Arab culture is the culture of the Arabs, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Arabian Sea in the east, and from the Mediterranean Sea. Language, literature, gastronomy, art, architecture, music, spirituality, philosophy, mysticism (etc.) are all part of the cultural heritage of the Arabs.
The Arab world stretches across 22 countries and consists of over 200 million people. Arab is a term used to describe the people whose native tongue is Arabic. Arab is a cultural term, not a racial term, and Arabic people come from various ethnic and religious backgrounds.The 22 Arab countries are: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Main article: Arabic literature
Arabic literature is the writing produced, both prose and poetry, by speakers of the Arabic language. It does not include works written using the Arabic alphabet but not in the Arabic language such as Persian and Urdu literature. The Arabic word used for literature is adab which is derived from a word meaning "to invite someone for a meal" and implies politeness, culture and enrichment. Arabic literature emerged in the 6th century, with only fragments of the written language appearing before then. The Qur'an, from the 7th century, had the greatest and longest-lasting effect on Arabic culture and literature. Al-Khansa, a female contemporary of Muhammad, was an acclaimed Arab poet.
Main article: Muallaqat
The Mu'allaqat (Arabic: المعلقات, [al-muʕallaqaːt]) is the name given to a series of seven Arabic poems or qasida that originated before the time of Islam. Each poem in the set has a different author, and is considered to be their best work. Mu'allaqat means "The Suspended Odes" or "The Hanging Poems," and comes from the poems being hung on the wall in the Kaaba at Mecca.
The seven authors, who span a period of around 100 years, are Imru' al-Qais, Tarafa, Zuhayr, Labīd, 'Antara Ibn Shaddad, 'Amr ibn Kulthum, and Harith ibn Hilliza. All of the Mu’allaqats contain stories from the authors’ lives and tribe politics. This is because poetry was used in pre-Islamic time to advertise the strength of a tribe’s king, wealth and people.
The One Thousand and One Nights (Arabic: أَلْف لَيْلَة وَلَيْلَة ʾAlf layla wa-layla), is a medieval folk tale collection which tells the story of Scheherazade, a Sassanid queen who must relate a series of stories to her malevolent husband, King Shahryar (Šahryār), to delay her execution. The stories are told over a period of one thousand and one nights, and every night she ends the story with a suspenseful situation, forcing the King to keep her alive for another day. The individual stories were created over several centuries, by many people from a number of different lands.
During the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the 8th century, Baghdad had become an important cosmopolitan city. Merchants from Persia, China, India, Africa, and Europe were all found in Baghdad. During this time, many of the stories that were originally folk stories are thought to have been collected orally over many years and later compiled into a single book. The compiler and ninth-century translator into Arabic is reputedly the storyteller Abu Abd-Allah Muhammad el-Gahshigar. The frame story of Shahrzad seems to have been added in the 14th century.
Arabic music is the music of Arab people, especially those centered around the Arabian Peninsula. The world of Arab music has long been dominated by Cairo, a cultural center, though musical innovation and regional styles abound from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia. Beirut has, in recent years, also become a major center of Arabic music. Classical Arab music is extremely popular across the population, especially a small number of superstars known throughout the Arab world. Regional styles of popular music include Iraqian el Maqaam, Algerianraï, Kuwaitisawt and Egyptianel gil.
"The common style that developed is usually called 'Islamic' or 'Arab', though in fact it transcends religious, ethnic, geographical, and linguistic boundaries" and it is suggested that it be called the Near East (from Morocco to India) style (van der Merwe, Peter 1989, p. 9).
Habib Hassan Touma (1996, p.xix-xx) lists "five components" which "characterize the music of the Arabs:
- The Arab tone system (a musical tuning system) with specific interval structures, invented by al-Farabi in the 10th century (p. 170).
- Rhythmic-temporal structures that produce a rich variety of rhythmic patterns, awzan, used to accompany the metered vocal and instrumental genres and give them form.
- Musical instruments that are found throughout the Arabian world and that represent a standardized tone system, are played with standardized performance techniques, and exhibit similar details in construction and design.
- Specific social contexts for the making of music, whereby musical genres can be classified as urban (music of the city inhabitants), rural (music of the country inhabitants), or Bedouin (music of the desert inhabitants).
- A musical mentality that is responsible for the aesthetic homogeneity of the tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures in Arabian music, whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or sacred. The Arab's musical mentality is defined by:
- The maqām phenomenon.
- The predominance of vocal music.
- The predilection for small instrumental ensembles.
- The mosaiclike stringing together of musical form elements, that is, the arrangement in a sequence of small and smallest melodic elements, and their repetition, combination, and permutation within the framework of the tonal-spatial model.
- The absence of polyphony, polyrhythm, and motivic development. Arabian music is, however, very familiar with the ostinato, as well as with a more instinctive heterophonic way of making music.
- The alternation between a free rhythmic-temporal and fixed tonal-spatial organization on the one hand and a fixed rhythmic-temporal and free tonal-spatial structure on the other. This alternation... results in exciting contrasts."
Much Arab music is characterized by an emphasis on melody and rhythm rather than harmony. Thus much Arabic music is homophonic in nature. Some genres of Arab music are polyphonic—as the instrument Kanoun is based upon the idea of playing two-note chords—but quintessentially, Arabic music is melodic.
It would be incorrect though to call it modal, for the Arabic system is more complex than that of the Greek modes. The basis of the Arabic music is the maqam (pl. maqamat), which looks like the mode, but is not quite the same. The maqam has a "tonal" note on which the piece must end (unless modulation occurs).
The maqam consists of at least two jins, or scale segments. "Jins" in Arabic comes from the ancient Greek word "genus," meaning type. In practice, a jins (pl. ajnas) is either a trichord, a tetrachord, or a pentachord. The trichord is three notes, the tetrachord four, and the pentachord five. The maqam usually covers only one octave (two jins), but sometimes it covers more than one octave. Like the melodic minor scale and Indian ragas, some maqamat have different ajnas, and thus notes, while descending or ascending. Because of the continuous innovation of jins and because most music scholars don't agree on the existing number anyway, it's hard to give an accurate number of the jins. Nonetheless, in practice most musicians would agree on the 8 most frequently used ajnas: Rast, Bayat, Sikah, Hijaz, Saba, Kurd, Nahawand, and Ajam — and a few of the most commonly used variants of those: Nakriz, Athar Kurd, Sikah Beladi, Saba Zamzama. Mukhalif is a rare jins used exclusively in Iraq, and it does not occur in combination with other ajnas.
