Democratization Watch | February 16, 2012 at 12:36 am

A Reality Check for Western Liberalism

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Despite protests, dictators like Bashar al-Assad remain in power across the globe.


Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO, recently released its annual Freedom in the World Report, reviewing the civil rights and liberties records of political regimes around the world.  In a year that many Westerners would like to remember as a time of increasing liberalism, the data is surprisingly negative.  Despite the Arab Spring, the removal or death of dictators Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi, and Kim Jong Il, as well as reform in Burma/Myanmar,  few measurable changes were made in terms of global freedom. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring was one of the few bright spots amongst a sea of oppression, having undergone one of the largest single year jumps, moving 35 points to a score comparable to that of Colombia and the Philippines. Other MENA (Middle East and North Africa) nations like Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia declined in their ratings, as protests have not necessarily translated into an increase in civil liberties. Instead, slides in areas like press freedom, rule of law, and the rights of civil society were rampant across the developing world.

The authoritarian tendencies of the ruling Fidesz Party in Hungary, increased violence against journalists in Russia, the removal of freedoms in Venezuela, and the violent suppression of uprisings in Syria constitute a handful of the 26 declines. A paltry 12 nations registered progress, notably Egypt, Libya, Thailand, Singapore, and, as previously mentioned, Tunisia.

But what does this mean for the future of freedom? Twenty years ago Francis Fukuyama wrote that with the collapse of the Soviet Union we had arrived at the onset of a new liberal democratic world order. Freedom was supposed to steadily increase as the autocratic regimes propped up by the jockeying of the Cold War succumbed to external and internal liberal pressures.  Yet here we are in 2012, and the amount of “Partially Free” and “Not Free” regimes still outnumbers the Free ones, 108 to 87.  We are in the sixth year of decline, as no countries moved into the Free category and the formation of South Sudan placed an additional country in the Not Free category. All in all there remain 18 nations that scored an abysmal 7 in at least one of the two categories.

Global optimism towards the revolutions is not entirely misguided as in some nations freedom did in fact increase, but the true lesson for 2011 is that protests cannot be mistaken for authentic political reform. Tahrir Square will only translate to liberalism something if the elected government avoids the pitfalls of many fledging democracies before them, namely religious-ethnic conflict, populism, and military intervention into politics. Already the reforms in Egypt have hit roadblocks as Mubarak left office 12 months ago and there remains no elected President.

Nonetheless we should not under-appreciate the popular uprisings in 2011  for their capacity to remind the world that motivated people can take the cause of freedom into their hands. The ongoing conflict in Syria demonstrates the strength of this message as the hope of change is pushing an increasing number of people to risk their lives in the fight against governmental injustice. Already we are seeing increased activist activity in Iran, China, and Russia. Despite the data, the life of contemporary dictators is growing increasingly difficult in the age of Twitter, and the pattern of rebellion in unexpected places will likely continue as many of the world’s largest countries undergo elections or political transitions. In other words, there is still reason to expect the unexpected.

Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons

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