Freedom Improved in the Middle East, but Authoritarian Repression Persists

From Tehran to Tel Aviv, marginal gains were overshadowed by attacks on human rights.

Israeli anti-judicial reform protests, Tel Aviv

In early 2023, Israeli anti-judicial reform protests began in various cities in Israel. The protests are against the judicial reform proposed by the government of recently re-elected prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: Lizzy Shaanan, WikiCommons


For the first time in a decade, freedom improved—albeit marginally—in the Middle East. Findings from Freedom in the World 2023 show that Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) all saw improvements in political rights or civil liberties in 2022, and only Iran and the West Bank territory experienced overall declines. Nine countries and territories had no change.

Most people in the Middle East have spent some or all of their lives under authoritarian governments. Since the first edition of Freedom in the World was published in 1973, only two countries in the region, Israel and Lebanon, have been categorized as Free. Today, Israel remains the only Free country, with Kuwait and Lebanon making up the Partly Free cohort. In 2022, over 75 percent of the region’s population lived in Not Free countries, where exercising fundamental rights like free expression and association can result in imprisonment and violence.

Yet the desire for freedom persists. In the Middle East, it was most dramatically exemplified by the mass antigovernment protests that have spread throughout Iran, which persist today even in the face of a brutal government crackdown.

On the Arabian Peninsula, abuses overshadow reforms

Political rights are nearly nonexistent in most countries on the Arabian Peninsula, where large swaths of the population can’t choose their leaders in free elections and lack other institutions like independent courts, media, and civil society through which bad actors can be held to account. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have seen slight openings for women’s rights, religious freedom, and economic opportunity.

Over the past five years, Saudi Arabia’s female workforce has nearly doubled, in part due to the loosening of guardianship laws and discriminatory policies that prohibited women from driving, and from working alongside men. In the UAE, authorities have taken steps to expand religious freedom through the construction of diverse places of worship, including churches and the country’s first synagogue. In Kuwait, the only Partly Free country on the otherwise Not Free peninsula, a court overturned a law used to prosecute transgender people, finding that it violated the right to personal freedom.

Unfortunately, progress has been piecemeal and for the majority, fundamental rights and freedoms remain out of reach. Freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia remains heavy curtailed: for example, in August, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity, in one of the longest speech-related prison sentences globally in 2022. Even with the international spotlight on Qatar, which hosted the 2022 World Cup, authorities there handed out life sentences to several activists for protesting peacefully against a discriminatory election law.

Despite brutal repression, Iranians demand freedom

In Iran, political rights and civil liberties have been severely restricted since the 1979 revolution. However, Iranians have been unwavering in their demands for freedom: in the massive 2009 Green Movement that challenged fraudulent election results, for example, and again in 2022, when enormous antigovernment protests broke out in September after Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year old woman, died in police custody following her arrest by Tehran’s morality police for violating the mandatory hijab law.

The protests brought global attention to the Islamic Republic’s long history of discrimination and brutality. Chants of “Woman, life, freedom!” could be heard in cities around the world as people demonstrated solidarity with Iranians’ calls for liberty and justice.

But as elsewhere in the region, the price of dissent is high in Iran. The regime cracked down on the protests using a range of draconian tools including internet shutdowns, mass arrests, and abhorrent physical violence. Yet citizens have returned to the streets again and again. For many, the fight for freedom is worth the risks.

Even as repression continues, the movement has prompted concessions from Iran’s authoritarian regime. In December, authorities dissolved the morality police, which historically have been responsible for disciplining anyone who violates the mandatory hijab law. While improperly wearing the hijab remains illegal, a growing number of women now enter public spaces without head coverings.

Israel’s fragile gains

While freedom in Israel ticked up slightly in 2022—due to minor improvements in freedom of assembly—the positive trend is fragile.

Elections in late 2022 brought former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power, this time at the head of a far-right, ultranationalist government. Early this year, the new government proposed legislation that would give politicians greater control over judicial appointments and, among other changes, allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court rulings. Citizens have taken to the streets to protest the law, fearing it would damage the system of checks and balances by undermining the independent judiciary.

The new government may also be poised to escalate its occupation of the West Bank. In 2022 alone, Israeli authorities demolished over 950 Palestinian structures and housing units in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, leaving more than 1,000 people homeless. Meanwhile, violence erupted in the West Bank in February, when two Israeli Jewish settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman. Other settlers responded with a violent rampage, with Palestinian officials and media reporting one death and multiple injuries, and dozens of cars and homes set on fire.

The fight for freedom

While fundamental freedoms are under attack across most of the region, the findings of Freedom in the World 2023 also offer reason for hope. When Freedom House issued the first edition of its global survey in 1973, 30 percent of countries were rated Free. Today, 48 percent of countries are Free.

Ongoing protests against repression in Iran, and other authoritarian countries around the world, suggest that people’s desire for freedom is enduring. Democracies should support them, and help ensure that the next 50 years bring the world closer to a state of freedom for all.

Captain Ibrahim Traoré, installed as leader of Burkina Faso following a coup, gives a news conference in October 2022, in Ouagadougou. (Image credit: Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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