The main difference between the western chromatic scale and the Arabic scales is the existence of many in-between notes, which are sometimes referred to as quarter tones for the sake of practicality. However, while in some treatments of theory the quarter tone scale or all twenty four tones should exist, according to Yūsuf Shawqī (1969) in practice there are many fewer tones (Touma 1996, p. 170).
In fact, the situation is much more complicated than that. In 1932, at International Convention on Arabic music held in Cairo, Egypt (attended by such Western luminaries as Béla Bartók and Henry George Farmer), experiments were done which determined conclusively that the notes in actual use differ substantially from an even-tempered 24-tone scale, and furthermore that the intonation of many of those notes differ slightly from region to region (Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq). The commission's recommendation is as follows: "The tempered scale and the natural scale should be rejected. In Egypt, the Egyptian scale is to be kept with the values, which were measured with all possible precision. The Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi scales should remain what they are..." (translated in Maalouf 2002, p. 220). Both in modern practice, and based on the evidence from recorded music over the course of the last century, there are several differently tuned "E"s in between the E-flat and E-natural of the Western Chromatic scale, depending on the maqam or jins in use, and depending on the region.
Musicians and teachers refer to these in-between notes as "quarter-tones" ("half-flat" or "half-sharp") for ease of nomenclature, but perform and teach the exact values of intonation in each jins or maqam by ear. It should also be added, in reference to Touma's comment above, that these "quarter-tones" are not used everywhere in the maqamat: in practice, Arabic music does not modulate to 12 different tonic areas like the Well-Tempered Klavier, and so the most commonly used "quarter tones" are on E (between E-flat and E-natural), A, B, D, F (between F-natural and F-sharp) and C.
The prototypical Arab ensemble in Egypt and Syria is known as the takht, which includes, (or included at different time periods) instruments such as the 'oud, qanún, rabab, nay, violin (which was introduced in the 1840s or 50s), riq and dumbek. In Iraq, the traditional ensemble, known as the chalghi, includes only two melodic instruments—the jowza (similar to the rabab but with four strings) and santur—with riq and dumbek.
Main article: Arab dance
See also: Belly dance
Arab folk dances also referred to as Oriental dance, Middle-Eastern dance andEastern dance, refers to the traditional folk dances of the Arabs in Arab world (Middle East and North Africa). The term "Arabic dance" is often associated with the belly dance. However, there are many styles of traditional Arab dance, and many of them have a long history. These may be folk dances, or dances that were once performed as rituals or as entertainment spectacle, and some may have been performed in the imperial court. Coalescence of oral storytelling, poetry recital, and performative music and dance as long-standing traditions in Arab history. Among the best-known of the Arab traditional dances are the Belly dance and the Dabke.
Belly dance also referred to as Arabic dance (Arabic: رقص شرقي, translit. Raqs sharqi is an Arab expressive dance, which emphasizes complex movements of the torso. Many boys and girls in countries where belly dancing is popular will learn how to do it when they are young. The dance involves movement of many different parts of the body; usually in a circular way.
Prior to the Islamic Era, poetry was regarded as the main means of communication on the Arabian Peninsula. It related the achievements of tribes and defeats of enemies and also served as a tool for propaganda. After the arrival of Islam other forms of communication replaced poetry as the primary form of communication. Imams (preachers) played a role in disseminating information and relating news from the authorities to the people. The suq or marketplace gossip and interpersonal relationships played an important role in the spreading of news, and this form of communication among Arabs continues today. Before the introduction of the printing press, Muslims obtained most of their news from the imams at the mosque, friends, or in the marketplace. Colonial powers and Christian Missionaries in Lebanon were responsible for the introduction of the printing press. It was not until the 19th century that the first newspapers began to appear, mainly in Egypt and Lebanon, which had the most newspapers per capita.
During French rule in Egypt in the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, the first newspaper was published, in French. There is debate over when the first Arabic language newspaper was published; according to Arab scholar Abu Bakr, it was Al Tanbeeh (1800), published in Egypt, or it was Junral Al Iraq (1816), published in Iraq, according to other researchers. In the mid-19th century the Turkish Empire dominated the first newspapers. In the Northern African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria the French colonial power built a press link between mainland countries.
The first newspapers were limited to official content and included accounts of relations with other countries and civil trials. In the following decades Arab media blossomed due to journalists mainly from Syria and Lebanon, who were intellectuals and published their newspapers without the intention of making a profit. Because of the restrictions by most governments, these intellectuals were forced to flee their respective countries but had gained a following and because of their popularity in this field of work other intellectuals began to take interest in the field. The first émigré Arab newspaper, Mar’at al Ahwal, was published in Turkey in 1855 by Rizqallah Hassoun Al Halabi. It was criticized by the Ottoman Empire and shut down after only one year. Intellectuals in the Arab world soon realized the power of the press. Some countries' newspapers were government-run and had political agendas in mind. Independent newspapers began to spring up which expressed opinions and were a place for the public to out their views on the state. Illiteracy rates in the Arab world played a role in the formation of media, and due to the low reader rates newspapers were forced to get political parties to subsidize their publications, giving them input to editorial policy.
Freedoms that have branched through the introduction of the Internet in Middle East are creating a stir politically, culturally, and socially. There is an increasing divide between the generations. The Arab world is in conflict internally. The internet has brought economic prosperity and development, but bloggers have been incarcerated all around in the Middle East for their opinions and views on their regimes, the same consequence which was once given to those who publicly expressed themselves without anonymity. But the power of the internet has provided also a public shield for these bloggers since they have the ability to engage public sympathy on such a large scale. This is creating a dilemma that shakes the foundation of Arab culture, government, religious interpretation, economic prosperity, and personal integrity.
Each country or region in the Arab world has varying colloquial languages which are used for everyday speech, yet its presence in the media world is discouraged. Prior to the establishment of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), during the 19th century, the language of the media was stylized and resembled literary language of the time, proving to be ineffective in relaying information. Currently MSA is used by Arab media, including newspapers, books and some television stations, in addition to all formal writing. Vernaculars are however present in certain forms of media including satires, dramas, music videos and other local programs.
Journalism ethics is a system of values that determines what constitutes "good" and "bad" journalism. A system of media values consists of and is constructed by journalists' and other actors' decisions about issues like what is "newsworthy," how to frame the news, and whether to observe topical "red lines." Such a system of values varies over space and time, and is embedded within the existing social, political, and economic structures in a society. William Rugh states, "There is an intimate, organic relationship between media institutions and society in the way that those institutions are organized and controlled. Neither the institution nor the society in which it functions can be understood properly without reference to the other. This is certainly true in the Arab world." Media values in the Arab world therefore vary between and within countries. In the words of Lawrence Pintak and Jeremy Ginges, “The Arab media are not a monolith.”
