Slouching Toward Democracy

2011 was a bad year for democracy. But there are a few glimmers of hope in the Middle East .

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Last week’s outpouring of anti-Americanism — touched off by an obscure film that denigrates Islam — brought questions about Middle East democracy into sharper focus and prompted a number of commentators to write their Arab Spring obituaries. Some interpreted the riots spreading across the Muslim world as proof positive that the Middle East is inherently hostile territory for freedom of expression and other democratic rights. Others questioned the wisdom of continuing American aid. But before we give up on the popular uprisings that toppled four of the region’s most intransigent autocrats, we should take a closer look at the actual state of democracy in these countries.

Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic governance, does exactly that. Released this week, Crossroads analyzes the performance of 35 states in four critical spheres: government accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency. The study, based on the analysis of individual country experts and panels of regional advisers, offers in-depth narratives and numerical scores that outline progress and deterioration in democratic governance. In this year’s edition, declines far exceeded improvements in the 35 states covered, but there were still some glimmers of hope — including in the Middle East.

The Crossroads findings show that the initial democratic gains in countries that experienced uprisings in 2011 have yet to be solidified with real institutional reform. However, this does not mean the countries in question should be written off as undemocratic basket cases. Instead, it indicates that democratization will require a sustained effort to overhaul the dysfunctional and repressive institutions produced by decades of authoritarian misrule. The enormity of the task will require an almost endless supply of political will. Rather than turning away from political transitions that seem to have produced very little to date, Americans should renew their support for the development of democratic institutions in the region, and encourage their leaders to do the same.

In Egypt, much has changed since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Hardly a day goes by without Egypt’s political transition earning some mention in the international media. But there has been little in the way of substantive legal and institutional reform that would represent sustainable progress toward democracy. In the end, Egypt’s governance scores for 2011 were only marginally better than they were under Mubarak.

This is due in large part to the nature of the transitional government that succeeded Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruled through the end of 2011, the closing bracket of our survey period. Unfortunately, it chose to enact political change in an ad-hoc and opaque manner, presenting unilateral decrees to the public after conducting internal negotiations behind closed doors. For example, roughly two weeks after holding a constitutional referendum that passed with overwhelming approval, the SCAF decreed an additional set of amendments that were much more expansive than those endorsed by voters, and that, among other things, created a legal basis for the SCAF’s existence. Reforms that are implemented arbitrarily and without public consultation inspire little confidence, especially when their designer is an unelected, nontransparent, and all-powerful entity with a clear interest in maintaining the status quo.

Exacerbating the SCAF’s flawed approach to reform was its continued use of excessive force and torture against political activists and protesters. The SCAF also cracked down on civil society, tried civilians in military courts, and allowed protections for women and minorities to erode on its watch.

Given this catalogue of abuses, it would be easy to dismiss Egypt’s democratic future as a lost cause. But the construction of a democracy often involves an exhausting succession of fits and starts, as citizens continue to assert their demands and governments gradually adapt to new democratic norms. Egyptians made a huge step forward when they broke through the wall of fear and inertia that protected Mubarak, and they have continued to press for political change since his ouster. The SCAF has been forced to yield ground to an elected president, and if he does not perform well, citizens will make sure he knows it.

Tunisia has benefited from a more productive transitional period, making significant progress in our study in 2011. Though conditions have deteriorated somewhat since the survey period ended, and there are, of course, no guarantees that the progress to date will be sustained, Tunisia was reasonably successful in building democratic reforms into its laws and institutions, particularly through its Higher Political Reform Commission and a new electoral authority. Crossroads registered a substantial reduction in the power of the executive branch compared with the era of ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and a clear effort to relax restrictions on civil society.

There have been a number of troubling attacks on freedom of expression in 2012, and a lot is riding on the constitution that is currently being revised, particularly as it relates to the role of women and the establishment of protections for free speech. But the crucial first stones in a foundation for representative civilian governance have been laid, and the world would do well to maintain support for this ongoing effort.

As the daily news reports from Syria indicate, not every Arab Spring uprising has produced democratic progress. Less prominent in the news but also troubling is the case of Bahrain, where rights protections that one would expect to see in a country with such a high level of economic development have been tossed aside amid the government’s brutal crackdown on nonviolent demonstrations. In fact, some of Bahrain’s scores in this edition of Countries at the Crossroads approach those of pre-uprising Syria — assessed in the last edition — particularly in relation to protections from torture and other abuses at the hands of the state.

The Bahraini government’s response to the protest movement that began in February 2011 has included excessive force and torture against demonstrators, the use of military trials for civilians, legal harassment and attacks against journalists, and in one of the most reprehensible moves of the Arab Spring period, the targeting of doctors who came to the aid of injured protesters.

Defenders of the regime will point to the hard-hitting report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), formed by King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa to investigate the rights violations committed during the height of the protests in 2011, as proof of meaningful reform. It turns out, however, that commissioning the report was just another in the regime’s long series of democratic false starts. As in many instances over the past decade, the government’s declared intentions to enact real reform have not materialized. Few have been held to account for the abuses documented in the BICI report, implementation of the reforms recommended in the report has stalled, and authorities continue to harass civil society groups, opposition activists, and journalists.

Some observers of the turmoil surrounding the insulting Innocence of Muslims YouTube video may be asking, "Is this what we can expect from democracy in the Arab world?" But as the Crossroads findings indicate, what we are seeing now is not democracy, but the very early stages of democratic development amid the fresh and hulking ruins of dictatorship. As its advocates must frequently reiterate, democracy is more than elections. It is also an independent judiciary enforcing coherent and carefully tailored laws, well-trained security forces that keep order and combat crime while upholding basic human rights, independent media operating under a solid legal framework that protects press freedom, an empowered legislature that checks executive authority, and a network of autonomous state and civil society organizations that effectively root out and punish official corruption.

This laundry list of goals, which is by no means exhaustive, cannot be achieved overnight, or even in a few years. Democracy is a circle of self-correcting mechanisms, but particularly when starting from scratch, it requires a focused, sustained effort on the part of governments, persistent pressure from citizens, and continued backing from the rest of the world.

As the American public’s support for fledgling Middle Eastern democracies threatens to wane, it is important to remember what is at stake. After decades of U.S. backing for corrupt and brutal dictatorships, there is a great deal of mistrust toward American intentions in the Middle East, as was clearly on display over the past week. It will not be easy to reverse that mistrust, and the core values and immediate interests of the United States will not always be perfectly aligned in the region. But the potential emergence of new Arab democracies presents a golden opportunity to foster both the principles of freedom and long-term political stability in a way that has simply not been possible in the past. A failure to seize this opportunity would only lead to further cycles of dictatorship and disorder, which serve nobody’s interests.

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