Despite Economic Growth, Political Freedom in North Africa is Stagnant or Declining

Despite Economic Growth, Political Freedom in North Africa is Stagnant or Declining

Although North Africa has experienced some economic progress over the past two years, the leaders of Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia remain fundamentally undemocratic and, in some cases, have reversed earlier gains in freedom, according to a report released by Freedom House.

Countries at the Crossroads, an annual survey of government performance in 30 strategically important countries worldwide, reported that despite some success in implementing economic reforms, North African leaders’ rhetoric about increasing political freedoms remains empty, and civil liberties remain extremely restricted.

The narrative and scores from Countries at the Crossroads 2007 for Algeria (Arabic version), Egypt (Arabic version), Libya (Arabic version), and Tunisia are available online in English and Arabic.

“Government officials across North Africa have placed an emphasis on economic growth in their countries, and have had some success,” said Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House. “However, those same leaders are doing very little to achieve political reform, which imposes limits on how far economic progress may go. Many have been in power for years—in some cases decades—and yet haven’t achieved significant reforms.”
Most of the countries in the region have made strides economically in the past two years. In Tunisia, the government continues to have some success with new economic strategies, as well as with education and anti-poverty policies. Nonetheless, political conditions remain extremely restricted. President Zine Al-Abidine Bin Ali continues his policy of “institutionalization,” creating the appearance of democracy without the substance. There is no opportunity for the rotation of power among political parties or leaders representing competing interests and policy options.

In Libya, the government finally succeeded in ending its isolation and has re-joined the international community. Although the government has taken some tentative steps in the direction of economic reform, political change has remained largely off the agenda. President Muammar Qadhafi continues to impose his own ideology on the population and maintains control over virtually all aspects of life inside the country, as he has for the past 38 years.

Algeria also has made considerable progress toward reducing internal violence, improving economic conditions, and reforming some public institutions. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been unwilling, however, to spend political capital on democratizing the country’s political process and moving toward a market-propelled economy. He continues to bid for greater authority, contradicting his spoken commitment to democracy.

“Prospects for political freedom in the region are not completely hopeless,” said Richard Eisendorf, senior program manager for the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House. “The Tunisian and Libyan governments both released a number of political prisoners last year, and both are supporting women rights. Additionally, Algeria’s charter on truth and reconciliation helped move that nation forward and away from violence. But when one examines the big picture, it is clear that the ability of people in the region to enjoy universally-accepted political and civil rights is still extremely limited,” added Mr. Eisendorf. 

Only in Egypt has the government been both economically unsuccessful as well as politically repressive. In 2006 and 2007, President Hosni Mubarak turned his back on his 2005 campaign promises of enacting political reforms; instead, he waged a national campaign to crack down on dissidents.

The Freedom House survey, Countries at the Crossroads, provides a comparative evaluation of government performance in four touchstone areas of democratic governance: Accountability and Public Voice, Civil Liberties, Rule of Law, and Anticorruption and Transparency. This survey examines these areas of performance in a set of 30 countries that are at a critical crossroads in determining their political future.

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in North Africa since 1972.


Amanda Abrams
Communications Officer
Freedom House
1301 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC  20036
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