Journalists in the Arab world hold many of the same values with their news generation as do journalists in the Western world. Journalists in the Arab world often aspire to Western norms of objectivity, impartiality, and balance. Kuldip Roy Rampal's study of journalist training programs in North Africa leads him to the conclusion that, "the most compelling dilemma faced by professional journalists, increasingly graduates of journalism degree programs, in the four Maghreb states is how to reconcile their preference for press freedom and objectivity with constraints imposed by political and legal factors that point to a pro-government journalism." Iyotika Ramaprasad and Naila Nabil Hamdy state, “A new trend toward objectivity and impartiality as a value in Arab journalism seems to be emerging, and the values of Arab and Western journalism in this field have started to converge.” Further, many journalists in the Arab world express their desires for the media to become a fourth estate akin to the media in the West. In a survey of 601 journalists in the Arab world, 40% of them viewed investigation of the government as part of their job.
Important differences between journalists in the Arab world and their Western counterparts are also apparent. Some journalists in the Arab world see no conflict between objectivity and support for political causes. Ramprasad and Hamdy’s sample of 112 Egyptian journalists gave the highest importance to supporting Arabism and Arab values, which included injunctions such as “defend Islamic societies, traditions and values” and “support the cause of the Palestinians.” Sustaining democracy through “examining government policies and decisions critically,” ranked a close second. This view is further endorsed in Kirat’s survey where 65 percent of Algerian journalists agreed that the task for the press is to "help achieve the goals and objectives of development plans. Such an approach to media fits within the larger scope of development communication and journalism. The extent to which professional and political aims conflict is a subject of study for scholars of the Arab world's media.
Other journalists reject the notion of media ethics altogether because they see it as a mechanism of control. Kai Hafez states, “Many governments in the Arab world have tried to hijack the issue of media ethics and have used it as yet another controlling device, with the result that many Arab journalists, while they love to speak about the challenges of their profession, hate performing under the label of media ethics.”
Historically, news in the Arab world was used to inform, guide, and publicize the actions of political practitioners rather than being just a consumer product. The power of news as political tool was discovered in the early 19th century, with the purchase of shares from Le Temps a French newspaper by Ismail the grandson of Muhammad Ali. Doing so allowed Ismail to publicize his policies. Arab Media coming to modernity flourished and with it its responsibilities to the political figures that have governed its role. Ami Ayalon argues in his history of the press in the Arab Middle East that, “Private journalism began as an enterprise with very modest objectives, seeking not to defy authority but rather to serve it, to collaborate and coexist cordially with it. The demand for freedom of expression, as well as for individual political freedom, a true challenge to the existing order, came only later, and hesitantly at that, and was met by a public response that can best be described as faint." 
Media researchers stress that the moral and social responsibility of newspeople dictates that they should not agitate public opinion, but rather should keep the status quo. It is also important to preserve national unity by not stirring up ethnic or religious conflict.
The values of media in the Arab world have started to change with the emergence of “new media." Examples of new media include news websites, blogs, and satellite television stations like Al Arabiya. The founding of the Qatari Al Jazeera network in 1996 especially affected media values. Some scholars believe that the network has blurred the line between private- and state- run news. Mohamed Zayani and Sofiane Sabraoui state, “Al Jazeera is owned by the government, but has an independent editorial policy; it is publicly funded, but independent minded.” The Al Jazeera media network espouses a clear mission and strategy, and was one of the first news organizations in the Arab world to release a code of ethics. Despite its government ties, it seeks to “give no priority to commercial or political over professional consideration” and to “cooperate with Arab and international journalistic unions and associations to defend freedom of the press.” With a motto of “the view and the other view,” it purports to “present the diverse points of view and opinions without bias and partiality.” It has sought to fuse these ostensibly Western media norms with a wider “Arab orientation,” evocative of the social responsibility discussed by scholars such as Noha Mellor above.
Some more recent assessments of Al Jazeera have criticized it for a lack of credibility in the wake of the Arab Spring. Criticism has come from within the Arab Middle East, including from state governments. Independent commentators have criticized its neutrality vis-a-vis the Syrian Civil War.
Media values are not the only variable that affects news output in Arab society. Hafez states, “The interaction of political, economic, and social environments with individual and collective professional ethics is the driving force behind journalism.” In most Arab countries, newspapers cannot be published without a government-issued license. Most Arab countries also have press laws, which impose boundaries on what can and cannot be said in print.
Censorship plays a significant role in journalism in the Arab world. Censorship comes in a variety of forms: Self-censorship, Government Censorship (governments struggle to control through technological advances in ex. the internet), Ideology/Religious Censorship, and Tribal/Family/Alliances Censorship. Because Journalism in the Arab world comes with a range of dangers – journalists throughout the Arab world can be imprisoned, tortured, and even killed in their line of work – self-censorship is extremely important for many Arab journalists. A study conducted by the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) in Jordan, for example, found that the majority of Jordanian journalists exercise self-censorship.CPJ found that 34 journalists were killed in the region in 2012, 72 were imprisoned on December 1, 2012, and 126 were in exile from 2007 to 2012.
A related point is that media owners and patrons have effects on the values of their outlets. Newspapers in the Arab world can be divided into three categories: government owned, partisan owned, and independently owned. Newspaper, radio, and television patronization in the Arab world has heretofore been primarily a function of governments. "Now, newspaper ownership has been consolidated in the hands of powerful chains and groups. Yet, profit is not the driving force behind the launching of newspapers; publishers may establish a newspaper to ensure a platform for their political opinions, although it is claimed that this doesn’t necessarily influence the news content". In the Arab world, as far as content is concerned, news is politics. Arab states are intimately involved in the economic well-being of many Arab news organizations so they apply pressure in several ways, most notably through ownership or advertising.
Some analysts hold that cultural and societal pressures determine journalists' news output in the Arab world. For example, to the extent that family reputation and personal reputation are fundamental principles in Arab civilization, exposes of corruption, examples of weak moral fiber in governors and policy makers, and investigative journalism may have massive consequences. In fact, some journalists and media trainers in the Arab world nevertheless actively promote the centrality of investigative journalism to the media’s larger watchdog function. In Jordan, for example, where the degree of government and security service interference in the media is high, non-governmental organizations such as the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) train journalists to undertake investigative journalism projects.
