Last week's outpouring of anti-Americanism -- touched off by an obscure film that denigrates Islam -- brought questions about Middle East democracy into sharper focus and prompted a number of commentators to write their Arab Spring obituaries. Some interpreted the riots spreading across the Muslim world as proof positive that the Middle East is inherently hostile territory for freedom of expression and other democratic rights. Others questioned the wisdom of continuing American aid. But before we give up on the popular uprisings that toppled four of the region's most intransigent autocrats, we should take a closer look at the actual state of democracy in these countries.
Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House's annual survey of democratic governance, does exactly that. Released this week, Crossroads analyzes the performance of 35 states in four critical spheres: government accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency. The study, based on the analysis of individual country experts and panels of regional advisers, offers in-depth narratives and numerical scores that outline progress and deterioration in democratic governance. In this year's edition, declines far exceeded improvements in the 35 states covered, but there were still some glimmers of hope -- including in the Middle East.
The Crossroads findings show that the initial democratic gains in countries that experienced uprisings in 2011 have yet to be solidified with real institutional reform. However, this does not mean the countries in question should be written off as undemocratic basket cases. Instead, it indicates that democratization will require a sustained effort to overhaul the dysfunctional and repressive institutions produced by decades of authoritarian misrule. The enormity of the task will require an almost endless supply of political will. Rather than turning away from political transitions that seem to have produced very little to date, Americans should renew their support for the development of democratic institutions in the region, and encourage their leaders to do the same.
In Egypt, much has changed since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Hardly a day goes by without Egypt's political transition earning some mention in the international media. But there has been little in the way of substantive legal and institutional reform that would represent sustainable progress toward democracy. In the end, Egypt's governance scores for 2011 were only marginally better than they were under Mubarak.
This is due in large part to the nature of the transitional government that succeeded Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruled through the end of 2011, the closing bracket of our survey period. Unfortunately, it chose to enact political change in an ad-hoc and opaque manner, presenting unilateral decrees to the public after conducting internal negotiations behind closed doors. For example, roughly two weeks after holding a constitutional referendum that passed with overwhelming approval, the SCAF decreed an additional set of amendments that were much more expansive than those endorsed by voters, and that, among other things, created a legal basis for the SCAF's existence. Reforms that are implemented arbitrarily and without public consultation inspire little confidence, especially when their designer is an unelected, nontransparent, and all-powerful entity with a clear interest in maintaining the status quo.
Exacerbating the SCAF's flawed approach to reform was its continued use of excessive force and torture against political activists and protesters. The SCAF also cracked down on civil society, tried civilians in military courts, and allowed protections for women and minorities to erode on its watch.
Given this catalogue of abuses, it would be easy to dismiss Egypt's democratic future as a lost cause. But the construction of a democracy often involves an exhausting succession of fits and starts, as citizens continue to assert their demands and governments gradually adapt to new democratic norms. Egyptians made a huge step forward when they broke through the wall of fear and inertia that protected Mubarak, and they have continued to press for political change since his ouster. The SCAF has been forced to yield ground to an elected president, and if he does not perform well, citizens will make sure he knows it.