The year 2012 reminded the world that the forward march of democracy is no sure thing. While the upheavals of the Arab Spring gave hope to oppressed peoples around the world, it also sent a clear message to the world's dictators that their time could be up. Fearing that they could join their fallen comrades, the world's autocrats cracked down on opposition groups and happily abandoned any pretense of democratic reform. As Joshua Kurlantzick writes in Foreign Policy's March/April issue, "democracy is going into reverse" -- largely because a growing global middle class "is choosing stability above all else."
While countries such as Burma, Libya, and Tunisia have made enormous strides in establishing democratic freedoms and freely elected governments, others like Bahrain, Madagascar, and Ukraine have hurtled in the opposite direction. According to Freedom House, 34 percent of the world's population -- or 2.4 billion people -- spread across 47 countries live under political regimes "where basic political rights are absent and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied." Of those people, more than half live in China.
As part of its efforts to monitor freedom in the world, Freedom House also compiles data on the countries that have seen the greatest changes -- both positive and negative -- in the degree to which they grant democratic freedoms and rights. The list provides a portrait of the year's biggest backsliders in democratic development -- an ignominious ranking that Mali topped in 2012.
Below are the six countries that regressed the most last year (in parentheses are the number of points each country lost on Freedom House's index, which runs from 0 to 100, with the latter denoting the freest countries). Taken as a whole, they highlight the fact that democratization is anything but inevitable.
The year 2012 was one of extreme instability in Mali. A blossoming Tuareg rebellion in the country's north -- compounded by the presence of an aggressive Islamist insurgency led by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an influx of fighters and arms from neighboring Libya -- precipitated an impromptu military coup in March. With the government in Bamako in flux and the military in chaos, Islamists instituted sharia law in large parts of the country, including measures that forced women into marriage, mandated strict dress codes for women, and meted out harsh punishment for the most minor of crimes -- stealing, for example, was punished with swift amputation.
Amid fears that AQIM would set up a terrorist safe haven in Mali, France launched a military intervention in January 2013 to drive out the Islamists. While successful in quickly banishing the militants from Mali's north, the operation has left many observers wondering whether the insurgents simply beat a hasty retreat only to return in full force once French forces withdraw.
Incredibly, prior to the fall of the government, the emergence of an Islamist shadow state, and French intervention, Mali had been considered a model democracy in Africa. But in short order, the country has gone from model state to failed state to warden of the international community.
Mali's decline in Freedom House's index was one of the largest ever recorded by the organization.
Riven by political conflict since a 2009 coup ousted then-President Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar was plagued in 2012 by a return of violence, increased human trafficking, and harassment of journalists. Ever since President Andry Rajoelina, a former radio DJ and mayor of the country's capital, came to power, regional efforts to broker a solution to the crisis have met with little success, though recent promises by both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana, who is living in exile in South Africa, to not run in scheduled presidential elections in May have raised hopes that a resolution could be in sight.
Those expectations have been tempered by persistent turmoil in the country. In September, for instance, clashes caused by cattle thefts in the country's south resulted in 100 deaths. That same month, two radio journalists in the country were forced to take refuge in the South African embassy after repeated harassment by the army. Journalists from the radio station had previously been detained by the government for critical coverage of the country's leader, and the military stepped up reprisals against the reporters in response to coverage of a mutiny at an army base. Lawlessness has also contributed to a spike in human trafficking; One report issued by the U.S. mission to Madagascar alleges that since 2009 thousands of Malagasy women have been forced to take jobs as domestic workers in Lebanon, where they were subject to rape and torture.