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Freedom in the World 2018 : Democracy in Crisis

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

  • Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.
  • Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
  • The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.
  • Over the period since the 12-year global slide began in 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline, and only 62 have experienced a net improvement.

Democracy in Crisis

Image by KAL.


By Michael J. Abramowitz, President

Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.

Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies—particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under assault and in retreat globally.

A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century.

Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened. For the 12th consecutive year, according to Freedom in the World, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains. States that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories—Turkey and Hungary, for example—are sliding into authoritarian rule. The military in Myanmar, which began a limited democratic opening in 2010, executed a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2017 and rebuffed international criticism of its actions. Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful democracies are mired in seemingly intractable problems at home, including social and economic disparities, partisan fragmentation, terrorist attacks, and an influx of refugees that has strained alliances and increased fears of the “other.”

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

The challenges within democratic states have fueled the rise of populist leaders who appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment and give short shrift to fundamental civil and political liberties. Right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017. While they were kept out of government in all but Austria, their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties on both the right and left. Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron handily won the French presidency, but in Germany and the Netherlands, mainstream parties struggled to create stable governing coalitions.

Perhaps worst of all, and most worrisome for the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project. The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished among many, contributing to a dangerous apathy.

The retreat of democracies is troubling enough. Yet at the same time, the world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, have seized the opportunity not only to step up internal repression but also to export their malign influence to other countries, which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy. A confident Chinese president Xi Jinping recently proclaimed that China is “blazing a new trail” for developing countries to follow. It is a path that includes politicized courts, intolerance for dissent, and predetermined elections.

The spread of antidemocratic practices around the world is not merely a setback for fundamental freedoms. It poses economic and security risks. When more countries are free, all countries—including the United States—are safer and more prosperous. When more countries are autocratic and repressive, treaties and alliances crumble, nations and entire regions become unstable, and violent extremists have greater room to operate.

Democratic governments allow people to help set the rules to which all must adhere, and have a say in the direction of their lives and work. This fosters a broader respect for peace, fair play, and compromise. Autocrats impose arbitrary rules on their citizens while ignoring all constraints themselves, spurring a vicious circle of abuse and radicalization.

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

The United States accelerates its withdrawal from the democracy struggle

A long list of troubling developments around the world contributed to the global decline in 2017, but perhaps most striking was the accelerating withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to promoting and supporting democracy. The potent challenge from authoritarian regimes made the United States’ abdication of its traditional role all the more important.

Despite the U.S. government’s mistakes—and there have been many—the American people and their leaders have generally understood that standing up for the rights of others is both a moral imperative and beneficial to themselves. But two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a global recession soured the public on extensive international engagement, and the perceived link between democracy promotion on the one hand and military interventions and financial costs on the other has had a lasting impact.

The Obama administration continued to defend democratic ideals in its foreign policy statements, but its actions often fell short, reflecting a reduced estimation of the United States’ ability to influence world events and of the American public’s willingness to back such efforts.

In 2017, however, the Trump administration made explicit—in both words and actions—its intention to cast off principles that have guided U.S. policy and formed the basis for American leadership over the past seven decades.

President Trump’s “America First” slogan, originally coined by isolationists seeking to block U.S. involvement in the war against fascism, targeted traditional notions of collective global security and mutually beneficial trade. The administration’s hostility and skepticism toward binding international agreements on the environment, arms control, and other topics confirmed that a reorientation was taking shape.

Even when he chose to acknowledge America’s treaty alliances with fellow democracies, the president spoke of cultural or civilizational ties rather than shared recognition of universal rights; his trips abroad rarely featured any mention of the word “democracy.” Indeed, the American leader expressed feelings of admiration and even personal friendship for some of the world’s most loathsome strongmen and dictators.

This marks a sharp break from other U.S. presidents in the postwar period, who cooperated with certain authoritarian regimes for strategic reasons but never wavered from a commitment to democracy as the best form of government and the animating force behind American foreign policy. It also reflects an inability—or unwillingness—by the United States to lead democracies in effectively confronting the growing threat from Russia and China, and from the other states that have come to emulate their authoritarian approach.

Democratic norms erode within the United States

The past year brought further, faster erosion of America’s own democratic standards than at any other time in memory, damaging its international credibility as a champion of good governance and human rights.

The United States has experienced a series of setbacks in the conduct of elections and criminal justice over the past decade—under leadership from both major political parties—but in 2017 its core institutions were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity. President Trump himself has mingled the concerns of his business empire with his role as president, appointed family members to his senior staff, filled other high positions with lobbyists and representatives of special interests, and refused to abide by disclosure and transparency practices observed by his predecessors.

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

The president has also lambasted and threatened the media—including sharp jabs at individual journalists—for challenging his routinely false statements, spoken disdainfully of judges who blocked his decisions, and attacked the professional staff of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. He signals contempt for Muslims and Latin American immigrants and singles out some African Americans for vitriolic criticism. He pardoned a sheriff convicted of ignoring federal court orders to halt racially discriminatory policies and issued an executive order restricting travel to the United States from a group of Muslim-majority countries after making a campaign promise to ban all foreign Muslims from the United States. And at a time when millions around the world have been forced to flee war, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing, President Trump moved to implement major reductions in the number of legal immigrants and refugees that the United States would accept.

The president’s behavior stems in part from a frustration with the country’s democratic checks and balances, including the independent courts, a coequal legislative branch, the free press, and an active civil society. These institutions remained fairly resilient in 2017, but the administration’s statements and actions could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious consequences for the health of U.S. democracy and America’s role in the world.

China and Russia expand their antidemocratic influence

While the United States and other democratic powers grappled with domestic problems and argued about foreign policy priorities, the world’s leading autocracies—Russia and China—continued to make headway. Moscow and Beijing are single-minded in their identification of democracy as a threat to their oppressive regimes, and they work relentlessly, with increasing sophistication, to undermine its institutions and cripple its principal advocates.