Some Saudi journalists stress the importance of enhancing Islam through the media. The developmental role of media was acknowledged by an overwhelming majority of Saudi journalists, while giving the readers what they want was not regarded as a priority. However, journalism codes, as an important source for the study of media values, complicate this notion. Kai Hafez states, “The possible hypothesis that Islamic countries might not be interested in ‘truth’ and would rather propagate ‘Islam’ as the single truth cannot be verified completely because even a code that limits journalists’ freedom of expression to Islamic objectives and values, the Saudi Arabian code, demands that journalists present real facts.” In addition, Saudi journalists operate in an environment in which anti-religious talk is likely to be met with censorship.
Patterns of consumption also affect media values. People in the Arab world rely on newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet to differing degrees and to meet a variety of ends. For Rugh, the proportion of radio and television receivers to Arab populations relative to UNESCO minimum standards suggests that radio and television are the most widely consumed media. He estimates that television reaches well over 100 million people in the region, and this number has likely grown since 2004. By contrast, he supposes that Arab newspapers are designed more for elite-consumption on the basis of their low circulation. He states, "Only five Arab countries have daily newspapers which distribute over 60,000 copies and some have dailies only in the under-10,000 range. Only Egypt has dailies which distribute more than a half million copies."
by Arch Puddington
The political uprisings that swept across the Arab world over the past year represent the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power. In some cases, protest and upheaval was followed by the beginnings of democratic institution building. At year’s end, two countries with unbroken histories of fraudulent polling, Tunisia and Egypt, had conducted elections that observers deemed competitive and credible, and freedom of expression had gained momentum in many Middle Eastern societies.
Unfortunately, the gains that were recorded in Tunisia, and to a considerably lesser extent in Egypt and Libya, were offset by more dubious trends elsewhere in the region. Indeed, the overthrow of autocrats in these countries provoked determined and often violent responses in many others, most notably in Syria, where by year’s end the Assad dictatorship had killed over 5,000 people in its efforts to crush widespread antigovernment protests. Similar if less bloody crackdowns took place in Bahrain and Yemen.
This pattern of protest and repression—with an emphasis on the latter—was echoed elsewhere in the world as news of the Arab uprisings spread beyond the Middle East and North Africa. In China, the authorities responded to events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with a near-hysterical campaign of arrests, incommunicado detentions, press censorship, and stepped-up control over the internet. The Chinese Communist Party’s pushback, which aimed to quash potential prodemocracy demonstrations before they even emerged, reached a crescendo in December with the sentencing of a number of dissident writers to long terms in prison. In Russia, the state-controlled media bombarded domestic audiences with predictions of chaos and instability as a consequence of the Arab protests, with a clear message that demands for political reform in Russia would have similarly catastrophic results. In other Eurasian countries and in parts of Africa, the authorities went to considerable lengths to suppress demonstrations and isolate the democratic opposition.
The authoritarian response to change in the Middle East had a significant impact on the state of global freedom at year’s end. The findings of Freedom in the World 2012, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties, showed that slightly more countries registered declines than exhibited gains over the course of 2011. This marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.
The continued pattern of global backsliding—especially in such critical areas as press freedom, the rule of law, and the rights of civil society—is a sobering reminder that the institutions that anchor democratic governance cannot be achieved by protests alone. Yet if there is an overarching message for the year, it is one of hope and not of reversal. For the first time in some years, governments and rulers who mistreated their people were on the defensive. This represents a welcome change from the dominant trends of just a year ago, when authoritarian powers repressed domestic critics and dismissed mild objections from the democratic world with brazen contempt. In 2010, China conducted a bullying campaign against the Nobel committee for honoring jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, Russia imposed a second prison term on former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a fraudulent judicial proceeding, and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party claimed to have won heavily rigged parliamentary elections with well over 80 percent of the seats.
In 2011, by contrast, the signal events were the overthrow of Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi; successful elections in Tunisia; and democratic ferment throughout the Arab world. Meanwhile, China’s perpetual campaign of repression, directed at writers, lawyers, journalists, religious believers, ethnic minorities, and ordinary citizens who had spoken out against injustice and state abuses, 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, Vladimir Putin faced his first serious political crisis, as election fraud and the prospect of 12 more years without new leadership drew tens of thousands of protesters to the streets.
Whether the events of 2011 will lead to a true wave of democratic revolution is uncertain. Tunisia was clearly the greatest beneficiary of the year’s changes. It experienced one of the largest single-year improvements in the history of the Freedom in the World report, rising from among the worst-performing Middle Eastern countries to achieve electoral democracy status and scores that place it roughly alongside such Partly Free countries as Colombia and Philippines. But much remains to be done, and there are some questions about the positions of the new leaders on such crucial issues as minority rights, freedom of belief, and freedom of expression. Egypt also made significant gains, but they have been overshadowed in many respects by the continued political dominance of the military, its hostility toward media critics, its campaign against human rights organizations, and its humiliating treatment of female protesters. In many other Arab countries, democracy movements have yet to reach even the initial milestone of forcing the resignation of their longtime rulers. The perceived success or failure of these efforts will either continue to inspire similar changes in the rest of the world, or bolster authoritarian calls for “stability” at any price.
FREEDOM'S TRAJECTORY IN 2011
The number of countries exhibiting gains for the past year, 12, lagged somewhat behind the number with declines, 26. The most noteworthy gains were in the Middle East—in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—and in three Asian countries—Burma, Singapore, and Thailand. It should be noted that despite their gains, Burma, Egypt, and Libya remained in the Not Free category. Moreover, while the Middle East experienced the most significant improvements, it also registered the most declines, with a list of worsening countries that includes Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Declines were also noted in a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including Albania, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Among other trends:
- Glimmers of Hope for the Most Repressed: Burma, which has ranked alongside North Korea as one of the world’s most closed societies, experienced what many hope will become a major political opening. The government of President Thein Sein has permitted more public discussion, tolerated a measure of press commentary, freed longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and cleared the path for her party’s participation in elections. Another country that endured decades of brutal misrule, Libya, now has the potential for significant gains thanks to the overthrow of al-Qadhafi. Cuba, also one of the world’s most repressive countries, experienced a small improvement linked to the limited reduction of economic restrictions by the government of Raúl Castro. Unlike in Burma, however, Cuba underwent no political liberalization.
- (Some) Good News in Asia: In a region whose dominant power, China, maintains the world’s most sophisticated and comprehensive system of authoritarian political control, the recent trend has been largely positive. Aside from the improvements in Burma, the past year was notable for more open and competitive elections in Singapore, whose unique variant of “guided democracy” has been in place for several decades. In fact, for the countries of Asia proper, practically every indicator measured by Freedom in the World improved to some degree.
