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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Democracy is in retreat. And there's a surprising culprit.

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
March 4, 2013
Foreign Policy


Over the past two years, the world's attention has been captured by previously unimaginable -- even rapturous -- changes throughout parts of the Arab world, Africa, and Asia, where political openings have been born in some of the most repressive and unlikely societies on Earth. In Burma, where only six years ago a thuggish junta ordered the shooting of red-robed monks in the streets, the past two years have seen a formal, and seemingly real, transition to a civilian democratic government. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, longtime autocrats were toppled by popular revolutions, and citizens in these states seemed at last to be enjoying the trappings of freedom.

"The Arab Spring is the triumph of democracy," Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist, told the Guardian in 2012. The Arab peoples "have come up with their own answer to violent extremism and the abusive regimes we've been propping up. It's called democracy," wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Don't believe the hype. In reality, democracy is going into reverse. While some countries in Africa, the Arab world, and Asia have opened slightly in the past two years, in other countries once held up as examples of political change democratic meltdowns have become depressingly common. In fact, Freedom House found that global freedom dropped in 2012 for the seventh year in a row, a record number of years of consistent decline.

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