Divergence and Decline: The Middle East and the World after the Arab Spring

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Nearly two years after it began, the wave of popular uprisings that has shaken the Middle East and North Africa continues to hold the world’s attention. In the most consequential bout of political change in almost two decades, new leaders are emerging through generally free and fair elections, and citizens are demanding rights and accountability from their governments. These are promising signs of democratic progress in a region long dominated by brutal authoritarian regimes. But does this dramatic breakthrough reflect a wider trend toward democracy and good governance around the world?

The findings of Countries at the Crossroads 2012, Freedom House’s comprehensive assessment of democratic governance in a select group of 35 states, suggest that it does not. Crossroads analyzes each country’s performance in four spheres: government accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency. Declines far exceeded improvements in the states covered in this year’s edition, in both number and scale. Large drops in government accountability have corresponded in some cases with declines in the primacy of the rule of law in civil and criminal matters, indicating that legal protections for individual citizens are eroding in tandem with the political leadership’s consolidation of power. Meanwhile, only the scores for free and fair electoral laws and elections—a subsection of accountability and public voice, and arguably one of the simpler areas of governance to improve—showed significant increases. The overall deterioration reflected in this year’s scores is cause for alarm among advocates of democracy, particularly given the prevailing impression that prodemocracy movements are gaining ground.

Indeed, even within the Middle East and North Africa, the 2011 uprisings have had a wide variety of outcomes to date. It is clear from this diversity that the region’s transformation will not happen overnight, and that its success must not be left to chance.

Governance after the Arab Uprisings

The scores for the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries featured in this year’s edition of Crossroads demonstrate the extraordinary turning point at which the region finds itself, between the creation of fair and representative governance systems on the one hand, and faltering progress or backsliding on the other. At the close of the report’s scoring period—the roughly two-year span ending on January 1, 2012, for most countries—there were high expectations for democratic reform in the places that experienced uprisings, but also dashed hopes where authoritarian governments doubled down on the use of force to maintain their grip on power. Moreover, a number of troubling developments during the months after the end of the scoring period suggest that progress toward democratic consolidation, particularly in Egypt, is uncertain.

The wide range in scores among the MENA countries represents one of the largest such intraregional gaps in the Crossroads set, which includes a total of 72 low- and middle-performing governments, with about half covered in each year’s edition. Both the best and worst performers—Tunisia and Bahrain, respectively—are in the MENA region. The gap is particularly clear in the accountability and public voice category, as Tunisia scores more than four points higher than Bahrain on a seven-point scale. A closer look at countries that experienced uprisings during the coverage period will help explain these striking disparities.

Long considered one of the more developed countries in the region given its wealth and modern infrastructure, Bahrain is now performing at the governance level of preuprising Syria under President Bashar al-Assad. The Bahraini government responded to a surge of popular protests that began in February 2011 with police violence and repression, ultimately killing more than 30 people. A contingent of several thousand troops from Bahrain’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors entered the country under Saudi Arabian leadership in mid-March 2011, just before Bahrain’s authorities declared a three-month period of martial law to quash the protests.

The government engaged in the systematic torture of those associated with the protest movement, and used military trials to prosecute civilian suspects. Authorities closely monitored and harassed doctors and hospitals that treated wounded protesters, eventually forcing activists and others to avoid state services and hospitals for fear of being arrested and tortured. Defense lawyers who represented detained protesters were intimidated and arrested, and universities required students to sign pledges that they would not participate in political activity.

Bahrain’s government has also stifled freedom of expression through direct censorship, the harassment and temporary closure of opposition media outlets, and increased persecution and violence against bloggers and journalists. The authorities have similarly harassed domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize the state’s handling of the uprising.

Some would argue that the government is making efforts toward reform, for example through the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and the subsequent release of its forceful report and recommendations on the 2011 crackdown. But the country’s failure to hold anyone accountable for the expansive violations of human rights during the uprising and the continued imprisonment of activists cast doubt on the government’s stated commitment to change.

On the other end of the governance scale is Tunisia, which is now among the better performers in the entire Crossroads set. Though there are no guarantees that the reforms enacted since the historic ouster of longtime leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 will be consolidated, Tunisia began an institution-based democratic transition in the period under review, and the country’s political development to date looks promising.