- Sectarian Strife in the Middle East: The intensified violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq as U.S. forces completed their withdrawal touched on a broader threat posed by sectarianism to democracy’s future in the region. Differences among various strains of Islam complicated the crackdown on mainly Shiite protesters in Bahrain, and played a role in the crisis in Syria, principally propelled by President Bashar al-Assad’s desperate efforts to remain in power. Sunni-Shiite rivalry also presents a serious threat to political stability in Lebanon, while in Egypt, anti-Christian sentiment flared into violence during the year, with notable help from the military.
- Long-Term Setbacks in Energy-Rich Eurasia: The past year featured the continuation of a decade-long trend of setbacks for the wealthiest and most “modern” former Soviet countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. The level of freedom fell further despite rising popular demands for reform and warning signs from the Middle East. Indeed, beginning with the “color revolutions” of 2003 to 05, authoritarians in Eurasia have consistently responded to freedom movements outside their borders with intensified clampdowns at home. Year-end protests in Moscow and violent labor unrest in Kazakhstan should remind the world that repression does not in fact lead to stability.
- Danger Signs for New Democracies: Until recently, Ukraine, Hungary, South Africa, and Turkey were regarded as important success stories for democratic development. Now, increasingly, the democratic credentials of each is coming under question. The steepest decline in the institutions of freedom has taken place in Ukraine, where a series of negative developments was punctuated by the conviction of opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko on dubious charges. In the past two years, Ukraine has moved from a status of Free to Partly Free and suffered deterioration on most indicators measured by Freedom House. Developments in Turkey are also worrying, given the country’s role as a model for democracy in Muslim-majority countries and its aspirations to regional leadership. While the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has instituted important reforms since coming to power, stepped-up arrests of advocates for Kurdish rights and the continued pursuit of the wide-ranging and politically fraught Ergenekon conspiracy case, which has led to lengthy detentions without charge, are both causes for concern. In Hungary, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, taking advantage of a parliamentary supermajority, has pushed through a new constitution and a raft of laws that could seriously weaken press freedom, judicial independence, and a fair election process. And in South Africa, new media regulations and evidence of pervasive corruption within the African National Congress leadership threaten to undermine the country’s past achievements in peaceful democratic change.
RESULTS FOR 2011
The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2011 stood at 87, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and 3,016,566,100 people—43 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries did not change from the previous year’s survey.
The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 60, or 31 percent of all countries assessed by the survey, and they were home to 1,497,442,500 people, or 22 percent of the world’s total. The number of Partly Free countries did not change from the previous year.
A total of 48 countries were deemed Not Free, representing 24 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 2,453,231,500, or 35 percent of the global population, though it is important to note that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China. The number of Not Free countries increased by one from 2010 due to the inclusion for the first time of South Sudan, a new state that was given a Not Free designation.
The number of electoral democracies increased by two and stands at 117. Three countries achieved electoral democracy status due to elections that were widely regarded as improvements: Niger, Thailand, and Tunisia. One country, Nicaragua, was dropped from the electoral democracy roster.
One country moved from Not Free to Partly Free: Tunisia. One country, The Gambia, dropped from Partly Free to Not Free.
ANALYSIS OF REGIONAL TRENDS
Middle East and North Africa: The Arab Spring’s Ambiguous Achievements
Even in a region that was notorious for its leaders’ disdain for honest government and civil liberties, Tunisia had long stood out for the thoroughness of its system of control and oppression. Its longtime strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had seemingly smothered all significant sources of opposition. Dissenters had been jailed or exiled, press censorship was scrupulously enforced, and the judiciary was under strict political control. This country seemed a highly unlikely setting for a democratic revolution.
Yet it is Tunisia that has emerged as the most dramatic success story thus far in the series of popular uprisings that took place across the Arab world during 2011. 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. The press is critical and vibrant; there are practically no taboo subjects. Civil society has proliferated, and elements within the new leadership appear committed to tackling the problem of pervasive corruption, though achieving such deep institutional reforms will likely require many years of effort.
Some gains were also made in Egypt and Libya, but in both of these societies, the future prospects for democratic reform are still very much in doubt. In Egypt, governing authority shifted from the Mubarak regime to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a group of military leaders who have dispensed justice through military tribunals, 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, still under way at year’s end, was conducted with an adherence to fair practices that stood in vivid contrast to the sham polls of the Mubarak regime, the dominant forces in the new parliament will be Islamist parties whose devotion to democracy is open to question. And while Libya has benefited greatly from the demise of the Qadhafi dictatorship, the country confronts an array of daunting political and security challenges, and has yet to hold its first elections.
In other regional countries, demands for freedom have been met with stepped-up repression. In the worst case, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad responded to widespread peaceful protests with a campaign of arrests, torture, and urban fusillades that took the lives of an estimated 5,000 Syrians by year’s end. In Bahrain, a prodemocracy movement consisting principally of members of the Shiite majority encountered violent repression by the monarchy and intervention by the Saudi military. The government’s tactics included mass arrests, torture, and the use of military justice in cases of political activists. In Yemen, security forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh killed hundreds of civilians as Saleh repeatedly slipped out of agreements on a transfer of power. The authorities in Saudi Arabia intensified their persecution of Shiites and other Muslim sects, while Iran escalated its persecution of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civic leaders who were critical of regime actions. Lebanon suffered a decline in civil liberties due to the violent treatment of protesters and punitive measures against those demanding regime change in neighboring Syria. The United Arab Emirates also experienced a civil liberties decline after the government tightened restrictions on free speech and civil society and arrested those calling for political change.
Israel’s relations with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and with other countries in the region, worsened as the year’s tumult raised expectations and shook old assumptions. Israel also faced condemnation for a series of measures that were either introduced in the Knesset or signed into law and were seen by critics as threats to freedom of speech. One measure that was enacted called for punishment of those who support boycotts against Israel or its institutions, including universities and businesses located in West Bank settlements.
Asia-Pacific: Important Gains, Despite China and Conflict
Over the past five years, the Asia-Pacific region has been the only one to record steady gains in the majority of indicators that are measured by Freedom in the World. Progress is especially noteworthy in the countries of Asia proper, excluding the small Pacific island nations. The most impressive gains have come in the institutions of electoral democracy—elections, political parties, pluralism—and in freedom of association.
