Since 1972, Freedom House has been measuring the state of global political
rights and civil liberties through an annual report entitled Freedom in the
World. When the report was launched, global democracy was in grim shape,
restricted to Western Europe, North America and a few other locales, including
While the Middle East was dominated by despots of one stripe or
another, the region did not stand out from the rest in its democracy deficit.
Dictatorship and autocracy reigned over Eastern Europe, practically all of
Africa, and much of Asia and Latin America. Indeed, reform seemed more likely in
Lebanon, Morocco, or Egypt than in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, or El
By 2000, however, democratic forms of government were
commonplace in every region except the Middle East. The countries of Central
Europe were headed for European Union membership, Chile and Argentina had rid
themselves of juntas, Nelson Mandela was president of a democratic South Africa.
A tidal wave of freedom had swept over the world; the Middle East was the
It is for this reason that Freedom House has described the
Arab uprising as an event of potentially transformational importance, possibly
as significant as the collapse of Communism two decades ago. To be sure, there
is but one clear success story to emerge from the Arab Spring:
Tunisia had long stood out for the thoroughness of its system of
oppression. The Ben-Ali regime had smothered the opposition.
had been jailed or exiled, press censorship was pervasive and the judiciary was
under strict political control. Yet it is Tunisia that has experienced the most
far-reaching change. It has been transformed from a showcase for Arab autocracy
to an electoral democracy whose new leaders have pledged themselves to
moderation, adherence to civil liberties and the rule of
Unfortunately, it is Egypt, and not Tunisia, whose fate will set the
tone for democracy’s future in the region, and developments there have
oscillated between the moderately upbeat to the deeply unsettling. Authority has
not shifted seamlessly from Mubarak to a civilian government, but has been
appropriated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a group of
military leaders who have engaged in periodic crackdowns on critical media,
raided the offices of civil society organizations, mistreated women activists
and engaged in violence against Christians.
While a protracted election
process was conducted with an adherence to fairness that stood in vivid contrast
to the sham polls of the Mubarak years, the dominant forces in the new
parliament will be Islamist parties, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to
Salafists, both with questionable democratic convictions.
Egypt are unclear, as is the case in other Arab countries gripped by upheaval,
notably Syria, Libya and Yemen. While we can’t know whether free societies will
emerge from the current struggles, we should be encouraged that countries where
unchallenged despotism held sway face futures in which more just and accountable
government is a real option. The implications of the removal of the Assad
dictatorship for the Syrian people, Iran’s ability to project power beyond its
borders, and peace between Israel and Palestine are
Repercussions from the Arab Spring have also been felt beyond
the region. In the wake of the Tahrir Square protests, Chinese authorities
launched a paranoid campaign against a nonexistent “Jasmine Revolution”
movement. The result was an all-out drive against dissident writers, human
rights lawyers and ethnic minorities that was marked by arrests, disappearances,
and prison terms that sometimes exceeded 10 years.
A more instructive
example is Russia. Having set loose the state-controlled media to bombard
domestic audiences with predictions of chaos and instability as a consequence of
the Arab protests, Russia itself experienced an upsurge of protests after the
announcement of the cynical arrangement that opened the door for Vladimir Putin
to return to the presidency and elections that were marked
Indeed, the Arab Spring has, for now, shifted the global
balance away from authoritarianism and toward free societies. For the first time
in some years, governments and rulers who mistreat their people are on the
defensive. This represents a welcome change from recent trends where
authoritarians repressed critics and dismissed objections from the outside world
In 2010, China and Russia acted with self-assured
arrogance in prosecuting dissidents, mocking critics and bragging that their
illiberal systems were as legitimate as democracy. Winds have shifted, and so
have the reputations of tyrants. China’s perpetual campaign of repression,
directed at ordinary citizens who had spoken out against state abuse, seemed
only to show the staggering fears and weaknesses of a regime that otherwise
presents the image of a confident, globally integrated economic
And in Russia, Putin faced his first serious political crisis
as 12 years of authoritarian rule and the prospect of 12 more years without new
leadership drew tens of thousands of protesters to the streets.
of course, no guarantee that recent and fragile gains can be sustained. Egypt’s
offensive against NGOs that seek to promote democracy (among them Freedom House)
is particularly disturbing.
The forces behind the anti-NGO drive are an
alliance of holdovers from the Mubarak government and the SCAF, with the support
of the Islamists. Just as under Mubarak, it is pro-democracy liberals who are
the principal targets of pressure from the authorities. Likewise, the NGO
controversy betrays the kind of conspiracy thinking that so often has poisoned
Arab political life.
The future of Egypt is thus critical to the fate of
the Arab Spring.
Of one thing we can be sure: there are many people of
bad faith, in Egypt and beyond,who pray nightly for the failure of its
Yet despite its setbacks, Egypt remains freer than was the
case under Mubarak and, once presidential elections are completed, can hopefully
continue the transition towards democracy.
There is a great deal riding
on Egyptian developments: justice for the Egyptian people, prospects for change
in Egypt’s neighbors, even, to a degree, the future course of global
freedom.The writer is the vice-president for research at Freedom House.
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