The eventual outcome of these trends, if unchecked, is obvious. The replacement of global democratic norms with authoritarian practices will mean more elections in which the incumbent’s victory is a foregone conclusion. It will mean a media landscape dominated by propaganda mouthpieces that marginalize the opposition while presenting the leader as omniscient, strong, and devoted to national aggrandizement. It will mean state control over the internet and social media through both censorship and active manipulation that promotes the regime’s message while confusing users with lies and fakery. And it will mean more corruption, injustice, and impunity for state abuses.

Already, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has carried out disinformation campaigns before elections in countries including the United States, France, and Germany, cultivated ties to xenophobic political parties across Europe, threatened or invaded its closest neighbors, and served as an alternative source of military aid for Middle Eastern dictatorships. Its chief goal is to disrupt democratic states and fracture the institutions—such as the European Union—that bind them together.

Beijing has even greater ambitions—and the resources to achieve them. It has built up a propaganda and censorship apparatus with global reach, used economic and other ties to influence democracies like Australia and New Zealand, compelled various countries to repatriate Chinese citizens seeking refuge abroad, and provided diplomatic and material support to repressive governments from Southeast Asia to Africa. Moscow often plays the role of spoiler, bolstering its position by undercutting its adversaries, but the scope and depth of Beijing’s activities show that the Chinese regime aspires to truly global leadership.

Freedom in the World 2018 by Aggregate Score

Scores:Countries not assessedScores:0-10Scores:11-20Scores:21-30Scores:31-40Scores:41-50Scores:51-60Scores:61-70Scores:71-80Scores:81-90Scores:91-100

Freedom in the World Aggregate Score: 0 = Least Free, 100 = Most Free

Corrupt and repressive states threaten global stability

The past year provided ample evidence that undemocratic rule itself can be catastrophic for regional and global stability, with or without active interference from major powers like Russia and China.

In Myanmar, the politically dominant military conducted a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya minority, enabled by diplomatic cover from China and an impotent response from the rest of the international community. Some 600,000 people have been pushed out, while thousands of others are thought to have been killed. The refugees have strained the resources of an already fragile Bangladesh, and Islamist militants have sought to adopt the Rohingya cause as a new rallying point for violent struggle.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broadened and intensified the crackdown on his perceived opponents that began after a failed 2016 coup attempt. In addition to its dire consequences for detained Turkish citizens, shuttered media outlets, and seized businesses, the chaotic purge has become intertwined with an offensive against the Kurdish minority, which in turn has fueled Turkey’s diplomatic and military interventions in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, authoritarian rulers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt asserted their interests in reckless ways that perpetuated long-running conflicts in Libya and Yemen and initiated a sudden attempt to blockade Qatar, a hub of international trade and transportation. Their similarly repressive archrival, Iran, played its own part in the region’s conflicts, overseeing militia networks that stretched from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Promises of reform from a powerful new crown prince in Saudi Arabia added an unexpected variable in a region that has long resisted greater openness, though his nascent social and economic changes were accompanied by hundreds of arbitrary arrests and aggressive moves against potential rivals, and he showed no inclination to open the political system.

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

The humanitarian crisis produced in Venezuela by President Nicolás Maduro’s determination to stay in power continued to drive residents to seek refuge in neighboring countries. But other Latin American states also proved problematic: Brazil’s sprawling corruption investigations implicated leaders across the region. Mexico’s embattled administration resisted reforms that would help address rampant graft, organized crime, and a crumbling justice system.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, incumbent rulers’ ongoing use of violence to flout term limits helped to generate internal displacement and refugees. A deeply flawed electoral process in Kenya contributed to political violence there, while South Sudan’s leaders chose to press on with a bloody civil war rather than make peace and face a long-overdue reckoning with voters.

North Korea presented one of the most glaring threats to world peace, aggressively building up its nuclear arsenal in an attempt to fortify an exceptionally oppressive and criminal regime.

Freedom in one country depends on freedom for all

Democracies generally remain the world’s wealthiest societies, the most open to new ideas and opportunities, the least corrupt, and the most protective of individual liberties. When people around the globe are asked about their preferred political conditions, they embrace democracy’s ideals: honest elections, free speech, accountable government, and effective legal constraints on the police, military, and other institutions of authority.

In the 21st century, however, it is increasingly difficult to create and sustain these conditions in one country while ignoring them in another. The autocratic regimes in Russia and China clearly recognize that to maintain power at home, they must squelch open debate, pursue dissidents, and compromise rules-based institutions beyond their borders. The citizens and leaders of democracies must now recognize that the reverse is also true: To maintain their own freedoms, they must defend the rights of their counterparts in all countries. The reality of globalization is that our fates are interlinked.

In August 1968, when Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring, a small group of dissidents gathered in Red Square in Moscow and unfurled a banner that read, “For your freedom and ours.” Almost 50 years later, it is this spirit of transnational democratic solidarity and defiance in the face of autocracy that we must summon and revive.

Status Changes

The Gambia: The Gambia’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free due to the installation of newly elected president Adama Barrow into office in January and the holding of competitive legislative elections in April. Among other openings associated with the departure of former president Yahya Jammeh, exiled journalists and activists returned, political prisoners were released, ministers declared their assets to an ombudsman, and the press union began work on media-sector reform.

Timor-Leste: Timor-Leste’s status improved from Partly Free to Free due to fair elections that led to a smooth transfer of power and enabled new parties and candidates to enter the political system.

Turkey: Turkey’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to a deeply flawed constitutional referendum that centralized power in the presidency, the mass replacement of elected mayors with government appointees, arbitrary prosecutions of rights activists and other perceived enemies of the state, and continued purges of state employees, all of which have left citizens hesitant to express their views on sensitive topics.

