04 Dec 2011

Despite the pro-democracy upheavals in the region and improvement in the region’s average democracy score in 2011, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains the most repressive region in the world—15 out of 20 countries in the region are categorised as authoritarian. Only in Tunisia has the Arab spring thus far resulted in significant democratisation, although some progress has been recorded in Egypt, Libya and a few Gulf states. Elsewhere there has even been regression in reaction to popular protests—notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

Bahrain Scores Rank144 Overall score 2.92 I Electoral process and pluralism 1.75 II Functioning of government 2.50 III Political participation 3.33 IV Political culture 4.38 V Civil liberties 2.65

2011 Rank 144 2011 score 2.92 2010 Rank 122 2010 score 3.49


Almost all governments in the region continue to restrict political freedoms. Prior to the Arab spring there was some limited political reform in the region in recent years, including the establishment of representative assemblies in several Gulf states. But these reforms have certainly not changed fundamentally the political system in these states, in which the executive branch still dominates and is unaccountable.

Authoritarian Regimes

Authoritarian regimes: In these states state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed. Many countries in this category are outright dictatorships. Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary.

In authoritarian regimes, which have often become stronger and more confident, state control and repression of any independent media is a given and has if anything tended to get worse, with increasing attacks on independent journalists.

Authoritarian regimes in MENA and elsewhere share similar characteristics, to a lesser or greater degree: human rights abuses and absence of basic freedoms; rampant corruption and nepotism; small elites control the bulk of the nation’s assets; and governance and social provision are poor. Economic hardships in the form of stagnant or falling incomes, high unemployment and rising inflation have affected many countries. Some authoritarian regimes have young and restless populations. Long-serving, geriatric leaders are another common feature.

Why did the Arab uprisings occur after a long period in which authoritarian governments appeared to have been successfully consolidating their control? The interplay of a number of factors may provide an explanation: electoral fraud; succession crises; economic distress; increasing corruption; and neighbourhood effects.

Most authoritarian leaders have a large security apparatus at their disposal to suppress dissent and can mobilise supporters to counter challenges to their regime. Many do not fear international opprobrium if they crack down. These factors may be enough to ward off regime change, at least in the short term, and a number of MENA authoritarian regimes have resorted to brutal repression to remain in power. Despite this, authoritarianism in many countries is vulnerable.

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