Tunisia registered gains in all four categories. Its election-related scores improved dramatically, as the October 2011 national polls were run by a new and independent electoral authority, and observers regarded them as genuinely free and fair. There was an explosion of new political parties and civic organizations. Key regulatory restrictions of the Ben Ali era were relaxed, allowing a wave of civil society participation. Some remaining shortcomings, including vaguely drafted campaign rules, should be addressed as the country’s new electoral system develops over time.

The initial flourishing of free and independent media in Tunisia may have come under threat since the end of the coverage period, but overall there has been clear improvement. The new government can solidify these gains, some of which are not yet legally codified, by repealing old legislation that restricts expression—for example, provisions assigning prison terms and heavy fines for remarks that the government deems offensive to Islam—and cracking down on the perpetrators of violent attacks against secular activists.

A major improvement in civil liberties occurred when the government released all of the political prisoners from the Ben Ali era in February 2011. The new authorities also pledged to end arbitrary arrests and reform the prison system, and there was some improvement in the rule of law. Problems related to crime and violence continue, however, and will likely remain in the absence of substantive overhauls designed to boost the competence and impartiality of the police and the judiciary. The government needs to clarify mechanisms for redress of official abuses and should continue to expand civil liberties by implementing strong protections for religious freedom and freedom of association.

Women’s rights are another area of concern, particularly given Tunisia’s long-standing reputation as a progressive force for women’s issues in the region. As in other postuprising states, the electoral victory of Islamist political parties has stoked fears that existing rights could be rolled back, but the establishment of a gender-parity rule for candidate lists represented a positive step.

Regarding anticorruption and transparency, it is imperative that the government build upon the small gains it has made so far. Corruption was a hallmark of the Ben Ali regime, and the institutionalization of safeguards against similar abuses will be crucial to building political legitimacy and public confidence in democratic rule.

Despite the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egypt did not register especially large score changes in this edition of Crossroads, as key Mubarak-era institutions and practices persisted after the president’s fall. In fact, many of country’s scores remained the same—there was no net score change, for example, in rule of law or anticorruption and transparency—and some actually declined. Developments after the end of the period under review suggest that progress will continue to be halting and tenuous. Islamists with highly questionable democratic credentials are assuming positions of leadership, and some of Mubarak’s strategies for maintaining power, including severe restrictions on the media, remain very much in vogue.

This is not to say that there has been no improvement at all. Egypt’s accountability and public voice scores jumped significantly, reflecting the conduct of the constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections in 2011. These polls were a huge improvement over elections held under Mubarak. The former regime’s tactics of extensive vote tampering and violence were absent, and the turnout was much higher than in previous balloting, though not as high as some expected. In a noteworthy sign of change, two parties that had no chance at fair competition under Mubarak—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al-Nour Party—won sizeable blocs in the new legislature. A few problems prevented larger gains in this category, however. The high turnout and good conduct of the constitutional referendum held in March 2011, for example, were undermined when the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) later decreed amendments that were much wider in scope than those approved by voters.

There was an initial upsurge in independent media outlets after Mubarak’s ouster, but old legal and regulatory restrictions continue to limit freedom of expression. The SCAF cracked down on dissent often, including by arresting bloggers and intimidating journalists who criticized military rule. Perhaps most troubling was the role of state media in fomenting sectarian violence in October 2011, when it invited “honorable citizens” to defend the army from what it claimed were violent attacks by Coptic Christian protesters. The ensuing clashes led to the deaths of 28 people. Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, who was elected president after the coverage period, has so far failed to lift the country’s media restrictions, and the initial gains in this area may continue to be rolled back.

Severe Mubarak-era limitations on the registration and activity of NGOs were not removed, despite early signs that the SCAF would consult and include such groups in the policymaking process. In December 2011, the interim government went so far as to raid the offices of foreign and domestic NGOs, detaining numerous employees and confiscating private property. The authorities pursued the resulting spurious legal cases against these employees well into 2012.

Progress related to civil liberties was limited and in some cases nonexistent. Amid ongoing demonstrations over the perceived lack of reform, the SCAF-led government on multiple occasions used excessive and violent force against nonviolent protesters, and tried thousands of civilians in military courts. Detained female protesters were subjected to “virginity checks,” intrusive examinations that were apparently designed to humiliate the women into political passivity. In a chilling indication that the government has no intent of redressing such wrongs, the general who ordered the checks, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, was promoted to chief of the armed forces in August 2012.

