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.
"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.
Libya is still recovering from the warfare that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Syria continues to try to brutally repress its restive population. Yemen has been in turmoil through much of 2011, although President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Nov. 23 finally agreed to transfer power to his vice president, effectively ending his 33 years of authoritarian rule.
Whichever direction these revolutions take, the region's yearning for freedom is something that has drifted on the winds to other parts of the world.
Opportunities for democracy presented by the Arab awakening come at a time when the progress of freedom worldwide has slowed after a rapid, decades-long climb.
In 1990, 41 percent of the world's nations were electoral democracies, according to Freedom House. But in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, tyrannies toppled throughout Europe and Asia. In 2006 the spread of democracy peaked, with 64 percent of the world's nations rating democratic status.
Since then, there has been some backsliding. Today, democracies account for 115 of the world's 194 nations, or 59 percent, according to Freedom House's annual report "Freedom in the World."
"The multiyear spate of backsliding is the longest of its kind since 'Freedom in the World' was first published in 1972, and threatens gains dating to the post-Cold War era in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the former Soviet bloc," writes Arch Paddington, Freedom House vice president for research, in the organization's 2011 annual report.
In Latin America, for instance, the scourge of organized drug-related violence pushed Mexico from the category of "free" down to "partly free" in Freedom House's 2011 ratings. A similar slide occurred in Venezuela as a result of President Hugo Chávez's pushing through limitations on the rights of the press and independent political activity. But both Brazil and Colombia became freer as the former held a free and fair presidential election and bitter political polarization continued to fade in the latter.
Africa showed similar conflicting trends of decline and improvement. Ethiopia continued a slow slide downward toward oppression, for example, while Guinea held a free election as it emerged from a military dictatorship.
Overall, Freedom House finds a number of reasons for optimism about democracy's future – among them, that the global economic downturn has not triggered a reversal of democratic institutions in vulnerable countries.
"The past decade began at a high point for freedom and concluded with freedom under duress. The next decade could witness a new wave of democratic development if democracy's champions remember that freedom is more powerful – both as an idea and as the basis for practical governance – than anything its adversaries have to offer," concluded the Freedom House 2011 report.