In mid-January, millions of Egyptians voted in a constitutional referendum that won resoundingly, with a majority of 98.1 percent voting yes, according to the nation’s election commission. Egyptian leaders, and some outside observers, lauded this vote as a victory for the country’s democratic transition.
In reality this was scarcely an exercise in Jeffersonian-style democracy. Before the referendum, security forces rounded up (and in some cases beat up) hundreds of activists who had called for a “No” vote. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader Mohamed Morsi was deposed as Egypt’s President by the military last summer, boycotted the vote. Less than forty percent of Egyptians even bothered to show up at polling stations, since they had no input in drafting the new constitution that basically reestablishes military rule indefinitely.
Sadly, Egypt isn’t an outlier: 2013 was perhaps the worst year for democracy in nearly two decades and this year isn’t looking any better. Aside from Egypt, hopes for political liberalization burned out across other parts of the Arab world such as Syria and Libya and floundered in Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Brazil.
The research organization Freedom House, known for its analyses of democratic trends and human rights, recently concluded in Freedom in the World 2014 that 2013 was a year of gains, to be sure, but unfortunately many more setbacks.