No, democracy not being discarded?

freedom house -electoraldemocracies-2015

The global decline in freedom suggested by the new Freedom House annual Freedom in the World report – ‘Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist’ – is questionable, says political scientist Jay Ulfelder. 

Freedom House’s topline message is, for instance, belied by the trend over time in its count of electoral democracies – countries that hold mostly free and fair elections, he argues on his Dart-Throwing Chimp blog. By Freedom House’s own count, the number of electoral democracies actually increased by three in 2014 to an all-time high of 125, or more than two-thirds of all countries. 

FREEDOM HOUSE 2015So how can both of these things be true? How can the number of electoral democracies grow over a period when annual declines in freedom scores outnumber annual gains? Ulfelder asks:

The answer is that those declines are often occurring in countries that are already governed by authoritarian regimes, and they are often small in size. Meanwhile, some countries are still making jumps from autocracy to democracy that are usually larger in scale than the incremental declines and thus mostly offset the losses in the global tally. So, while those declines are surely bad for the citizens suffering through them, they rarely move countries from one side of the ledger to the other, and they have only a modest effect on the overall level of “freedom” in the system.

This year’s update on the Middle East shows what I mean. In its report, Freedom House identifies only one country in that region that made significant gains in freedom in 2014—Tunisia—against seven that saw declines: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. All seven of those decliners were already on the authoritarian side of the ledger going into 2014, however, and only four of the declines were large enough to move a country’s rating on one or both of the relevant indices.


Islamic State’s expansion model

ISIS MEMRIISIS continues to pursue its expansion model in Libya, Sinai, and other hotspots, raising new challenges that differ from those posed by al-Qaeda’s past franchise approach, says a leading analyst.

The Islamic State announced several months ago that it was “annexing” territory in Algeria, Libya, Sinai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, notes Aaron Y. Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But there is one key difference between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s model for expansion, he writes for The Washington Post:

Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach.

This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.


The case for a new federalism in Libya

libya-free_1835951cEntrenched divisions, stalled negotiations, and two rival governments threaten the very existence of the Libyan state. The absence of a capable central government creates a space for a violent struggle over key resources. A new Atlantic Council report argues that a fresh look at federalism may provide a stabilizing post-revolutionary form of governance.

In “The Case for a New Federalism in Libya,” Resident Senior Fellow Karim Mezran and Nonresident Fellow Mohamed Eljarh at the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East examine how federalism can empower local authorities and take on the critical task of nation-building. The authors propose an alternative model to maintain a semblance of unity, with a decentralized executive branch and centralized legislative branch with limited legislative powers devolved to the regions. They argue that the set-up requires clear communication between the levels of government and helps eliminate the threat of partition by more effectively responding to the distinct segments of Libyan society. Further, they recommend a consultative constitution-drafting process and a civic responsibility initiative focused on self-governance within the rule of law. RTWT

Additional resources:

Interview with Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi In Libya, Push for War Is Stronger Than Push for Peace Rewriting Libya’s Post-Revolution Narrative

Can democracy thrive in Arab world?

tunisia demoThe world celebrated the “Arab Spring” as evidence that the people of the Middle East, like those everywhere, yearn to be free. But time has not been kind to the optimists, writes AP analyst Dan Perry:

After some hiccups, Tunisia is the one bright light today, with a free presidential election planned later this month. But across the Middle East, bloodshed, chaos and dashed dreams were far more often the result.

Hundreds of thousands have died, most in a ferocious and seemingly unwinnable Syrian civil war that has displaced millions, spilled over into Iraq, and threatens to destabilize other neighboring countries. Libya is an ungovernable and dangerous mess. And Islamic radicals have seized the discourse to a great extent; a US-led coalition fights them now, in Syria and Iraq.

“We can expect democratic transitions to be messy, chaotic and sometimes bloody, but this is worse than even the worst expectations,” said Shadi Hamid, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution.

The biggest and most unfortunate lesson people learned, he said, is that peaceful protest does not necessarily lead to a peaceful way forward or toward democratic transition, Perry adds:

Increasingly, people in the region are asking whether democracy is even a good idea in the Arab world. The question seems unfit for polite society, but it was already on the table in January 2011, as a panel of Arab finance figures considered events back home from the comfort of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, its members clearly none too pleased.

One recommended strong but “benevolent” leaders for the region. Another said democracy was alien to a region where patriarchal traditions dominate. A third said the public needs education lest it simply vote along tribal lines. Others saw radical Islamists swiftly bamboozling the masses.