As the year 2012 drew to a close, events in the Middle East dramatized two competing trends: demands for change pushed forward by popular democratic movements, and an authoritarian response that combines intransigence with strategic adaptability.
The ambiguous nature of these developments, combined with either instability or authoritarian retrenchment in other regions, had a significant impact on the state of global freedom. The findings of Freedom in the World 2013 showed that more countries registered declines than exhibited gains over the course of 2012. This marks the seventh consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements. Yet the number of countries ranked as Free increased by three, and now stands at 90, suggesting that the overall ferment includes a potential for progress as well as deterioration.
The findings of Freedom in the World point to a stepped-up drive by authoritarian governments in other regions to weaken precisely the elements of democratic governance that pose the most serious threats to repressive and corrupt rule: independent civil society groups, a free press, and the rule of law. Indeed, a five-year set of comparative data show that while the indicators related to competitive elections and political pluralism declined slightly or actually improved on a global scale between 2008 and 2012, there were notable declines for freedom of the press and expression, freedom of assembly and the rights of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), an independent judiciary, and equal protection under the law.