The embrace of free institutions has taken place in the face of significant regional obstacles, including, most notably, the influence of China. In recent years China has accelerated its efforts to project its power beyond its borders, and its Asian neighbors have been important targets of this effort. Despite several incidents in which critics of the Chinese government and exiled Chinese minorities encountered repression in Nepal, Indonesia, and Vietnam, the allure of the so-called China model—combining state-led economic growth, a Leninist one-party political system, and strict control over the media—has gained only modest traction in the region. Meanwhile, the Chinese leadership has demonstrated no serious interest in political liberalization at home, and has devoted impressive resources to internet censorship, the suppression of minorities, and the elimination of even oblique political dissent. In 2011, the authorities carried out a major campaign of repression in the wake of the Arab uprisings by censoring public discussion of the movement for Arab democratization, prosecuting or arbitrarily detaining scores of social-media commentators and human rights lawyers, and strengthening the online censorship of domestic social-networking services.
Another regional challenge is the explosion of civil and sectarian strife in South Asia. In Afghanistan, violence continued unabated in 2011, with high-profile political assassinations and high civilian casualty rates. In Pakistan, there was growing discord over enforcement of the country’s blasphemy laws, punctuated by the murders of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs, both of whom had criticized the blasphemy statutes. Bangladesh also suffered a decline due to the ruling Awami League’s prosecution of opposition politicians and efforts to muzzle NGOs. On the other hand, India, the world’s largest democracy, showed increased room for peaceful demonstrations, particularly with the rise of an anticorruption movement that brought tens of thousands of people to the streets. Indian-administered Kashmir experienced a notable improvement in the space for open public discussion amid growing use of social media and a drop in violence.
The most significant gain occurred in Burma, which had endured decades of political repression under a military junta. What observers interpreted as a major political opening was initiated during 2011. In a series of steps toward a more liberal domestic environment, the leadership allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy, to register and compete in forthcoming by-elections, eased press censorship, and legalized political protest. At the same time, many cautioned that it was still unclear whether the changes in Burma were durable or simply cosmetic improvements by the regime. In Singapore, the system of managed democracy engineered by the former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was loosened, and opposition candidates gained popular support in national elections, though the system ensured that this did not translate into significantly increased representation in the parliament. Conditions also improved in Thailand, whose deeply polarized political life had been dominated by riots and crippling demonstrations for several years. A July election led to a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition party and the installation as prime minister of Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. However, there has been some backsliding on civil liberties since the end of November.
Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia: Stability and Stagnation
The protests that roiled Moscow and other Russian cities in the wake of deeply flawed December parliamentary elections were stark reminders that no authoritarian leadership, no matter how sophisticated its methods, is immune to popular demands for change. While the immediate trigger for the mass demonstrations were widely circulated YouTube videos that suggested ballot-stuffing and other forms of election fraud, the protests also reflected displeasure with the earlier announcement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev had forged an agreement to swap positions at the end of Medvedev’s term in 2012. The two men had failed to fulfill long-standing promises to reform Russia’s corrupt, stagnant, and unresponsive government system, and the idea of Putin’s return for a third and possibly fourth presidential term helped drive ordinary Russians to the unprecedented demonstrations.
There are many questions about the ability of the forces that led the postelection protests to influence future politics in Russia. But clearly Russia is not alone in its vulnerability to popular discontent with authoritarian leadership. As the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s disintegration was marked at year’s end, most Eurasian countries were still subject to autocratic rule of one variant or another. Whereas prior to 2011 the “president for life” phenomenon was principally associated with the Middle East, it is today more likely to apply to the long-term leaders of the former Soviet Union.
The authoritarian temptation poses a threat even in countries with recent histories of free-wheeling democracy. Thus Ukraine suffered a major decline due to President Viktor Yanukovych’s moves to crush the political opposition through a variety of antidemocratic tactics, including the prosecution of opposition political leader and former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko. Other “color revolution” countries also faced problems. Kyrgyzstan, recovering from a 2010 revolt against an authoritarian president, held national elections that were judged to be relatively fair and competitive. Nevertheless, deep divisions lingered between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks, and little progress was made in bringing to justice those responsible for anti-Uzbek violence in mid-2010. In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili continued to face criticism for his apparent efforts to marginalize potential opposition figures.
Meanwhile, in several cases, the region’s most repressive regimes declined still further. In Azerbaijan, the government of President Ilham Aliyev used force to break up demonstrations, jailed opposition activists, tried to neutralize the international press, and misused state power to evict citizens from their homes as part of grandiose building schemes. Kazakhstan suffered a decline due to the adoption of legislation that restricted religious belief. In December, conditions deteriorated further when the regime used violence in an effort to put down labor protests by oil workers. And in Belarus, the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held scores of political prisoners and adopted a series of bizarre policies—such as outlawing public clapping in unison—to prevent creative expressions of popular discontent over political repression and economic decline.
For most of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics, by contrast, the year was notable for the ability of most countries to weather the European economic crisis without major damage to the basic institutions of democracy. At the same time, a number of countries in the region remained highly vulnerable to precarious economies, the merging of business and political interests, and corruption. Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Western Balkans could face problems as Europe’s economic woes persist.
Hungary poses the most serious problem in Central Europe. The government of Viktor Orbán has taken advantage of a two-thirds parliamentary majority to push through a new and problematic constitution without adequate input from the opposition, and a series of laws that are widely seen as threats to press freedom, judicial independence, and political pluralism. Albania experienced declines due to violence against demonstrators, flawed municipal elections, and the failure of the courts to deal effectively with major corruption cases. On the positive side, Slovakia was credited for having adopted legislation designed to shield the press from political intimidation.
The Balkans achieved mixed progress on the road to democratization and European Union (EU) accession. In July, Serbia’s government finally surrendered the last of the 161 suspected war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including Ratko Mladić, a leading figure in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre who had evaded arrest for 16 years. Mladić’s extradition met with disapproval from over 50 percent of Serbia’s population, triggering sizeable protests. Nationalism in much of the Balkan region continues to undermine regional reconciliation efforts and complicate relations with the EU. Pressures on free media increased across the Balkans, particularly in Macedonia, where an opposition-oriented television station and several newspapers were harassed and closed.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Civil Society Under Pressure
A decade ago, sub-Saharan Africa was notable for the steady if sometimes halting progress that its societies were making toward the establishment of democratic institutions. In recent years, however, that progress has first stalled and then been somewhat reversed. The year 2011 gave evidence of moderate decline, with particular problems in countries where members of the opposition and civil society made pleas for change in emulation of protests in the Arab world.
Five of the 10 countries that registered the most significant declines in the Freedom in the World report over the two-year period from 2010 to 2011 were in Africa: The Gambia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, and Djibouti. Likewise, over the five-year period from 2007 through 2011, Africa as a region has exhibited declines in each of the topical subcategories measured by Freedom in the World. Particularly substantial declines were recorded for rule of law and freedom of association.