Uganda: Uganda’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free due to the resilience of the media sector and the willingness of journalists, bloggers, and citizens to voice their opinions, though the political environment remained tightly restricted under the regime of long-ruling president Yoweri Museveni.

Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the process by which elected president Robert Mugabe was compelled to resign in November under pressure from the military.

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

Regional Trends

Americas: Gains and declines show value of electoral turnover

Despite the decline in democracy worldwide in 2017—and Venezuela’s continued descent into dictatorship and humanitarian crisis—the Americas region displayed some signs of resilience.

Under new president Lenín Moreno, Ecuador turned away from the personalized and often repressive rule of his predecessor, Rafael Correa. Moreno has eased pressure on the media, promoted greater engagement with civil society, proposed the restoration of term limits, and supported anticorruption efforts, including a case against his own vice president. Moreno had been Correa’s chosen successor, but his unexpectedly reformist stance once again demonstrated the potential for regular elections and transfers of power to disrupt authoritarian entrenchment.

Meanwhile, under a new administration that took office in late 2015, Argentines benefited from a freer press as part of the country’s recovery from the authoritarian tendencies of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, more citizens could enjoy basic due process rights as the government implemented reforms to limit pretrial detention and continued to expand its territorial control under a 2016 peace agreement with left-wing rebels.

Nevertheless, declines outpaced gains in the region as a whole in 2017. In Honduras, after an early presidential vote count favored the opposition candidate, a belatedly updated total handed victory to the incumbent, prompting protests, curfews, and calls for a new election. In Bolivia, the constitutional court—which had been elected through a highly politicized process—struck down term limits that would have prevented incumbent leader Evo Morales from seeking reelection. Voters had rejected the lifting of term limits in a 2016 referendum, and international observers called the court’s reasoning a distortion of human rights law.

Nicaragua carried out deeply flawed municipal elections that favored the party of President Daniel Ortega, and the government enacted judicial reforms that further centralized state authority and shifted power from juries to judges. Separately, Mexico was shaken by new revelations of extensive state surveillance aimed at journalists and civil society activists who threatened to expose government corruption and other wrongdoing.

Asia-Pacific: Antidemocratic forces on the march

Repressive regimes in Asia continued to consolidate their power in 2017, while marginalized communities faced dire new threats.

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen oversaw a decisive crackdown on the country’s beleaguered opposition and press corps as his Cambodian People’s Party prepared for national elections in 2018. The politicized Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and party leader Kem Sokha was charged with treason. In a series of blows to free expression, the authorities shuttered the independent Cambodia Daily, pushed several radio stations off the air, and announced that sharing criticism of the government on social media was a crime.

The Communist Party leadership in Beijing exercised ever-greater influence in Hong Kong as it attempted to stamp out growing public support for local self-determination. Four prodemocracy lawmakers were expelled from the legislature on the grounds that their oaths of office were “insincere,” making it easier for progovernment forces to pass major legislation and rules changes. In addition, the government obtained harsher sentences against three prominent protest leaders, and the Chinese legislature annexed a law criminalizing disrespect of the national anthem—which is often booed by Hong Kong soccer fans—to the territory’s Basic Law, effectively compelling the local legislature to draft a matching measure.

In Myanmar, the military’s brutal campaign of rape, mutilation, and slaughter aimed at the Rohingya minority forced over 600,000 Rohingya to flee the country. The crisis, and the civilian leadership’s failure to stop it, underscored severe flaws in the country’s hybrid political system, which grants the military enormous autonomy and political power.

The Maldives suffered from acute pressure on freedom of speech and dissent in 2017. The murder of prominent liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed had a chilling effect, encouraging people to self-censor rather than speak out against religious extremism. Moreover, the military was used to block opposition efforts to remove the speaker of parliament, and a number of lawmakers were ousted for defecting from the ruling party.

In a bright spot for the region, Timor-Leste, one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, conducted fair elections that led to a smooth transfer of power. The process helped to consolidate democratic development in the country and allowed new parties and younger politicians to gain seats in the parliament.

Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

Myanmar has a long history of persecuting the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim community of more than a million people living in western Rakhine State. In August 2017, the military reacted to attacks from a small armed faction of the Rohingya by launching a violent campaign against civilians that many in the international community have described as ethnic cleansing. Over 600,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, reporting widespread arson, rape, and mass murder by military personnel.

These horrific events underscored how far Myanmar still is from becoming a democracy. In 2015, voters elected a civilian leadership after decades of military rule. However, under a hybrid political system created by the outgoing regime, the military retains immense power and autonomy. It continues to use brutal tactics to fight multiple ethnic insurgencies, and its campaign in Rakhine State is supported by radical Buddhist leaders who portray the Rohingya as a menace to national unity and security.

Eurasia: Some doors open as others close

Observers have long speculated about the problems and opportunities posed by presidential succession in Central Asia, where a number of entrenched rulers have held office for decades. In Uzbekistan, speculation turned into cautious optimism in 2017, as the country’s new administration—formed following the 2016 death of longtime president Islam Karimov—took steps toward reform. Among other moves, the government ended forced labor in the annual cotton harvest for some segments of the population, and announced plans to lift the draconian exit-visa regime and make the national currency fully convertible. The new administration has also granted more breathing room to civil society; some local groups reported a decrease in state harassment, and a Human Rights Watch delegation was allowed to enter Uzbekistan for the first time since 2010.

In other parts of the region, however, governments sought to stave off change. In Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, heavily flawed voting highlighted the continuing erosion of democratic norms surrounding elections. The dominant parties in both countries relied on harassment of the opposition, voter intimidation, and misuse of administrative resources to maintain a grip on power. In Armenia’s case, the blatant electoral misconduct stands at odds with the country’s pursuit of a closer relationship with the European Union, with which it signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in November. 