Given that this all occurred against a backdrop of military rule, there were very serious concerns during the coverage period about the establishment of civilian control over the military. These concerns may be addressed at the most superficial level as President Morsi consolidates executive authority, but the future role of the military, which has been a powerful political force for decades, will likely remain an open question for quite some time. Morsi’s assertion of control over the generals may carry its own risks. After he forced the retirement of senior military commanders in August 2012, he assumed complete executive and legislative powers, with the latter stemming from the court-ordered dissolution of the new parliament in June. Notwithstanding his stated intention of turning over legislative powers once another parliament in elected, there is no assurance that Morsi will shepherd the country safety toward democracy. The establishment of independent institutions and the introduction of clear checks on executive power are vital for the future of the transition.

Yemen’s scores reflect the largely lawless conditions in the country for most of the coverage period. The year-long revolutionary movement led by protesters demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the ensuing military campaign against antigovernment forces in major urban areas, had a profoundly negative effect on Yemen’s scores. Parliamentary elections that were supposed to be held in April 2009 were postponed for two years and later postponed again amid a state of emergency in 2011. Unbiased information was difficult to obtain because of attacks on journalists, and Saleh accused the media of serving as an aggravating factor in the conflict.

Civil liberties were repeatedly violated amid widespread violence against civilians during the uprising, including the killing of 52 unarmed protesters when government forces fired on demonstrations in the capital in March 2011. Combined with the escalation of sectarian conflict and the near complete lack of legal recourse—the courts were inoperable for much of the period under review, for example—these developments pushed Yemen’s civil liberties scores sharply downward.

Armed conflicts and a broader lack of security have remained serious problems since Saleh’s negotiated departure in February 2012, as has the large number of internally displaced people.

The significant governance gaps in the MENA region will pose a number of challenges for both the would-be democracies and the authoritarian redoubts. Citizens in still-repressive countries may ask for more rights of their own as they witness their neighbors lining up for competitive elections, and autocrats could respond to the threat with crackdowns at home and malign interference beyond their borders. The scores in Countries at the Crossroads 2012 suggest that the region’s new governments lack the kind of institutional strength needed to resist such pressures while being responsive to citizen demands. They also indicate that strategies relying on state violence to suppress calls for reform create further instability and feed a downward spiral in the quality of governance. Successful transitions will require sustained support from democratic forces within each country and from the international community, as early breakthroughs on issues like electoral conduct, free expression, or political prisoners are slowly buttressed by thoroughgoing legal, regulatory, and procedural changes.

Global Findings

Declines in Government Accountability and Rule of Law

Though the dramatic score swings in the Middle East and North Africa were unique to that region, there was a clear overall decline in government performance among the full set of 35 countries. The deterioration was concentrated in two thematic areas: government accountability and the rule of law.

Effective and accountable government encompasses checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; citizen freedom from domination by specific interests and power groups, including the military, foreign powers, organized criminal networks, and dominant single parties; and a civil service founded and operated on the basis of merit rather than political allegiance. More than two-thirds of the countries with previous data registered declines in this subsection of the accountability and public voice category. In addition to Bahrain, five countries outside the MENA region showed particularly large drops.

In Guatemala, weak enforcement of campaign finance regulations has allowed wealthy individuals, many of them with ties to organized crime and drug trafficking, to easily gain access to elected office.

President Daniel Ortega’s increasing dominance of the state apparatus in Nicaragua is manifested in harassment of opposition campaign funders and pressure on the judiciary to rule in line with Ortega’s interests and those of his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

In South Africa, considered a beacon of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, the supremacy of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and the increasing politicization of civil service appointments are leading to a reduction in protections for political activism outside of the ANC.

Sri Lanka’s passage of the 18th Amendment accelerated the concentration of power in the hands of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Among other provisions, the amendment increased executive control over the election process and eliminated a set of independent commissions that had been designed to prevent the politicization of key state functions.

The power of the prime minister in Vietnam has grown considerably since 2007, and the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) maintains its political monopoly. There are some independent and non-VCP candidates for the National Assembly, but nearly all are vetted by a VCP-controlled entity.

The second major area of erosion, the primacy of rule of law in civil and criminal matters, includes protections for the presumption of innocence, due process, access to legal counsel for individuals on an equal basis, and prosecutorial independence.

Decline in this area was especially evident in Bahrain, where civilians tried in military courts were denied due process, and defense lawyers representing protesters were harassed and arrested by the state.

