The Arab Spring and Freedom’s Future
As we mark the first anniversary of the events that led to the Arab Spring, it is worth highlighting the uprisings’ far-reaching repercussions for freedom, both in the region and beyond. Freedom in the World, the report on global freedom issued annually by Freedom House, found more declines than gains worldwide for 2011, but we believe that the overarching message for the year is one of hope and not reversal. At a minimum, we can say that developments in the Middle East touched off the most serious challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. While the challenges today are far more complex than in 1989, the basic theme of captive peoples seeking freedom after decades of oppression is very much the same.
In a region that seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing three deeply entrenched dictators: Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi of Libya.
Tunisia has made the greatest strides toward democracy in the Arab world. Though it still faces numerous hurdles, the country has conducted honest elections, expanded press freedom, and generally chosen legal mechanisms and pragmatism over extralegal vengeance in dealing with the old elite.
Egypt also achieved gains, with parliamentary elections conducted with a degree of fairness that contrasts sharply with the sham procedures of the Mubarak era. More significantly, Egyptians now feel freer to speak out, even protest, albeit still with considerable risk. But the ruling military council’s crackdown against civil society threatens to undermine the positive that has occurred following Mubarak's departure.
Arguably the greatest tribute to the Arab Spring is the fear it has unleashed among other authoritarians. Confronted with the reality that oppressed people will eventually rise up against injustice, many despots have unfortunately opted to tighten the screws rather than make concessions. In the Middle East alone, reaction against the forces of change led to intensified repression in half a dozen countries, the worst case being Bashar al-Assad’s murderous campaign against the Syrian people.
Despite these responses, however, events are moving in freedom’s direction, and those who are contemptuous of democracy are increasingly on the defensive around the world. Vladimir Putin’s announced plans to return to the Russian presidency was met with a major setback in what were supposed to be tightly controlled parliamentary elections and unprecedented protests against corruption and electoral fraud. China’s frantic escalation of censorship and arrests of dissidents similarly revealed the staggering weaknesses of a regime that otherwise presents the image of a self-assured economic powerhouse.
This is a marked change from just one year ago, when myriad signs of authoritarian truculence included China’s bullying tactics against the Nobel committee for honoring jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, Russia’s second fraudulent trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Egypt’s wantonly rigged parliamentary vote.
Constructing Arab democracies will not be easy given the legacy of misery and bloodshed left by Arab autocracies. It may be an even greater challenge than was the case after the Berlin Wall came down. Yet the stakes are just as high as in 1989.
The United States played a critical role in guiding the countries of Eastern Europe toward democratic self-rule. But there are questions as to whether America can stand as such a beacon of freedom in its current state of torpor and gridlock. The country’s leaders have sent conflicting signals. The notion that it is time for America to shrug off its global commitments—to “come home”—has been increasingly posited by foreign policy analysts. Ron Paul’s isolationism has gained many new adherents during the presidential campaign. And figures from both parties criticized U.S. participation in the NATO campaign that helped rebel forces prevail in Libya.
On the positive side, the Obama administration has moved from its early discomfort with democracy as a policy theme to a position where it episodically places its words, and occasionally its muscle, behind struggles for freedom. President Obama himself has made several statements about America’s commitment to democratic change. But whereas President George H. W. Bush, a confirmed realist, invoked the authority of the White House in the historic diplomacy that enabled the transition from communism in Europe, Obama has remained personally detached from critical Arab Spring developments, leaving the world to wonder whether democracy in the region ranks as a major American priority.
The Arab Spring has reminded us that people want freedom even in societies where such aspirations have been written off as futile. Previous transformational events that created momentum for democracy invariably succeeded because American leadership was involved. To assume that things will work out largely on their own as the Arab world struggles to overcome despotism and build free institutions would be a catastrophic mistake. Such a policy would seriously damage American national interests and condemn the Arab people to more years in the authoritarian wilderness.
*David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington are, respectively, president and vice president for research at Freedom House.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.