Perhaps the most alarming threats to democracy in the region involved authoritarian forces reaching across borders to punish their critics. Exiled Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was kidnapped in Tbilisi by men who allegedly spoke Georgian, then transported across the border to Azerbaijan, raising concerns that Georgian authorities were complicit in the abduction. In Ukraine, a prominent Chechen couple who were fierce opponents of Vladimir Putin and supported Ukraine in the Donbas conflict fell victim to an assassination attempt that killed one and injured the other. Numerous plots against politicians were also reported during the year, with Ukrainian authorities mostly pointing the finger at Russian security services.

Europe: Right-wing populists win seats and reject democratic values

Reverberations from the 2015–16 refugee crisis continued to fuel the rise of xenophobic, far-right parties, which gained ground in elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, defeated mainstream presidential candidates with her pledges to suspend immigration and hold a referendum on France’s EU membership, though she lost in the second round to centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron. The Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany became the first far-right party to enter Germany’s legislature since 1945, following a campaign in which its leaders demanded the deportation of “large numbers of refugees” and characterized Islam as incompatible with German identity. In Austria, the similarly Islamophobic Freedom Party finished third in parliamentary elections and entered a governing coalition headed by the conservative People’s Party. In the Netherlands, the notoriously xenophobic Party for Freedom chipped away enough support from mainstream parties to finish second, becoming the parliament’s primary opposition group.

In Hungary and Poland, populist leaders continued to consolidate power by uprooting democratic institutions and intimidating critics in civil society. Smears of the opposition appeared in public media in both countries, and both passed laws designed to curb the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Poland’s ruling party also pressed ahead with an effort to assert political control over the judiciary, adopting laws that will affect the Supreme Court, the local courts, and a council responsible for judicial appointments.

Events in the Western Balkans demonstrated a need for continued engagement in the region by major democracies. In Macedonia, mediation by Washington and Brussels helped resolve a years-long political crisis, paving the way for a new, democratically elected government. But in Serbia, EU leaders’ tolerance of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies allowed him to further sideline the opposition and undermine what remains of the independent media after winning the country’s presidency in April.

Turkey moves to ‘Not Free’

Turkey’s passage over the threshold from Partly Free to Not Free is the culmination of a long and accelerating slide in Freedom in the World. The country’s score has been in free fall since 2014 due to an escalating series of assaults on the press, social media users, protesters, political parties, the judiciary, and the electoral system, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fights to impose personalized control over the state and society in a deteriorating domestic and regional security environment.

Erdoğan has pushed out his rivals and former allies within the ruling party, reshaped media ownership to fit his needs, and rammed through an unpopular constitutional referendum to create a “super-presidential” system without meaningful checks and balances. His response to the July 2016 coup attempt has become a sprawling witch hunt, resulting in the arrest of some 60,000 people, the closure of over 160 media outlets, and the imprisonment of over 150 journalists. The leaders of the third-largest party in the parliament are in prison, and nearly 100 mayors across the country have been replaced through emergency measures or political pressure from the president. The government has even pressed its crackdown beyond Turkey’s borders, triggering a flood of Interpol “red notice” requests to detain critics abroad, among other effects.

Middle East and North Africa: Authoritarian rule and instability reinforce one another

In a region ravaged by war and dictatorship, Tunisia has stood out for its successful transition to democratic rule after hosting the first Arab Spring uprising in 2011. In 2017, however, earlier signs of backsliding became far clearer: municipal elections were once again postponed, leaving unelected councils in place seven years after the revolution, and figures associated with the old regime increased their influence over the vulnerable political system, for example by securing passage of a new amnesty law despite strong public opposition. The extension of a two-year-old state of emergency also signaled the erosion of democratic order in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s security situation has been undermined by lawlessness in neighboring Libya, where disputes between rival authorities in the east and west have led to political paralysis. Reports of modern-day slave markets were added to other abuses against refugees and migrants stranded in militia-run detention camps. Their captivity in Libya stems in part from an EU-led crackdown on human trafficking across the Mediterranean.

Libya’s problems also pose a threat to Egypt. The authoritarian government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has allegedly supported the anti-Islamist campaign of the de facto government in eastern Libya in order to buttress its own floundering efforts to combat extremist violence, which has extended from the Sinai to touch all corners of Egypt. Rather than reforming its abusive security services and enlisting support from all segments of Egyptian society, however, the regime continued its repression of dissent in 2017 and adopted a restrictive new law designed to choke off international funding for nongovernmental organizations and provide legal cover for their arbitrary closure.

Elsewhere in the region, Iraqi forces declared victory over the Islamic State (IS) militant group in December, and improved security has helped to create space for competition among newly registered parties and candidates ahead of the 2018 elections. IS also lost territory in Syria, but the repressive Assad regime gained ground, and civilians in areas captured from IS by U.S.-backed fighters faced widespread devastation and concealed explosives.

Yemen’s civil war churned on despite a late-year rift in the rebel alliance, leaving some three-quarters of the population in need of humanitarian aid. Small groups of war-weary protesters in Sanaa repeatedly turned out to demand the release of political prisoners and an international response aimed at ending the violence. The Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemen’s ousted government continued its indiscriminate bombing campaign, while in Saudi Arabia itself, Mohammed bin Salman worked to consolidate power after replacing the previous crown prince in June. Among other rapid and opaque decisions during the year, he arbitrarily detained hundreds of princes, officials, and businessmen under the pretense of an anticorruption campaign.