Sri Lanka also saw deterioration in this category amid the increasing politicization of the judicial system to suit President Rajapaksa’s interests. The problem was illustrated most clearly by the jailing of former army general Sarath Fonseka shortly after he ran against Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election.

In Vietnam, the government has increased harassment of lawyers who take on politically sensitive cases and continues to interfere with prosecutors and the judicial system in general. Though VCP officials are disciplined internally through party structures, there has been an erosion of due process outside of the party, as officials generally enjoy impunity for wrongdoing.

The fact that three states—Bahrain, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam—registered declines in both of these areas reflects a troubling trend in which the political leadership increases its control over the state and eliminates its competition even as protections for the rights of individual citizens are whittled away. The distortion of the justice system for political reasons may be clearing a path for the arbitrary abuse of power in a variety of other contexts.

Improvements in Free and Fair Elections

The improvements in this year’s study, limited to electoral laws and elections, pale in comparison to the declines described above. The gains were driven in large part by the competitive elections in Tunisia and Egypt, but two countries outside the Middle East and North Africa also made significant progress in this subcategory.

In Kenya, a new electoral commission and a stronger legal framework for elections ensured that the conduct of the 2010 constitutional referendum was a stark improvement over the violent and contentious presidential vote of 2007.

In Nigeria, the 2011 presidential election featured notable improvements in the registration process and the treatment of different political parties. Though fraud and postelection violence continued to be problems, the administration of the balloting was superior to that of past elections.

While the electoral gains in these and other countries in the Crossroads set are essential for the formation of well-functioning democratic governance systems, they are not sufficient in the absence of similar progress on civil liberties, the rule of law, and transparency.

Regional findings

Although the Crossroads country set includes only a sampling of countries from each region, their individual problems often illustrate emerging issues of concern in different parts of the world.

Violence and Organized Crime in Latin America

In Mexico, the recent intensification of violence related to drug trafficking and the growing influence of organized crime on various facets of democratic life resulted in a number of score declines. Criminal groups are believed to have an impact on the electoral system through financing and voter intimidation, but thus far the changes to Mexico’s electoral scores have been relatively modest, partly because it is not clear that any particular party or faction is benefitting. However, there was a sharp decline in freedom of expression, as criminal violence against journalists soared.

In a similar development, press freedom has deteriorated considerably in Honduras due to an increasingly dangerous environment for journalists. Organized crime and the violence associated with it have also adversely affected civil liberties and the rule of law. As of December 2011, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime was registering 20 homicides a day.

As noted above, organized crime in Guatemala has played a growing role in the electoral process, limiting the opportunity for free political choice. The campaign period for the September 2011 general elections was marred by violence, which particularly targeted candidates for local office. Between January 2011 and the presidential runoff election on November 6, some 40 people were killed and 65 were threatened. At the same time, the country earned some score improvements on the rule of law, as the government and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) have strengthened judicial independence and increased the system’s capacity to hold officials accountable for corruption and other abuses.

Power Grabs and Censorship in Asia

Vietnam dropped in all four scoring categories, with particularly large declines in civil liberties and rule of law; the country’s accountability and public voice scores were already low. Civic organizations have been facing increased restrictions, with the government recently issuing decrees that limited what such groups can publish. Other reasons for score deterioration included the growing concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister; the legal and physical harassment of journalists and bloggers; and the promulgation of a decree that imposes fines on journalists for a range of vaguely defined violations and requires them to identify their sources.

The media environment in Indonesia is growing more restricted, with increased attacks on journalists, more online censorship, and a shrinking group of media owners. The state has blocked corruption trials and investigations, and committed abuses associated with the extraction of natural resources. In May 2010 the country’s widely respected finance minister resigned, citing excessive overlap between political and business interests, with economic oligarchs capable of manipulating government policy.

Since the passage of Sri Lanka’s 18th constitutional amendment in 2010 gave the executive branch increased control over the electoral process and the judiciary, prosecutors and the courts have shown less ability or willingness to pursue allegations of wrongdoing by government officials. In a sign of heightened political pressure on the judiciary, the chief justice offered his resignation in 2011 following a heated confrontation with the president, though Rajapaksa refused to accept it. The constitutional amendment notably lifted a two-term limit on the presidency, allowing the incumbent to seek reelection indefinitely.

