One might expect, given last year's headlines across the Middle East -- as well as promising political developments in authoritarian countries from Myanmar to Cuba -- that 2011 was a banner year for freedom. The reality is more complicated. The year was indeed noteworthy for some significant and potentially even historic achievements, but many societies endured intensified repression.
Each year, Freedom House issues its Freedom in the World report, a comprehensive global tally of the gains and losses for freedom over the previous year, designating countries as free, not free, or partly free based on their performance on a series of numerically based indicators.
In raw numbers, the state of freedom at the end of 2011 looked like this: 87 free countries, 60 partly free countries, and 48 not-free countries. Out of 195 countries, 117 are electoral democracies, two more than the year previous, but still six fewer than in the high-water mark year of 2005.
Unfortunately, the number of countries exhibiting gains this past year, 12, was lower than the number of countries that declined, 26. Yes, several Arab countries improved, but even more launched retaliatory crackdowns on dissent. Serious declines were also noted in Central and Eastern Europe.
Just as important as the numbers, though, are the events and developments that drove the year's trends. Freedom House has called 2011 a potentially transformational year, much like 1989, because of the demands for freedom that were at the core of the Arab uprisings. To this end, we've identified the following as the year's 10 most significant developments:
1. Tunisia's emergence as the Arab world's first genuine democracy. Under the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia ranked among the most repressive societies in the Middle East and North Africa, along with Syria and Saudi Arabia. Unlike in Egypt, where the military has insisted on maintaining a status beyond the rule of law since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the Tunisian military has eschewed political involvement. The post-revolutionary leadership conducted fair elections for a constituent assembly, has tolerated a free press, and opted for pragmatism over vengeance in dealings with the old elite. It is the one true success story from the Arab Spring thus far.
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