An Arab success story founders in Tunisia

Sharp democratic declines in Tunisia in 2017 threatened to downgrade the only country in the Arab world with a status of Free. Following the ouster of its longtime dictator in 2011, which launched the Arab Spring, Tunisian political factions and civil society worked together to draft a democratic constitution and hold free elections, moving the country from Not Free to Free in just four years. However, the events of the past year indicate that while the international community was quick to praise the country’s achievements, it did not provide enough sustained support and attention. Without careful development and consolidation, the new democracy may not withstand pressure from a resurgent old guard that was never fully dismantled.

Looming problems in 2017 included the continued postponement of subnational elections, the ability of power brokers from the old regime to protect their interests through new legislation, failure to create and fully fund independent bodies called for in the constitution, executive domination of the legislature, and intimidation of the media. If Tunisia continues on its current path, the hard-won gains of 2011 could disappear, and democracy will lose its foothold in a repressive and unstable region.

Democracy is in crisis around the world, with 2017 marking the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

Sub-Saharan Africa: New leaders from old parties may fail to bring reform

New leaders replaced longtime incumbents in Angola and Zimbabwe in 2017, but their background in the ruling elite raised doubts about their promises of change.

The dramatic exit of President Robert Mugabe in late 2017 left the future of democracy in Zimbabwe uncertain. While his departure after nearly four decades in office was widely welcomed, he resigned under pressure from the military, and his successor, former vice president and ruling party stalwart Emmerson Mnangagwa, was a key member of Mugabe’s repressive regime.

In Angola, newly elected president João Lourenço began to dismantle the family-based power structure set up by his predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos, who served as president for 38 years and was still head of the ruling party. In one of his first moves as head of state, Lourenço, a ruling party member who had served as dos Santos’s defense minister, fired the former leader’s daughter as chairwoman of the national oil company. It remained unclear, however, whether Lourenço would tackle corruption comprehensively or simply consolidate his own control over the levers of power and public wealth.

Leaders in several other countries clung to power, often at the expense of their citizens’ basic rights. Kenya’s Supreme Court initially won broad praise for annulling the results of what it deemed to be a flawed presidential election. However, the period before the court-mandated rerun was marred by a lack of substantive reforms, incidents of political violence, and a boycott by the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga. These factors undermined the credibility of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory, in which he claimed 98 percent of the vote amid low turnout.

In neighboring Tanzania, the government of President John Magufuli—who took office in 2015 as a member of the only ruling party the country has ever known—stepped up repression of dissent, detaining opposition politicians, shuttering media outlets, and arresting citizens for posting critical views on social media. And in Uganda, 73-year-old president Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, sought to remove the presidential age limit of 75, which would permit him to run again in 2021. Museveni had just won reelection the previous year in a process that featured police violence, internet shutdowns, and treason charges against his main challenger.

Even in South Africa, a relatively strong democratic performer, the corrosive effect of perpetual incumbency on leaders and parties was apparent. A major corruption scandal continued to plague President Jacob Zuma, with additional revelations about the wealthy Gupta family’s vast influence over his government. The story played a role in the ruling African National Congress’s December leadership election, in which Zuma’s ex-wife and ally, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was defeated by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Mugabe’s fall from power in Zimbabwe

The process by which elected president Robert Mugabe was compelled to resign in November under pressure from the military pushed Zimbabwe over the threshold from Partly Free to Not Free in Freedom in the World 2018. This downgrade may seem counterintuitive given Mugabe’s long and often harsh rule, the sudden termination of which prompted celebration in the streets. But it was the regime’s years of repression of the opposition, the media, and civil society, and its high levels of corruption and disregard for the rule of law, that placed Zimbabwe at the tipping point between Not Free and Partly Free prior to 2017.

The next year will be crucial for Zimbabwe, as general elections are expected. It remains to be seen whether newly installed president Emmerson Mnangagwa—a stalwart of the ruling party—is prepared make much-needed reforms that would enable free elections, or will simply retain the uneven playing field that had allowed Mugabe to remain in power since 1980.

International pressure helps end decades of oppression in The Gambia

The Gambia secured one of the largest-ever improvements in Freedom in the World for 2017, registering a 21-point score increase and moving from Not Free to Partly Free. For more than two decades, the country had suffered under the oppressive rule of President Yahya Jammeh, who first took power in a military coup. Under his regime, government opponents, independent journalists, and rights activists faced intimidation, arbitrary arrest, torture, and forced disappearance.

Although the country’s past elections had been marred by violence and rigging, the December 2016 presidential vote resulted in a surprise victory for opposition candidate Adama Barrow. For weeks, Jammeh refused to concede, but he relented after the regional body ECOWAS sent in troops in January 2017. While much-needed institutional reforms still lie ahead, fundamental freedoms have improved under Barrow’s government, and successful legislative elections were held in April. Among other positive developments, exiled journalists and activists returned, political prisoners were released, ministers declared their assets to an ombudsman, the press union began work on media-sector reform, and arrest warrants were issued for suspects in the 2004 murder of journalist Deyda Hydara.

The year’s developments illustrated the decisive value of robust and well-timed international support for democratic transitions, though long-term advice and incentives will be necessary to ensure that good governance takes root.

Countries to Watch

The following countries are among those that may be approaching important turning points in their democratic trajectory, and deserve special scrutiny during the coming year.

