, but even more launched retaliatory crackdowns on dissent. Serious declines were also noted in Central and Eastern Europe
Freedom House has called 2011 a potentially transformational year because of the demands for freedom that were at the core of the Arab uprisings. To this end, we’ve identified the following as the year’s 10 most significant developments:
Genuine Arab democracy
Under the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia ranked among the most repressive societies in the Middle East and North Africa, along with Syria and Saudi Arabia. Unlike in Egypt, where the military has insisted on maintaining a status beyond the rule of law since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the Tunisian military has eschewed political involvement. The post-revolutionary leadership conducted fair elections, has tolerated a free press and opted for pragmatism over vengeance in dealings with the old elite. It is the one true success story from the Arab Spring thus far.
Three fewer dictators
It’s a rare year that sees three of the world’s most durable despots overthrown through citizen action. Mubarak, Ben Ali and Libya’s Muammar el-Qadaffi accounted for 96 years of unaccountable power. There is reason to hope that their example will soon be followed by two more Mideast strongmen: Bashar al-Assad, who with his father has ruled Syria for 40 years and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years.
Tahrir phenomenon pushback
Trends in the Arab world were not all positive. Assad’s murderous campaign against the Syrian people received the most attention. But old elites throughout the region were clearly shaken by the fates of their counterparts. Instead of moving toward reform, they tightened the screws through killings, arrests, torture, censorship and other tactics. Major repression was seen in Yemen and Bahrain, as well as more modest crackdowns in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon.
The intensified violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq as US forces completed their withdrawal touched on a broader threat to democracy posed by Middle Eastern sectarianism. Differences among various strains of Islam complicated the crackdown on mainly Shiite protesters in Bahrain and played a role in the crisis in Syria. The Sunni-Shiite rivalry also presents a serious threat to political stability in Lebanon, while in Egypt, anti-Christian sentiment flared into violence during 2011, with the tacit assistance of the military.
Hope for the most repressed
Burma has for years ranked alongside North Korea as one of the world’s most closed societies. The military-controlled nation is experiencing what might evolve into a major political opening. The new government of President Thein Sein has permitted more public discussion, tolerated a measure of press commentary, freed longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and cleared the path for her party’s participation in elections. Cuba, also one of the world’s most repressive countries, experienced a small improvement with the limited reduction of economic restrictions by the government of Raul Castro.
(Some) good news in Asia
In a region whose dominant power, China, maintains the world’s most sophisticated and comprehensive system of authoritarian political control, the recent trend in Asia has been largely positive. Aside from the improvements in Burma, the past year was notable for more open and competitive elections in Singapore, whose unique variant of “guided democracy” has been in place for several decades. In fact, for all Asian countries, not including the Pacific islands, practically every indicator measured by Freedom in the World improved to some degree. Thailand and Malaysia moved in generally positive directions.
Danger signs for new democracies
Until recently, Ukraine, Hungary and South Africa were regarded as important success stories for democratic development. Now, the democratic credentials of all three are coming under question. The steepest decline in the institutions of freedom has taken place in Ukraine, where a series of negative developments was punctuated by the conviction of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on dubious charges. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has pushed through a new constitution and a raft of laws that could seriously weaken press freedom, judicial independence and a fair election process. And in South Africa, new media regulations and evidence of pervasive corruption within the African National Congress leadership threaten to undermine the country’s celebrated achievements in peaceful democratic change.
The Turkish model wobbles
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Erdogan has been credited with improving his country’s democratic institutions, most notably by bringing Turkey’s powerful military under civilian control. But things have taken a distinct turn for the worse. A wave of arrests has targeted Kurdish rights advocates, journalists, academics, members of the political opposition and leading members of the military. The continued pursuit of the wide-ranging, murky and politically fraught Ergenekon conspiracy case is a poor example for a government that claims to represent a model of democratic development for nearby societies in the Middle East.
Long-term setbacks in Eurasia
The past year featured the continuation of a decade-long trend of setbacks for the wealthiest and most “modern” former Soviet countries: Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. The level of freedom fell in all three countries, despite rising popular demands for reform and warning signs from the Middle East. Authoritarians in Eurasia have consistently responded to freedom movements outside their borders with intensified clampdowns at home. Year-end protests in Moscow and violent labor unrest in Kazakhstan should remind the world that repression does not in fact lead to stability.
Rich world immigration failures
Europe has already experienced one of the Arab Spring’s unanticipated consequences: a stepped-up wave of would-be migrant workers fleeing upheaval and chaos for the promise of the democratic world’s riches. Europe has shown little inclination to devise humane and rational policies toward the integration of immigrants from Africa and Asia, and so problems worsen. The continent’s economic decline could well exacerbate polarization over immigration policy, as migrants seek refuge from repression and violence at the very time that European jobless rates reach record levels. In particular, a growing number of European governments have taken steps to curtail customs identified with Islam. In 2011, women in France and Belgium were arrested in cases related to the wearing of conservative Muslim female attire. There were also head scarf and mosque-related controversies in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House.