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This year’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa have dispelled illusions about the durability of the region’s prevailing governance systems. Long-entrenched authoritarian leaders have been forced to give way to popular pressure for change, suddenly invigorating a previously moribund political landscape. However, these stunning breakthroughs carry no guarantee that democratically accountable systems will emerge in their wake. Some initial improvements appear to have been made in areas like freedom of expression and freedom of association, if only because the interim authorities are not as active in systematically suppressing exercise of those rights. For similar reasons, the first post-uprising elections in some countries will likely be improvements on the thoroughly rigged contests of the past. Tunisia’s election in October 2011 suggests promise in this regard. But rebuilding basic institutions like the justice system, law enforcement agencies, and regulatory frameworks for the media and civil society, all of which have been warped and corrupted by decades of authoritarian rule, will require many years of effort. In this sense the removal of a dictator represents only the beginning of the end of authoritarian governance. The depth of the reform challenge facing these countries is apparent in the findings of Countries at the Crossroads 2011, Freedom House’s comprehensive assessment of democratic governance. The report analyzes the performance of 35 countries—including six in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—in the spheres of government accountability, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency. The MENA countries’ scores, which cover the period from April 2007 through December 2010, generally indicate grim and deteriorating conditions in the run-up to the Arab Spring.
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