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Nearly two years after a wave of popular uprisings began in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a lack of substantive institutional reform has left states struggling to maintain democratic achievements, according to a new Freedom House report. The findings illuminate reform failures that have contributed to recent violence across the MENA region.

Countries at the Crossroads 2012 analyzes the performance of 35 policy-relevant countries that are at a critical juncture between democratic progress and deterioration. The best and worst performers in this year’s edition—Tunisia and Bahrain, respectively—are in the MENA region, and the gap between them constitutes one of the largest intraregional divergences in the project. This gulf is due in large part to the drastic contrast between the two governments’ commitments to strengthening democratic institutions.

“The weakness of the governance institutions in the Middle Eastern and North African countries covered in this year’s edition can be seen in the riots occurring across the region and the authorities’ inability to respond effectively to unrest,” said Vanessa Tucker, director for analysis at Freedom House. “After decades of corrupt and repressive rule, citizens in these states are facing brutal and ineffective security forces, habitually divisive and confrontational politics, and a lack of productive avenues through which to lodge their grievances and assert their rights.”

Middle East and North Africa findings:

  • Tunisia, the clear frontrunner in the MENA region, made a discernible effort to relax restrictions on civil society, strengthen civil liberties, and improve its electoral system. Though a number of problems remain, the transitional government made significant progress in pursuing democratic reform through laws and institutions, thus establishing firm protections for newly won democratic rights.
  • In Egypt, on the other hand, the ruling military council governed mainly through improvised procedures and unilateral decrees. Despite clear improvements in the electoral process, there was insufficient institutionalization of reform. For example, the successful constitutional referendum was undermined when the military later decreed constitutional amendments that were much wider in scope than those the voters approved. This ad hoc approach to governing leaves citizens vulnerable, as the authorities can rescind their democratic rights at will.
  • Bahrain now performs at the governance level of pre-2011 Syria because of the government’s brutal offensive against nonviolent protests, which has included the use of excessive force and torture, trying civilians in military courts, and allowing the Saudi military to enter the country and buttress its repressive strategy.

Additional regional findings:

  • Increases in violence and organized crime had a negative effect on the scores for the Latin American countries assessed in this edition. The trend included high rates of violence against journalists in Mexico and Honduras, and growing interference by organized crime in the electoral process in Guatemala and Mexico.
  • The Asian countries in this year’s survey suffered major setbacks in the face of power grabs by the executive branch and ruling parties, particularly in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Freedom of expression was also constricted, as the Indonesian and Cambodian governments, among others, cracked down on the media.
  • One of Africa’s leading democracies, South Africa, suffered score declines because of the increasing dominance of the ruling African National Congress and the government’s ongoing efforts to limit media freedom. Electoral abuses in Malawi and Uganda, in addition to growing corruption in Tanzania, were also responsible for significant score drops among the African countries assessed in this edition.

Countries at the Crossroads provides comparative data on 72 critical, policy-relevant countries, offering readers useful time-series data and comprehensive narrative evaluation of the progress and backsliding in each country.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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