The Gambia experienced the most notable decline over the past year. Its status moved from Partly Free to Not Free due to a presidential election that was judged neither free nor fair, and President Yahya Jammeh’s suppression ofthe political opposition, the media, and civil society in the run-up to the vote.
Five other regional countries experienced declines for the year. Ethiopia continued a decade-long trend of growing authoritarianism, with the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi making increased use of antiterrorism laws against the political opposition and journalists. In Sudan, the administration of President Omar al-Bashir engaged in stepped-up arrests of opposition leaders, banned a leading political party, used violent tactics against demonstrators, and persecuted the media. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni cracked down on critical members of the press in a year
that also featured flawed national elections, repressive tactics against protesters, and continued harassment of the gay community. Malawi witnessed pressure against journalists and violence against protesters as well as violations of academic freedom. Antigovernment protests were also met with repressive tactics in Djibouti, where the intimidation of opposition political parties was followed by the election of President Ismail Omar Guelleh to a third term in office.
Two countries with recent histories of political upheaval registered gains. Conditions in Côte d’Ivoire improved somewhat after Alassane Ouattara assumed the presidency, ending months of civil strife associated with incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to surrender power despite his defeat in 2010 elections. Gbagbo was later turned over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Niger experienced a major improvement in its political rights rating due to credible national and local elections that marked the end of more than a year of military rule.
Americas: Continuity Despite Populist Threat
Over the past decade, left-wing populist leaders have risen to power in a number of Latin American countries, causing some to predict that the authoritarian model established by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez would come to dominate the politics of the region. In fact, authoritarian populism has remained a minority phenomenon, as most societies have embraced the model of private-sector growth, social-welfare initiatives, and adherence to democratic standards established by leaders in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico.
Nevertheless, events in 2011 demonstrated that quasi-authoritarian populism still stands as a threat to the region’s political stability. In the most serious case, Nicaragua suffered a steep decline in political rights due to irregularities in advance of and during the presidential election, which gave Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega another term in office. Likewise, Ecuador suffered a decline due to President Rafael Correa’s intensified campaign against media critics, the government’s use of state resources to influence the outcome of a referendum, and a restructuring of the judiciary that was in blatant violation of constitutional provisions.
Chávez himself was preoccupied with medical treatment, mostly carried out under less-than-transparent conditions in Cuba, reportedly for prostate cancer. Chávez has announced that he will seek reelection in 2012, but the campaign promises to be more competitive than in the past due to the apparent unity of the opposition.
Violent crime, much of it generated by drug-trafficking groups, continued to plague societies throughout the region, causing ripple effects in the political system and contributing to a growing trend toward the militarization of police work. In Mexico, government institutions remained unable to protect ordinary citizens, journalists, and elected officials in many areas from organized crime. Mexican journalism in certain regions remains shackled by drug-gang intimidation, with some editors significantly altering coverage to avoid violent repercussions. In Venezuela, the kidnapping for ransom of professional baseball catcher Wilson Ramos stood out as a vivid reminder of the violent criminality that more commonly affects the population at large. In Brazil, the government’s efforts to bring down crime in the most troubled urban districts in advance of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament have been met by determined resistance from organized gangs.
In other developments, Guatemala registered an improvement in political rights due to progress made by an international commission set up to investigate impunity and corruption in the country’s institutions. Puerto Rico suffered a civil liberties decline stemming from reports of widespread police misconduct and brutality.
Western Europe and North America: Economic Crisis, Protests, and Civil Liberties
In the face of the most serious economic crisis in the postwar period, the countries of Western Europe and North America maintained their traditionally high level of respect for democratic standards and civil liberties. This was even the case in countries that were compelled to make major cuts to social-welfare provisions in response to high levels of indebtedness. Throughout Europe, citizens mounted massive demonstrations to protest policies, often dictated by the EU and the International Monetary Fund, that called for fiscal austerity and the removal of various protections for many workers and industries. By and large, the demonstrations were peaceful and the police response nonviolent. The exception was Greece, where anarchists frequently set fires and threw projectiles at police, and the police responded with batons and tear gas.
It is unlikely that Europe’s democratic standards will suffer serious setbacks in the wake of the ongoing debt crisis. Nonetheless, the region does face major challenges. A number of European countries are already confronted by problems associated with the influx of immigrants from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and have shown little willingness to devise rational and humane policies toward their integration. Economic decline could well exacerbate polarization over immigration policy, as migrants seek refuge from upheavals in the Arab world and unemployment levels in some European countries are at record levels. Until recently a marginal phenomenon, the parties of the anti-immigrant right emerged as major forces in Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, France, Finland, and the Netherlands during the past decade, and they occasionally achieve voter support of over 20 percent.
Many European countries have opted for policies that restrict future immigration and, in some instances, asylum applications. A growing number have taken steps to curtail customs identified with Islam that much of the population finds offensive. In 2011, women in France and Belgium were arrested in cases related to the wearing of ultraconservative Muslim female attire.
Also during the year, observers raised doubts about the durability of the current Turkish political model, in which a ruling party with moderate Islamist roots has committed itself to the norms of liberal democracy. While the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was credited with instituting important reforms during its early years in power, its recent behavior has triggered concern among supporters of press freedom and civil liberties. In the past few years, thousands of people have been arrested on charges of involvement with Kurdish terrorist organizations or participation in an alleged military conspiracy to overthrow the government. Those detained include journalists, scholars, and even defense lawyers.
Britain was rocked first by a series of urban riots, which many felt were handled poorly by the authorities, and then by a “phone hacking” case in which members of the tabloid press were accused of widespread abuse of privacy rights in pursuit of sensationalistic stories about celebrities and, most controversially, crime victims. At the same time, the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats indicated that a law aimed at reforming the country’s punitive libel laws would be introduced in 2012. The measure is meant to deal with the phenomenon of “libel tourism,” in which foreign individuals use the plaintiff-friendly English courts to press libel suits against critical journalists and scholars. If adopted, the new law would place the burden of proof on the plaintiff rather than the defense in libel cases. Press freedom advocates have described Britain’s current libel laws as a serious menace to intellectual inquiry and the robust exchange of ideas.
The United States endured a year of deep political polarization and legislative gridlock. Despite the efforts of a bipartisan commission and a select committee of lawmakers drawn equally from both major parties, the legislative branch and the White House were unable to reach agreement on a plan to reduce the federal deficit to manageable levels. Even as Congress and the president failed to agree on key economic measures, left-wing critics of the country’s wealth disparities and ties between politics and big business came together to launch the Occupy Wall Street movement. Beginning with an encampment near the financial district in New York City, the Occupy movement spread to cities across the country, with protesters camping out in parks or other public spaces for indefinite periods. After several months, municipal authorities moved to evict the protesters, often through peaceful police actions but in some cases using batons, tear gas, pepper spray, and arrests. Some observers voiced criticism of the police for employing confrontational tactics and military-style equipment when dealing with protesters.
