Middle East Authoritarianism IS Getting Better—Look At The Data

December 30, 2008

[first published April 10, 2006] I have been pointing out that the invasion of Iraq, the struggle for democracy there, and the democratic election of a national government was having a pro-democratic impact on other Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Since my view was at sharp variance from what some realists and other foreign policy experts have been saying, I decided to test this.

I used Freedom House ratings, 1973-2005 (see below the map on the page), and tracked the year-by-year change in ratings for Muslim Middle Eastern (ME) countries. These ratings are on civil liberties (CL) and political rights (PR), and vary from 1 for the best (labeled FREE), to 7 for the worst (Not Free). I averaged these two ratings for each ME country for each year 1972-2005, and included the latest for 2006 (see above link). I then averaged all the averages for a year, which gave me a measure of the progress of freedom in the ME. The lower the annual average the more democratic freedom in the region.

The chart below shows the results (if the chart doesn’t show on your browser, see it here):

The list of nations whose ratings were averaged is shown on the left. Each dot in the chart is one annual average of all these countries CL and PR ratings. The higher the average the worse off is democratic freedom in the region. As can be seen, there was a growing improvement until 1978, when the growing traditional and jihadist Islamists groups battled authoritarian governments for control over society, and as a result the ME dictatorships hardened their control of politics and human rights. This control reached its height in 1994, when the democratic wave in Eastern Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 began to be reflected in the ME. Authoritarianism eased off then. This movement toward greater freedom accelerated with the fear of American action engendered by 9/11, and the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and headed steeply down with the invasion of Iraq in March of the next year, the subsequent effort to democratize the country, and Bush’s announced Forward Strategy of Freedom with pressure on these countries to liberalize.

The straight line angling upwards in the chart is a bivariate regression line. It says that the overall tendency in the ME, 1973-2006 was toward greater repression and elimination of civil liberties and political rights. But, then, there is obviously coherent movement around this trend. To determine this, I calculated a 4th degree polynomial regression fit to the points, which clearly shows that there is now a sharp decline in authoritarianism. This has far to go before the region becomes democratic, which would mean an average of slightly more that 2, but it is moving away from an average of 6 or 7, which is totalitarianism at its worst.

What countries account for the improvement from 2001 to 2006? In political rights, it is Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Yemen; in civil liberties, it is Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen. In the United Arab Emirates, political liberties got worse, the only ME country on either scale to get worse.

Since it is not Muslim, Israel was not included. However, for comparison, since 1973, Freedom House has rated it between 1 and 2 on political rights, and 2 and 3 on civil liberties, and for every year it has classified Israel as free—that is, a liberal democracy.

What does the chart say about Bush’s impact on democracy in the region? That authoritarianism is retreating could be due to other causes, but what they would be is a question. The Islamic terrorist attack on authoritarian regimes has increased, not lessened, and the only significant countervailing variable seems to be Bush’s post 9/11 democratically oriented foreign policy, which has meant pressure on these regimes to begin democratization. And by hypothesis, it is supposed to have an impact. Therefore, given the above chart, I think we can say it does.

Links of Note

“Saddam’s terrorist ties documented”:

…. The May-June 2006 Foreign Affairs cites a May 25, 1999, text titled “Fedayeen Saddam Instructions” in which Uday Hussein, the tyrant’s older son, orders “special operations, assassinations and bombings, for the centers and traitor symbols in London, Iran and the self-ruled areas” (Kurdistan). As the authors observe, “Preparations for ‘Blessed July,’ a regime-directed wave of ‘martyrdom’ operations against targets in the West, were well under way at the time of the coalition invasion.”…

“The Wrong Time to Lose Our Nerve: A response to Messrs. Buckley, Will and Fukuyama By Peter Wehner:

….In Iraq, we are witnessing advancements and some heartening achievements. We are also experiencing the hardships and setbacks that accompany epic transitions. There will be others. But there is no other way to fundamentally change the Arab Middle East. Democracy and the accompanying rise of political and civic institutions are the only route to a better world–and because the work is difficult doesn’t mean it can be ignored. The cycle has to be broken. The process of democratic reform has begun, and now would be precisely the wrong time to lose our nerve and turn our back on the freedom agenda. It would be a geopolitical disaster and a moral calamity–and President Bush, like President Reagan before him, will persist in his efforts to shape a more hopeful world.

“Iranian Reformist Website: The Regime is Trying to Silence Internal Dissent Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program”:

The reformist Internet daily Rooz recently reported that several reformist papers and news agencies had been threatened by government officials for publishing criticism of Iran’s nuclear policies.

“Remembering Saddam’s slow war” By Austin Bay

The latest quip accusation that the United States “rushed to war” with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq conveniently ignores 12 years of combat, terror and crime. 
    Perhaps The Slow War — Saddam’s war against the U.N.-mandated sanctions and inspections regimen that halted Operation Desert Storm — has slipped from public historical memory. It shouldn’t, for The Slow War is the long, violent bridge connecting Desert Storm to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“”The Head of the Snake”” Michael J. Totten’s Middle East Journal:

The Iraqi Kurds I met who have been to Iran wanted me to know – and they want you to know, as well – that the distance between the Iranian people and their hideous regime is galactic. I heard the same refrain over and over again: “Persians are just like us.” In other words, they are liberal, secular, pro-Western, and fed up with tyrants. “Iranians love America,” the Kurds told me. “They have nothing to do with Ahmadinejad.”