  • Afghanistan: Opposition alliances are crystallizing ahead of long-overdue parliamentary elections, but preparations for the polls have been lacking, and it is uncertain whether they will be held as planned in 2018.
  • Angola: Newly elected president João Lourenço moved to weaken the control of his predecessor’s family in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether he will make a serious effort to stem endemic corruption or ease restrictions on politics, the media, and civil society.
  • Georgia: The ruling Georgian Dream party recently pushed through constitutional amendments that—combined with the financial backing of its reclusive billionaire patron—will make an effective challenge by the fractured opposition in future elections even more unlikely, potentially cementing the party’s control for years to come.
  • Iraq: Improved security has helped create space for competition among newly registered parties and candidates ahead of the 2018 elections, which will test the resilience of the country’s political system.
  • Macedonia: A democratically elected, ethnically inclusive government is seeking to root out corruption and other systemic abuses that grew worse under its scandal-plagued predecessor, and it could even resolve the lingering “name dispute” with Greece that has impeded the country’s path toward EU membership.
  • Mexico: The July 2018 general elections will serve as a referendum on an administration that has failed to curb rampant violence and corruption, and has become increasingly hostile toward independent media and civil society activists.  
  • Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s controversial reform program is likely to cause even more upheaval in Saudi government and society, as small gains in social freedoms and efforts to attract foreign investors go hand in hand with attempts to quash dissent and fight off perceived opponents.
  • South Africa: Under a new leadership elected in December, the ruling African National Congress will be under pressure to clean up its image—which has been sullied by corrupt former party leader and current national president Jacob Zuma—ahead of general elections in 2019. 
  • United States: The media and the judiciary—both of which have a long history of independence—face acute pressure from the Trump administration, whose smears threaten to undermine their legitimacy.
  • Uzbekistan: The new government has taken tentative steps toward greater openness and international engagement, but lasting change in one of the world’s most repressive political systems will require sustained international attention as well as support for independent voices in the country’s media and civil society.
Interviews, News, Seminars and studies 0 comments on Can Islamist moderates remake the politics of the Muslim world ? By Taylor Luck

Can Islamist moderates remake the politics of the Muslim world ? By Taylor Luck


Alaa Faroukh insists he is the future. After nearly a decade in the Muslim Brotherhood, he says that he has finally found harmony between his faith and politics, not as a hardcore Islamist, but as a “Muslim democrat.”

“We respect and include minorities, we fight for women’s rights, we respect different points of view, we are democratic both in our homes and in our politics – that is how we honor our faith,” Mr. Faroukh says.

The jovial psychologist with a toothy smile, who can quote Freud as easily as he can recite the Quran, is speaking from his airy Amman clinic, located one floor below the headquarters of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, the very movement he left.

“The time of divisive politics of older Islamists is over, and everyone in my generation agrees,” says the 30-something Faroukh. “The era of political Islam is dead.”

Faroukh is symbolic of a shift sweeping through parts of the Arab world. From Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan, many Islamist activists and some established Islamic organizations are adopting a more progressive and moderate tone in their approach to politics and governing. They are reaching out to minorities and secular Muslims while doing away with decades-old political goals to impose their interpretation of Islam on society.

“The time of divisive politics of older Islamists is over, and everyone in my generation agrees. The era of political Islam is dead,” says Alaa Faroukh, a young Jordanian who left the Muslim Brotherhood for a moderate political party.

Part of the move is simple pragmatism. After watching the Muslim Brotherhood – with its call for sharia (Islamic law) and failure to reach out to minorities and secular Muslims – get routed in Egypt, and the defeat of other political Islamic groups across the Arab world, many Islamic activists believe taking a more moderate stance is the only way to gain and hold power. Yet others, including many young Muslims, believe a deeper ideological shift is under way in which Islamist organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of religious tolerance and political pluralism in modern societies. 

While Islamist movements remain the largest and most potent political movement in the region, a widespread adoption of democratic principles by their followers could transform the discourse in a region where politics are often bound to identity and are bitterly polarized.

“We believe that young Jordanians and young Arabs in general see that the future is not in partisan politics, but in cooperation, understanding, and putting the country above petty party politics,” says Rheil Gharaibeh, the moderate former head of the Jordanian Brotherhood’s politburo who has formed his own political party.

Is this the beginning of a fundamental shift in the politics of the Middle East or just an expedient move by a few activists?


Many Islamist groups say their move to the center is a natural step in multiparty politics, but this obscures how far their positions have truly shifted in a short time.

Some 20 years ago, the manifesto of the Muslim Brotherhood – the Sunni Islamic political group with affiliates across the Arab world – called for the implementation of sharia and gender segregation at universities, and commonly employed slogans such as “Islam is the solution.”

In 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings swept these Islamist movements into power or installed them as the leading political force from the Arab Gulf to Morocco, sparking fears of an Islamization of Arab societies.

But instead of rolling back women’s rights, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda pushed through gender equality laws and helped write the most progressive, gender-equal constitution in the Arab world. The Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) has played down its Islamic rhetoric, abandoning talk of Islamic identity and sharia and instead speaking about democratic reform and human rights. And the Brotherhood in Jordan traded in its slogan “Islam is the solution” for “the people demand reform” and “popular sovereignty for all.”

The past few years have seen an even more dramatic shift to the center. Not only have Islamist movements dropped calls for using sharia as a main source of law, but they nearly all now advocate for a “civil state”­ – a secular nation where the law, rather than holy scriptures or the word of God, is sovereign.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Supporters of the National Alliance for Reform rally in Amman, Jordan, in 2016. They have rebranded themselves as a national rather than an Islamic movement.

In Morocco and Jordan, Islamist groups separated their religious activities – preaching, charitable activities, and dawa (spreading the good word of God) – from their political branches. In 2016, Ennahda members in Tunisia went one step further and essentially eliminated their religious activities altogether, rebranding themselves as “Muslim democrats.”

Islamist moderates say this shift away from religious activities to a greater focus on party politics is a natural step in line with what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done with his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, or even, they hope, with the Christian democrats in Europe: to become movements inspired by faith, not governing through faith.

“While we are a Muslim country, we are aware that we do not have one interpretation of religion and we will not impose one interpretation of faith over others,” says Mehrezia Labidi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament and Ennahda party leader. “As Muslim democrats we are guided by Islamic values, but we are bound by the Constitution, the will of the people, and the rule of law for all.”

