The Middle East Didn't Really Get Any Freer in 2011

The Arab Spring may be changing history, but a new report shows the dictators are taking almost as much as they're losing

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Anti-government protesters pray next to tanks during Friday prayers at Tahrir Square in Cairo / Reuters

The societies of the Middle East and North Africa are not much freer than they were one year ago, according to the new annual report by Freedom House on global trends in freedom. The 2012 Freedom in the World report, out today, finds that political rights and civil liberties in the region were pulled back almost as much as they were advanced. It seems that, although the popular democracy movements of the Arab Spring ejected three dictators and altered the region, perhaps forever, Middle Eastern autocrats and monarchs are fighting back, nearly to a draw.

The people of the Middle East and North Africa are still the least free in the world, according to Freedom House's authoritative data. Their annual report characterizes 85 percent of Middle Easterners as "not free," 13 percent as "partly free," and only 2 percent as "free." (By comparison, 39 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans -- half the rate of the Middle East -- are considered "not free.") That didn't really change this year. Middle Easterners may be organizing, protesting, fighting, and often dying for freedom, but they have by and large still not gotten it.

Freedom House describes a country's freedom on a one-to-seven scale, with seven as the least free, for political rights and for civil liberties. For example, the U.S. receives a "one" for both political rights and civil liberties, while North Korea has a "seven" for each. According to this metric, political rights changed in only one of the region's 21 countries and territories: Tunisia, where peaceful revolution brought the score down from a Stalinist seven to an Eastern European-style three. Civil liberties actually got worse in the aggregate. Revolution and reform brought one-point drops in Tunisia, Libya, and Lebanon; but fearful dictators and bloody crackdowns saw the scores rise by a point each in six countries: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the Western Sahara.

In all, with three revolutions, hundreds of protests, and thousands dying for democracy, Middle Eastern freedom improved by a lousy point, according to Freedom House's 14-point system. If you exclude Tunisia, which saw by far the greatest gains, Middle Eastern freedom actually worsened by four points. The report also notes three "trends," indications that a country is becoming more or less free but has not yet changed enough to be reflected in the scores: improvement in Egypt and the retrenchment of freedoms in Iran and in Israel, the region's freest society.

The Arab Spring is far from over, as activists and citizens (and dictators) in the region and especially in the six worsening countries are well aware. The revolutions may or may not continue, but the protests and crackdowns are still ongoing, and what they will mean for the world's most unfree people is still impossible to say. Post-Qaddafi Libya could establish a democracy or crumble under the strain; Egypt's new military dictators may grip power tighter than Hosni Mubarak or they may allow some kind of quasi-democracy; Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who has made his country as unfree as North Korea according to Freedom House scores, may hold on to power or he may fall to the growing insurgency there. But 2012 will likely be the year that, for better or worse, the Earth-shaking movements of 2011 are finally realized in the politics and societies of the Middle East.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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