NEW YORK // The Arab Spring protests that shocked the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa last year were the biggest challenge to authoritarian governments since the downfall of Soviet Communism, the pro-democracy watchdog group Freedom House said in a report released yesterday.
The Washington-based group pointed to the downfall of the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and subsequent free national elections as one of the biggest leaps forward for democracy since the group began publishing its annual review of global civil rights and liberties in 1972. The Tunisia protests inspired others throughout the region.
But the crackdown on those uprisings weighed against the advance towards democracy and even prompted China to suppress dissent in its far-flung interior regions all the more harshly.
"In China, the authorities responded to events in Cairo's Tahrir Square with a near-hysterical campaign of arrests, incommunicado detentions, press censorship, and stepped-up control over the internet," Freedom House said.
The Middle East and North Africa saw gains towards democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Gulf countries suffered the most decline, Freedom House said in its report.
Freedom House found that the world as a whole moved slightly more towards authoritarianism last year.
"We've been through a multiyear period in which the world's authoritarians seemed to be on the march and the democracies appeared to be in retreat," David J Kramer, the president of Freedom House, said in the report.
"But the past year's trends give reason for hope - especially because they arose in a region of the world where many observers dismissed the idea of democratic change as futile."
Twenty-six nations became less free and tolerant last year, while only 12 showed overall improvement, making it the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.
Freedom House ranks political rights and civil liberties on a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free) largely by reference to the values of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Among the values examined are free elections, multiparty democracy, rule of law and equality of opportunity.
The United States is ranked among the top "free" nations, but the new report warns of a rise in isolationist sentiment.
Republicans and some Democrats criticised the US president, Barack Obama, for giving Libyan rebels a decisive boost through air strikes that helped them bring down Muammar Qaddafi, Freedom House noted.
Mr Obama also showed initial hesitation before he backed reforms in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the report said.
While Mr Obama publicly advocated democratic reform, he "has failed to invoke the authority of the White House on specific cases.
Instead it is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has publicly addressed violations of human rights in Russia, Hungary, and Turkey, and aligned the administration with the forces of change in Myanmar and elsewhere where prospects for freedom's growth have opened up", the Freedom House report said.
The group listed other areas of concern:
• Three promising democracies saw a troubling backslide in 2011: Hungary, South Africa and Ukraine
• Turkey didn't change in the ranking (partly free) but was a cause for alarm due to a series of political arrests and pressure on media freedom
• Deterioration was seen in energy-rich Eurasia, including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan
• The Worst of the Worst, countries or territories with the lowest ranking on political rights and civil liberties, are Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and also Tibet.