Experts say this shift is a natural evolution for movements that are taking part in the decisionmaking process for the first time after decades in the opposition.

“As the opposition, you can refuse, you can criticize, you can obstruct,” says Rachid Mouqtadir, professor of political science at Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco, and an expert in Islamist movements. “But when you are in a coalition with other parties and trying to govern, the parameters change, your approach changes, and as a result your ideology changes.”

The trend has even gone beyond the borders of the Arab world. The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM), founded in 1971 by Malaysian university students inspired by the Brotherhood and now one of the strongest civil society groups in the country, is also shedding the “Islamist” label.

In addition to running schools and hospitals, ABIM now hosts interfaith concerts, partners on projects with Christians and Buddhists, and even reaches out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists in its campaign for social justice.

“We are in the age of post-political Islam,” says Ahmad Fahmi Mohd Samsudin, ABIM vice president, from the movement’s headquarters in a leafy Kuala Lumpur suburb. “That means when we say we stand for Islam, we stand for social justice and equality for all – no matter their faith or background.”


Experts say this evolution in political thought is as much a survival strategy as it is a political shift – an attempt by Islamists to secure their footing on the shifting sands of the Arab world.

Islamists are all haunted by the specter of Egypt, where what was supposed to be the crowning achievement of a century of political Islam turned into a disaster. By 2013, the Egyptian Brotherhood – the original, mother organization – had won both a majority in parliament and the presidency in the Arab world’s most populous state.

Yet only one year into Mohamed Morsi’s tenure, the movement had done little to calm the fears of secular or minority Egyptians, show transparency in its decisionmaking process, or overcome claims of mismanagement. A large portion of Egypt’s 100 million people came out to protest and supported a military overthrow of the democratically elected Mr. Morsi.

Following his ouster, Arab Gulf states led by the United Arab Emirates banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist movement, while Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, mercilessly cracked down on Brotherhood activists, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.

This dramatic fall from power looms large over nearly every decision Islamists make today. In Tunisia, faced with popular protests following the assassination of a leftist politician and Ennahda critic a few weeks after Morsi’s ouster, Ennahda relinquished power. The party later entered into a governing coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes party as a junior member of the government. In Morocco, the PJD appealed more openly to the monarchy, conceding the king religious legitimacy.

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood leader Salem Falahat speaks in Amman in 2011. It was during these Arab Spring protests that the hardline Islamist began to soften his views.

“This is not an ideological shift underway; this [moderation trend] comes from these groups’ survival instinct,” says Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and author of multiple books on Islamist movements. “Islamist movements prioritize survival and self-preservation at any cost. After the experience in Egypt and pressures from the Gulf and regimes, these groups had no choice but to move in this direction.”

Whether the shift is ideological or pragmatic, Islamists agree that the move to the center has been a recipe for electoral success. In May’s Tunisian municipal elections, the first since Ennahda became the Muslim Democrat party, the movement came away with the largest number of votes of any party at 29 percent, and snagged 2,135 out of 7,000 municipal seats across the country.

In 2016, Morocco’s PJD gained an additional 18 seats in parliament in its second parliamentary election, cementing its hold on power. The successes have won over even hard-line supporters who demand party “purity” and are drawn to these movements solely for their Islamic identity.

“As long as people see these movements rack up victories, studies and recent history have shown supporters will stick with them no matter how less Islamic they become,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements.


With his traditional red-and-white checkered headscarf, sharply trimmed beard, and no-nonsense demeanor, Salem Falahat was widely known as a hard-liner – a conservative with a capital “C.” It was his religious zeal and trademark unwillingness to compromise that helped propel Mr. Falahat through the ranks from a teenage recruit in 1968 to become overall leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan in 2006.

Salem Falahat holds a copy of his book criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood at his office in Amman, Jordan.

His views were that of a “true believer”: Christians had no place in the Brotherhood, universities should be segregated, Western culture was corrupting Jordan from within. People who disagreed with the Brotherhood were not just foes. For him, they were unbelievers, infidels.

“I was very, very conservative,” Falahat says, shaking his head. “So conservative that you could call me an extremist.”

It was while serving as the Jordanian Brotherhood’s coordinator for the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that Falahat says he began to have a change of heart. Each day, he would be on the phone, arranging protests and statements with leftists, communists, Baathists, nationalists, and seculars – the very people Falahat believed were his enemies.

As they linked arms one Friday to march in protest for greater political freedoms, he made a startling discovery: He realized he had much more in common with them than he did differences.

“It turned out that these people who I thought were our enemies had the very morals, ethics, and kindness that Islam calls for,” Falahat says. “I realized then that you don’t have to be a devout Muslim to have Islamic values – and you certainly don’t have to be an Islamist.”

Falahat tried to take his new political gospel back to the Brotherhood, urging the movement to open up and work with nonmembers. Yet while Tunisia’s Ennahda thrived in post-revolution elections and the PJD formed a government under the monarchical system in Morocco, the Jordanian Brotherhood, which is more closely aligned with hard-line Hamas and the Egyptian Brotherhood, resisted change.

Falahat and others watched in dismay as the Jordanian Brotherhood boycotted Jordan’s post-Arab Spring elections in 2013 and invitations from the king to take part in the reform process. After four years of being met with stiff resistance, Falahat left the Brotherhood in 2016 to join with nationalists, leftists, and tribalists to form a “third-way,” unity party devoted to constitutional reform and rooting out corruption. The Partnership and Rescue Party was licensed last December.

Its followers claim to practice what they preach. The party’s secretary-general is a nationalist, the assistant secretary-general is a woman, and the head of the politburo is a leftist woman. Former Islamists who followed Falahat make up around 10 percent of members. They openly support a Christian or a woman becoming prime minister.