The government of Cambodia has cracked down on freedom of expression, and its use of defamation and disinformation laws against activists has resulted in increased self-censorship. A new penal code provision allows for the prosecution of individuals who download and circulate online material that the government deems offensive. One staff member of an NGO has already been sentenced to two years in prison under a law that makes it a crime to spread disinformation against government institutions. There are also concerns related to a draft law on associations that would place severe restrictions on the ability of NGOs to operate.

Corruption and Electoral Abuses in Sub-Saharan Africa

Malawi’s scores show serious deterioration during the coverage period, which ended just before longtime president Bingu wa Mutharika died in April 2012. Negative developments included the government’s closing of the electoral commission in contravention of a court order, its postponement of local government elections, imposition of new restrictions on NGOs, and a crackdown on the media. Particularly troubling was the government’s use of live ammunition against a group of activists demanding reform in July 2011, which resulted in the death of 20 protesters.

Corruption increased in Tanzania, affecting all areas of governance. The state is dominated by a variety of private interests, such as donor countries, mining companies, and the ruling party, and government allies enjoy impunity for wrongdoing. For example, a graft case against a current legislator and former attorney general was brought without sufficient evidence to convict, and leaked diplomatic cables cited the authorities’ lack of willingness to prosecute.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has consolidated power over the past 15 years. During the campaign period for the February 2011 elections, the government blocked social media outlets and increased state funding for newspapers to ensure favorable coverage. Public resources were used in campaigns at both the national and district level. In January, just before the elections, the legislature passed a supplemental budget that many believed directly supported the state’s preferred candidates. The government increasingly interfered with individuals trying to assemble for political meetings.

Conclusion: The Arab Uprisings and the Path to Good Governance

A central feature of the popular uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years is the protesters’ insistence not just on a change in leadership, but on the free exercise of all their rights as citizens. This focus upended a common view that the MENA region was immune to democratic change because its residents were apathetic about political participation. Citizens have proven themselves capable of overthrowing even the most repressive regimes, and the experience will likely make future governments in the affected countries more sensitive to popular demands for good governance.

The uprisings may have also changed the rules of the game for authoritarian leaders around the world. The techniques that such regimes have long used to maintain power—including police violence, exploitation of sectarian divisions, and raising the specter of terrorism—failed to stem demands for reform in the MENA region, and the ongoing conflict in Syria has exposed the bankruptcy of more extreme state violence as a strategy for maintaining regime security.

It is unclear, however, whether the popular dismissal of the old models of authoritarianism will translate into enduring public support for novice representative governments and contentious institutional reforms. There are limits to citizens’ patience with respect to political instability, economic disruptions, and physical insecurity, and the desire to return to a less chaotic environment may allow leaders to slip back into the familiar habits of authoritarian rule. Indeed, the backsliding and uneven progress already evident in the MENA region demonstrates the tenuous nature of democratic gains in the immediate aftermath of an entrenched leader’s removal.

Countries at the Crossroads 2012 outlines the extensive institutional deficits with which the proponents of democracy must contend. The study functions in a sense as a to-do list for institutional reform, and the list is long and daunting. Such overhauls are difficult to achieve even in the best of circumstances, and more so amid the chaos of a postrevolutionary political transition, becoming the subject of intense partisan debate as newly emerging political factions voice divergent perspectives and priorities.

Lest the list be dismissed as too long or impractical, however, it is important to consider the lack of a viable alternative. The Arab uprisings dealt a serious blow to the myth of authoritarian development. When thousands upon thousands of people marched through public thoroughfares despite volleys of tear gas and live ammunition, it was to demand the rights of association, assembly, expression, and equality before the law that are integral to a democratic system. The people rejected the widespread use of torture, the production of sham elections, and the complete lack of accountability that allowed rulers and their families and allies to accumulate inordinate wealth while the rest of the population faced economic hardship and decrepit public services. The macroeconomic growth figures and development projects touted by these governments proved meaningless to ordinary citizens who could no longer tolerate the daily indignities of authoritarian rule.

However difficult a transition to democratic governance may be, it is the only path to long-term stability. Serious backsliding and returns to authoritarian practices will only trigger new cycles of repression and revolt. By contrast, a sustained commitment to democracy will ensure that public frustrations are expressed at the ballot box, in the media, and in peaceful assemblies, and that the state actively responds with corrective policies rather than simply suppressing criticism. These truths should inform the thinking of both individual citizens and the international community, particularly when support for democratic development begins to fade.

Vanessa Tucker is the director for analysis at Freedom House. Tyler Roylance and Teale Harold provided critical research and editorial assistance for this essay.