In fulfillment of a pledge made during his election campaign, President Barack Obama revoked the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” under which military personnel were not asked about their sexual orientation, but openly gay and lesbian individuals were barred from military service. In another step toward observance of homosexual rights, the state of New York legalized gay marriage through legislative action, joining a small number of other states that allow same-sex marriage or civil unions.
Winning Freedom, Sustaining Democracy
As 2011 drew to a close, officials in Egypt made headlines by conducting a series of raids on NGOs that monitor human rights and promote democracy. Most of the targeted organizations were Egyptian; a few were international groups (Freedom House was one of the latter). The authorities were insistent that the raids, which included the seizure of files and computers, were legal and technical in nature. Government officials emphasized and reemphasized that they believed human rights organizations had a role to play in a democratic Egypt. Their actions indicated otherwise.
In fact, the behavior of the Egyptian authorities, now and under Mubarak, reflects a deep-seated hostility to NGOs that support democracy and human rights. This in turn points to a broader institutional continuity between the current Egyptian state and the old regime that will present major obstacles to democratic development in the coming months and years, and similar dynamics may play out in other countries where authoritarian rule is being defied.
There were many heroes, many casualties, and many martyrs to freedom’s cause in 2011. There were also many extraordinary achievements. Authoritarians who aspired to rule in perpetuity were toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and autocratic heads of state in Yemen and Syria seem likely to follow. But unlike in communist Eastern Europe in 1989, today’s oppressive leaders have for the most part refused to go quietly, without a fight. Some have adopted a rule or ruin strategy that threatens to condemn those who would supplant them to failure.
Indeed, one of the great disappointments of the Arab Spring is that its principal lesson—that people will eventually rise up against despotism and injustice—has been almost universally rejected by the world’s authoritarian powers. Rather than responding to popular demands for freedom with, at minimum, a gradual plan of moderate reforms, despots in the Middle East and elsewhere have either tightened the screws or flatly excluded changes to the status quo. China fell into the first category with its frenzied campaign against political dissent. So too did Bashar al-Assad in Syria, with his repudiation of talks with the opposition and a murderous campaign against peaceful protesters across the country. Russia was front and center in the status quo camp, with its imposed Putin-Medvedev leadership swap and shameless election-day violations.
Clearly, constructing successful democratic states in the Middle East and elsewhere represents a far more formidable challenge than was the case in Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. Adding to the difficulty is the role of China and Russia, both major economic powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council whose political elites have a stake in the failure of new and aspiring democracies. There is reason to believe that the influence of these two powers could become magnified in the near future. As the European debt crisis deepened in 2011, there were widespread reports that EU leaders were looking to Beijing for bailout assistance. Likewise, the Russian president traveled to several European capitals with a package of economic deals designed to help the beleaguered region in its time of need, with strings attached. Ultimately, China seems to have rejected serious involvement in Europe’s woes, and nothing of significance materialized from Medvedev’s initiative. But the very fact that the world’s most successful league of democracies would countenance involving two of the world’s great authoritarian powers in its financial rescue is a chilling commentary on the current state of both the global economy and the democratic world’s political morality, not to mention its survival instincts.
What of the United States? Can it be relied on to stand as the international beacon of freedom given its present economic torpor and political gridlock? American politics have sent conflicting signals over the past year. The notion that it is time for America to shrug off its global commitments has been increasingly posited by foreign policy analysts and some political figures. A prominent candidate for the Republican presidential nomination has put himself squarely in favor of backing away from the world’s problems, saying the United States should simply “mind its own business.” Leading figures from both major political parties criticized the Obama administration for its role in the NATO campaign that helped Libyan rebels overthrow the Qadhafi regime.
On the positive side, the Obama administration has evolved from its early discomfort with democracy as a foreign policy theme to a position where it episodically places its words, and in a few cases policy muscle, behind struggles for freedom abroad. Despite the unfortunate characterization that it was “leading from behind,” America’s firmness in assisting NATO’s Libyan campaign was an important step. After initial hesitation, the administration has also cautiously supported the process of building democratic systems in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. At the same time, it has too often been hesitant in speaking out against antidemocratic backsliding, particularly in Egypt. President Obama himself has made several important statements about America’s commitment to democratic change around the world, but he has failed to invoke the authority of the White House on specific cases. Instead it is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has publicly addressed violations of human rights in Russia, Hungary, and Turkey, and aligned the administration with the forces of change in Burma and elsewhere where prospects for freedom’s growth have opened up.
If the past year has demonstrated that courage and sacrifice are essential to the achievement of freedom, a somewhat different set of characteristics are required to build the democratic infrastructure that will ensure long-term observance of political rights and civil liberties. These characteristics include the self-confidence needed to accept the complexities, and occasionally irresponsibility, of a free press; the fortitude to impose restrictions on oneself as well as on one’s political opponents as part of the fight against corruption; and the perspicacity to accept that the judiciary, police, and other critical institutions must function without political interference.
In far too many parts of the world, these qualities proved to be in short supply during 2011. Thus in addition to singling out the full-fledged authoritarians for special attention, it is
imperative to shine the spotlight on leaders who, having come to power through legitimate democratic means, have set about systematically undermining the aspects of freedom that they find inconvenient. The temptation to create a quasi-authoritarian regime, in which standards that reinforce the leader’s authority are embraced and those that complicate his goals are dispensed with, can have disastrous consequences for democracies with shallow roots. Prosecuting an opposition leader or closing a television station can be the first steps down a slippery slope, as witnessed in the careers of Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chávez, both of whom dragged seriously flawed political systems into new depths of dysfunction and stagnation.
Still, while the year 2010 ended on a pessimistic note, with authoritarianism seemingly on the march, the events of 2011 have presented more hopeful prospects. Unaccountable and oppressive rulers have been put on notice that their actions will not be tolerated forever. The year of Arab uprisings has reminded the world that ordinary people want freedom even in societies where such aspirations have been written off as futile. This is a lesson to which the world’s leading democracies, especially the United States, should pay special heed. It should dispel free societies’ persistent doubts about the strength and universal appeal of their institutions and values. The opportunities that have been opened up by brave people in Tunis and Cairo should prompt a reenergized democratic world to address the twin challenges of how dictatorships can be overturned, and how stable and durable fellow democracies can be built in their place.
Eliza B. Young and Tyler Roylance assisted in the preparation of this report.