This is more than a strategic shift, Falahat insists. It is a recognition of political reality: If Islamist movements do not moderate enough, their followers will – with or without them.

“Either you keep up with the times or you are left behind,” Falahat says. “Sooner or later even conservatives will realize that this is the future and will change their tune. Until then, we are offering a third way.”

Third-way political movements that prioritize political reform over ideology have become a refuge for disenchanted young Islamists. Several hundred of them have left the Jordanian Brotherhood over the conservative old guard’s stranglehold on the movement’s leadership.

Some, like Faroukh, the young psychologist, have flocked to Zamzam, another third-way political movement formed by Mr. Gharaibeh, the moderate former head of the Jordanian Brotherhood politburo who was excommunicated from the group for his pragmatic views in 2012.

“The failure of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the success of Ennahda in Tunisia proves that cooperation and moderation is the future,” Gharaibeh says from his party office in west Amman.

The more open and democratic tone was on display during a meeting of Zamzam deputies at the party office in late August. Voices and passions rose as party leaders took turns vigorously debating the new government, the income tax law, social media messaging, and preparations for a potential early election. Religion did not come up once.

“When we focus on national issues rather than identity politics, we have solutions, we have a strategy, and we have support,” says Gharaibeh.


But questions remain: Will rank-and-file Islamists support watered-down Islamism? And what is an Islamist movement without Islam?

In Tunisia, Ennahda’s core supporters – working class Tunisians and those from marginalized rural communities – remain divided over the group’s new direction.

Many gravitated to the movement for its calls for social justice and an Islamic state, not for technocrats talking about “power-sharing” and “democratic transitions.”

“While we are a Muslim country, we are aware that we do not have one interpretation of religion and we will not impose one interpretation of faith over others,” says Mehrezia Labidi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament and Ennahda party leader.

“Ennahda decided that they will worship the seats of power they sit on and not God,” says Mounira Ben Salem, a resident of the marginalized Tunis suburb of Douar Hicher, fresh off a 12-hour shift cleaning rooms in a downtown four-star hotel. “When they turned their backs on Islam, they turned their backs on us.”

Yet the movement also retains a solid base of committed supporters who believe in the more moderate approach.

“We need patience, wisdom, and vision to navigate our transition to a democracy at a time counterrevolutionary forces are waiting for us to fall,” says physician Ahmed Ali, near his office in the upscale Tunis neighborhood of Les Berges du Lac earlier this year. “Maybe in 10 or 20 years we will have passed these challenges and be free to fully implement our agenda.”

These contrasting views symbolize a wider division within Islamist movements over their future identity. Underneath the veneer of pragmatism and rebranding, experts say, Islamist groups are “battling for their soul.”

“You sit down with the conservatives in the movement and you agree with them, and then you sit down with the moderates and liberals and you agree with them,” says Hussein Khalil, a lawyer who has been a member of the Jordanian Brotherhood for more than 20 years. “But you put them in the same room together and no one can find the middle ground.”

One question is whether those who have moderated their views will continue to do so even if the political calculus changes. Some experts remain skeptical, claiming that the very pressures and crackdowns on Islamists from regimes and outside powers pushed them toward moderation. In a free democracy, they say, these movements may be tempted to drift back toward hard-line positions to appease their base.

“If you have full-on democracy, you will see Islamist parties feeling more pressure from the right and veering rightward to maintain electoral constituencies tempted by the competitors who will emerge,” says Mr. Hamid, the Brookings expert. “In the 21st century, the lesson is if you want to win elections, it doesn’t pay to reach out to a mythical center where voters are moderate.”

Although violent extremists such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda grab headlines, the true rivals of the moderates are hard-line Salafists. They preach an austere interpretation of Islam that has spread rapidly from the Arab Gulf through the Levant and North Africa the past two decades. Their vision, promoted by autocratic Arab Gulf monarchies as a rival to the Brotherhood, is strict, requiring long beards and obeying rulers unconditionally. They also ban music, Western dress, and politics.

The spread of Salafism has been achieved through the Gulf-funded construction of mosques as well as through aid. Hundreds of Salafi charity groups provide food, build homes, offer scholarships, and donate laptops to vulnerable families across the Muslim world in return for fealty to certain sheikhs and their Gulf backers.

“We believe that young Jordanians and young Arabs in general see that the future isn’t in partisan politics, but in cooperation, understanding, and putting the country above petty party politics,” says Rheil Gharaibeh (r.), a former member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood who has formed his own moderate political party.

Salafists have exploited the same openings created by the Arab Spring that gave rise to the Islamists: With Arab strongmen weakened or toppled, Salafi groups have filled the void left behind – offering citizens social services, education, security, and an identity.

All this poses stiff competition to the moderates, and in many areas the hard-liners continue to prevail. Both Salafists and the Justice and Charity movement have outflanked the moderate Moroccan PJD by openly calling for implementation of sharia in Morocco. Salafists and their Al Nour Party have taken up the Brotherhood’s mantle as the “Islamic party” in Egypt.

Brotherhood-affiliated preachers are all but banned in Jordan, giving Salafists control over many pulpits. The Madkhalis, a Salafi group, control territory in Libya and have made pacts with various militias and warlords. Even in Malaysia, ABIM has come under fire from its own Muslim Malay constituency, particularly the ultraconservative Malaysian Islamic Party. Hard-liners consider the moderates sellouts.

“Whether it be Salafist movements or extremist jihadist movements, there will always be groups further to the right of political Islamists,” says Abu Haniya, the Jordanian analyst. 

Still, Islamist moderates insist that they will not be cowed into changing their views. “Arab nationalism has failed, communism has failed, Islamism has failed,” says Faroukh, the Jordanian psychologist, counting on his fingers the political trends that shook the Arab world over the past century. “We are demanding a new approach. We have been fooled by politicians too many times.”