The global repercussions of the Arab uprising

Freedom House has described the Arab uprising as an event of potentially transformational importance.

Bibi netanyahu (photo credit: JPost Staff)
Bibi netanyahu
(photo credit: JPost Staff)
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 Israel.
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 Salvador.
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 exception.
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.
Tunisia had long stood out for the thoroughness of its system of oppression. The Ben-Ali regime had smothered the opposition.
Dissenters 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 law.
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.
Prospects in 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 enormous.
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 ballot-stuffing.
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 with contempt.
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 powerhouse.
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.
There is, 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 revolution.
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.