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State of the world: Mideast boosts global democratic progress

Part 3 of the surprisingly upbeat state of the world: Mideast change boosts striking global democratic progress.

By Peter GrierStaff writer / December 26, 2011

An official helps a Tunisian woman register her thumbprint as she prepares to vote at a polling station during an election in Tunis October 23.

Anis Mili/Reuters

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Washington

People's revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other nations of the Middle East and North Africa were among the most inspiring events of 2011. They've toppled, or threatened, tyrants that seemed untouchable for decades. At a stroke, they've remade the history of a politically oppressed region.

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"The positive development is that there is a significant political change in the Middle East, which we haven't seen in decades," says Freedom House vice president Daniel Calingaert.

But will the Arab awakening revolts lead to a spread of democracy throughout an arc of former autocracies? That's far from clear. In most of the nations involved, basic institutions – courts, law enforcement, and regulatory agencies – have been corrupted by years of strongman rule. Rebuilding governments and civil society will take years.

"In this sense the removal of a dictator represents only the beginning of the end of authoritarian governance," conclude analysts Christopher Walker and Vanessa Tucker in the Freedom House report "Countries at the Crossroads 2011."

Already some nations are making more progress than others.

Tunisia, for example, is doing relatively well. A popular uprising that began after the self-immolation of a despairing street vendor ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali last Jan. 14. In October the interim government proceeded with a vote for a constituent assembly that international observers pronounced generally free and fair.

"Tunisia had a very strong election," says Mr. Calingaert.

In contrast, Egypt's transition is incomplete. Since street protests toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the country's atmosphere has become more open. But Egypt's interim military leaders have yet to rescind the decades-old emergency law that legalizes censorship and suspends constitutional rights. The military has seemed reluctant to surrender power, and Egypt's streets erupted again in mid-November in what almost seemed a second national revolution.

But parliamentary elections at the end of the month went smoothly, with larger-than-expected turnout. A three-way struggle for influence seems to be taking shape: Military leaders have indicated they want to choose the new prime minister. The Muslim Brotherhood and the secular democratic movement are resisting this – each maneuvering for its own interests in the newly constituted Egyptian government. For millenniums Egypt has been dominated by a strong central state. With citizens used to big government, expectations are high that the new parliament will make progress on issues important to ordinary Egyptians, such as unemployment and high housing costs.

"The question is, can a forthcoming parliament have any form of power or influence over the leaders of the government to deliver?" said Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a Nov. 29 conference call with reporters.

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